The Library of Congress' new exhibit on Herbert Block (often known as "Herblock") completely avoids labeling the famous cartoonist as a liberal, instead portraying him as an "independent spirit." The retrospective features 81 poster-sized drawings by the late Washington Post artist and never once identifies Block's politics.
The exhibit, which opened on October 13, 2009, and can be found in Washington, D.C., pretends that the cartoonist was a bold truth-teller. Taking in the display on Saturday, I was struck by how often this myth was touted. One section gushed over Block, who worked for the Post from 1946 to his death in 2001, for practicing his art "with fearless independence." Yet, he was really just a liberal journalist, something the exhibits celebrate, even if the L-word isn’t used.
Visitors are told that "Reagan appalled Block in a way that only Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon had done before." One cartoon showed Ronald Reagan driving by the homeless, ignoring their plight. (In the comic, the President quipped, "Strange how some choose to live like that, instead of choosing to be rich like us.")
In a completely one-sided critique, the Library of Congress exhibit slammed the two terms of Ronald Reagan: "Block spent eight years reminding Americans of what had transpired and attacked what he perceived as the unmitigated greed of the Reagan administration." Of course, since Reagan won two landslide victories, explaining to tourists that Block was a staunch liberal might help give some perspective.
The section on the Clinton presidency showed a cartoonist attacking the White House from the left. The exhibit observed: "Block criticized trends or conditions that he found troubling during Clinton's tenure: the rich getting richer, the lack of parity in women's salaries..."
Another amusing display asserted that "Block broke ranks with his publishers on specific issues and voiced his opinion in every cartoon he drew." No examples of Block "breaking ranks" are given. And, in fact, the cartoonist mostly parroted the political outlook of the Washington Post.
This can be clearly seen in repeated attacks on the Second Amendment. Below a cartoon from 1954, a note explained that Block was a "longtime proponent of gun control." The text next to a 1970 comic saluted him for being "a firm believer in curbing the availability of arms as a means of saving lives. Herblock tirelessly advocated for strong gun control."
So, it's rather odd to read one display asserting that, in the '50s, "Herb Block brought balance and well-informed opinion into the arena of public debate during this turbulent decade." In fact, Block spent much of the '50s and '60s hammering anti-communists such as Richard Nixon. The Nixon/Herblock section spun visitors by claiming "Nixon used 'dirty tricks'" in a run for Congress. Using quote marks to indicate skepticism, this display derided the Republican's "anti-communist" campaign for damaging "the careers of reputable senators."
In reality, Nixon actually exposed guilty, communist traitors, such as State Department official Alger Hiss.
Block's drawings were often hectoring and obvious. His tendency to label every possible thing in the comic strip left no room for subtlety. If the Library of Congress wanted to profile a liberal cartoonist, that's absolutely fine. But, they shouldn't try and trick visitors into thinking that he was someone who spoke truth to power and represented all Americans. At the very least, the word "liberal" should be used in the exhibit.
Happily, it appears that many people who took in the exhibit were not fooled. A perusal of the signature book reveals several negative reviews. One person complained, "Way too liberal." On November 15, another anonymous visitor summed up the Herblock retrospective as "a bunch of liberal propaganda."