I’ve referred to the cartoon above, from 1968, several times here. “Herblock” was a legendary, hard-line Democrat political cartoonist for the Washington Post, and reflected the styles and sensibilities of the old school in his field. Corporations and bankers were always fat guys in top hats and formal wear, “the poor” were always represented by thin, desperate Depression figures in tattered clothing. Liberals were always caricatured as dignified champions and Republicans were usually drawn to look like criminals and maniacs. Herb Block got more extreme as he aged: when Reagan won in 1980, Block drew a cartoon showing cave dwellers carrying clubs and troglodytes riding Mastodons marching into Washington.
He hated Nixon; all liberals did. He was regarded as just short of Joe McCarthy by liberals, for he had won his House seat by tarring his opponent as a pro-Commie tool, and saved his tenure as Eisenhower’s VP by the infamous “Checkers” speech, as revolting an example of using sentimental hogwash to cloud a scandal as has ever been tried. The country was a tinderbox in 1968. Colleges had been engulfed in demonstrations, strikes and violence for two years. The Democratic National Convention sparked riots in the streets of Chicago. The Vietnam war was raging. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy had both been assassinated. The young idealists who had followed those two liberal icons as well as non-conformist Democratic Senator Gene McCarthy were angry and disillusioned.
In part because of the intemperate “law and order” rhetoric of Nixon’s attack dog running mate, Spiro Agnew, some feared that Nixon’s ascent would mean martial law. Nixon had said that he had a “secret plan” for ending the war, and many thought that plan was to nuke North Vietnam. Ominously, Senator Barry Goldwater, whom Democrats had painted as an atom bomb-happy madman when he had lost to Johnson in the previous election, supported Nixon vigorously. The Republican nominee appealed to the “silent majority” who found the nation’s noisy turn leftward in the Sixties distasteful.
For more than a decade, Block had drawn Nixon as a sinister, menacing presence with an overgrown 5 o’clock shadow. You think I’m exaggerating? Here’s an example…
Now the hated Nixon was President-Elect, rising through a series of improbable events, a three-way race, and a squeaker of an election night to be the victor over not one but four liberal champions: LBJ, Bobby, Hubert Humphrey, and Dr. King. Political satire was hot in 1968, though genteel by today’s gutter standards: when folk singer Pete Seeger referred to President Johnson obliquely as “the big fool” in an anti-war song he sang on “The Smothers Comedy Brothers Hour,” it shocked the nation.
The veteran satirists were expected to set the tone regarding how one of their favorite whipping boys would be treated now that he was finally reaching the White House, and Block’s cartoon in the Washington Post the morning after the 1968 election strongly embraced the tradition of all responsible Americans rallying around a new President. Everyone understood what the “free shave” meant. It meant that Richard M. Nixon, as President, would get a fresh start from his previous tormentor.
I remember my father, who voted for Nixon but did not care for him, and who really didn’t like Herblock, saying when he saw the cartoon, “I didn’t think he had it in him. Good for him.”
Nixon, history tells us, used that good will and clean slate in his first term to bolster LBJ’s Great Society rather than tear it down, as many feared. He was the most liberal GOP President since Teddy Roosevelt, championing the Clean Air Act of 1970 and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). He instituted the requirements of environmental impact statements for Federal projects. In 1971, Nixon proposed health insurance reform, and led the federalization of Medicaid for poor families with dependent minor children. Most famous of all, the old Commie-hater opened the door for Red China, as it was then called, to enter the world community.
There was still plenty for his foes to mock and attack as Tricky Dick’s Presidency went on, and as we all know, Nixon’s character flaws destroyed his Presidency and his legacy in the end. Still, that brief moment of unity and respect was as good for the nation as it was for Nixon, and may have avoided exacerbating already deep divisions in the nation, sparking more riots and violence.
Herb Block understood that being a tough critic and liberal activist, and being a responsible citizen and patriot were not incompatible. All you need is some self-restraint, basic ethical values, and that, as Pete Seeger sang, there is a time for every season.
After elections is a time to be Americans.