Flashback: When Even Herb Block Was Gracious To The President Elect He Hated…

herblock-free-shave

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…

nixon-herblock

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.

10 Comments

Filed under Citizenship, Ethics Heroes, Government & Politics, History, Humor and Satire, Journalism & Media, U.S. Society

10 responses to “Flashback: When Even Herb Block Was Gracious To The President Elect He Hated…

  1. charlesgreen

    Great piece of history; Herblock was a class act.
    Interesting to note that the same generosity may be being shown today by Mitt Romney – also a decent man, who clearly felt some strong antipathy to Trump.
    I might question the motives of a lot of Trumper-come-latelies (Cruz?), but not Romney.

    • Slick Willy

      I really think Cruz got offended by attacks on his wife and family. Not defending him, just saying that his skin did not seem thick enough to brush it off. I got the sense that in an earlier age there would have been a duel with seconds involved!

      That said, CRUZ for SCOTUS!

  2. Neil A. Dorr

    Jack,

    I know your feelings on Stewart more generally, but I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on the following:

    Hope all is well.

    -Neil

    • I saw it, but thanks for raising it. In general, he’s spot on. I wish he avoided the spin, and it is spin, that Trump is a “repudiation of Republicans.” If this election was a repudiation of Republicans, the party will take repudiation like that every time. The party has the White House, Congress, and will shape the Supreme Court’s direction for decades. It dominated the state legislatures, and has most of the State Houses. Wow, that’s some repudiation.

      What Stewart, truth-teller that he styles himself as, couldn’t bring himself to say was that the election, if anything, was a repudiation of Barack Obama, who Stewart pimped for over 7 years. When you elect a guy who has described Obama’s “signature achievement” as a disaster, and whose opposition promised to continue Obama’s policies, who is being repudiated? Stewart just could say it.

      • Slick Willy

        I think many voters were tired of the establishment and business as usual. (I know you dislike the term ‘elite,’ Jack) The republicans merely rode the coattails as the only other alternative, IMHO

        Those who make the laws should live under them. Congress and much of the Federal Gov do not live under Obamacare, for instance. Even when the law supposedly does apply, it seems they are not prosecuted, or are given very light punishment.

        I had a top secret clearance, years ago. If I had handled classified information the way Hillary’s maid did, I would spend my life in jail.

        This is a rot to our Republic, and strikes at everything America stand for. We lose faith in our country when laws do not apply to everyone.

  3. Wayne

    I’ve been to Nixon Foundation many times and have seen the Checkers speech several times on video which was maudlin beyond belief but was a major factor in convincing Eisenhower to keep him on the ticket. It drove the Democrats nuts especially Herb Block. The unshaven look which was quite apparent in his televised debate with JFK was the result of an illness and Nixon’s refusal to wear makeup. It’s nice that Herb Block finally quit trying to make him look sinister.

  4. Spartan

    If you replace “H. Block” with “S.Todd” on the sign in barber cartoon, is your analysis the same?

    (Just looking for a new keyboard….)

  5. Other Bill

    The guy with the meat cleaver looks like LBJ or Spiro Agnew to me. Strange. Doesn’t look like Tricky Dick at all.

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