Tuesday, January 28, 2014

What it Was About Herblock

I watched last night a few minutes of the HBO soaper on Herblock, the legendary Washington Post cartoonist.  But then I flipped it off so I wouldn't wake up and find the set still yammering at me at 3 am.  On my brief exposure, I'd say the director was hustling for the Academy Award in "bland," and Hank Steuver's excellent WaPo review (which I just now saw) confirms all my suspicions.

Or at least, I must like being the lonely dissenter on this sort of thing.   Because so far as I can tell, I am the only person who always thought Herblock vastly overrated as a cartoonist, as a humorist, as a Washington mover and shaker.  Well: only mus be too strong a word.  I'm sure that there are cadres of truculent nay-sayers out there in the boonies who, if they ever heard of Herblock at all, would or did consign him to the hellfires appropriate for the chardonnay-sipping Bilderberg cabal.   What I meant, of course, was the only nice person (or nice-person wannabee) among those who wore their invisible Herblock medallion as a badge of honor.

Honor, yes, but more: the point is that for a couple of generations of Washington elites Herblock was a badge of identity a not-so-secret handshake, a sign that you were one of the club.  For them, "did you see Herblock?"  was like ee cummings yelling to his neighbor Djuna Barnes across Patchin Place in the morning to make sure she was really still there.  Yes, I am still there, slugging it out, we can continue to fight the good fight..

You can get the point when you reflect on the fact--I suspect nobody mentioned this in the documentary--that Herblock was no more than moderately talented.  He could do deft and economical sketches, especially of children: I sure wish I could do that.  But his villains were dreary, unimaginative and lead-footed.  Some of his cartoons were genuinely funny but many--most?--were predictable.  Almost never did he surprise.  And to suggest that he  had a "signature style" was another way of saying he pretty much got stuck in a 30-year rut.

What he did have--I gather Lewis Black made the point--was concision.  It's hard to think of anybody who could soundbyte an opinion with more celerity-anybody more successful in defining a political figure the way Herblock did to McCarthy, Johnson, Nixon, even Clinton  And this may be the clue to his peculiar kind of popularity: Herblock was the busy man's guide to Right Thinking.  You really never have time enough for this sort of thing: you have places to go, people to see.  You need someone to give you the memo on the Topic of the Day, and to keep you on board with Received Opinion.  

Stuever remarks on the air of nostalgia that hangs over the whole project, as if for a more civilized, more gentlemanly time.  Could be that.  Could be that what we miss is the  very idea of Received Opinion:  that set of beliefs and commitments generated by the  old invisible choir--the choir itself that  network of deep thinkers and glitterati who drank and rutted and chatted together and told us all where we stood.  If ever there was a central node on this transmission line, it was Herblock.  Well, we could have done a lot worse.


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Anonymous said...

I lived in the Washington area for a lot of years and liked herblock. most of the time. he weas off-base a few times. but I thought he was a great editorial page cartoonist. I'm more perceptive and discerning than jack ayer, so don't hold him to account too severely.

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