At a time when so much seems to be wrong with our country and its political system, it is, perhaps, comforting to know that the nation has struggled with many of the same problems before — and survived.
The Dole Institute of Politics at Kansas University currently is playing host to a notable exhibit produced by the Herb Block Foundation. The foundation was created by the estate of the famed Washington Post editorial cartoonist, better known as Herblock. The touring exhibition is a retrospective of the cartoonist’s work, which stretched across eight decades and 13 U.S. presidencies. In some cases, the cartoons continue to be so relevant that they could run on an editorial page today without a single revision. In other cases, only the face of the president portrayed in the artist’s frame would need to be changed.
In a 1950 cartoon, a couple of hefty men labeled as “private interests” and “huge campaign funds” examine a stack of chairs representing U.S. Senate seats. One lifts a chair and asks the other, “What do you figure this one would cost?” Herblock returned to the same theme in 2000, just the year before his death, with a cartoon portraying a man, smoking a cigar and wearing a button labeling him as “big money interests,” sitting on the roof of the U.S. Capitol. Confronted by a much smaller figure with a questioning look and a sign reading “one person, one vote,” the big suit on the roof replies “It’s still a representative form of government — they represent us.”
Throughout his career Block was concerned about education, civil rights and the environment, and some of his cartoons on those subjects still ring true today. In a 1946 frame, a snooty-looking Statue of Liberty representing “U.S. immigration policy” peers through handled spectacles and holds out her hand in a “stop” gesture. At the base of the statue, President Harry Truman asks “What happened to the one we used to have?” On education, Herblock offers a 1955 cartoon labeled “An Apple for the teacher,” in which a prosperous nation is handing out dollars to sports, the auto industry and entertainment but leaves a female teacher, representing education, holding only an apple.
These are just a few of the frames that made Herblock a pre-eminent commentator on the American condition as well as a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner. His work is a vivid reminder of the frailties of this nation, as well as its amazing resilience. It’s a message worth considering as we celebrate America’s birthday.