Political satire: Before Jon Stewart there was Herblock

Rick Klein, Olivier Knox, Richard Coolidge and Jordyn Phelps
Power Players

Top Line

During the second half of the 20th century, in an era when newspapers reigned supreme, political satire cartoonist Herbert Block was a force to be reckoned with; and the new HBO documentary, “Herblock: The Black & The White,” tells the story behind his legendary work.

“He really was the kind of founder in political satire and part of it was that he was a terrific reporter and was really interested in facts and with that, he had this kind of startling and occasionally scathing humor and he could draw,” Producer George Stevens told “Top Line.”

The pioneering cartoonist, who worked for the Washington Post and had his cartoons syndicated in newspapers across the United States for over 50 years commanded so much respect, Stevens said, that political leaders would pick up their morning newspapers and “just hope it’s not Herb working on you.”

His most famous targets were Sen. Joseph McCarthy, for whom Block coined the term “McCarthyism,” and Richard Nixon, whose 5 o’clock shadow became a characteristic exaggeration in Block’s depictions.

Block was personally a Democrat, and his politics undoubtedly influenced his work. But Stevens said “he could be rough on people of either party.”

“There was this picture of President Clinton on a high wire a tight rope, with the budget on one hand and then a lady in the other hand,” Stevens said as an example of Block criticizing a Democrat.

As a syndicated cartoonist, Block also enjoyed “complete authority” and editorial autonomy over his work, Stevens said. He told a story of when Washington Post publisher Philip Graham learned that lesson the hard way.

“There was one time when he was a little too rough on Eisenhower,” he said. “Philip Graham pulled Herb's cartoons, and there was this tremendous reaction, because he said, ‘okay, I'm still syndicated, it's going all over the country.’ … He was back in the paper five days later.”

The quirky Block was known for having an office at the Washington Post that Stevens described as looking like it belonged to the “Marx Brothers” comedians, with cartoons playing on his television set and stacks of months-old newspapers. But, in his work, Stevens said Block was “dead serious” and would spend a great deal of time reading the newspapers, the congressional record, and seeking information from reporters.

“There was a great moment each day around four or five o’clock,” he said. “Herb would walk out of this office of his sort of in the middle of the newsroom, and he'd have four pieces of paper in his hand and he might go to the reporter who was on the desk of the story he was drawing and show this. It was this thing of great flattery.”

To learn more about the life and legendary cartoons of Herb Block, and to hear Stevens’ opinion on whether there’s a modern equivalent to “Herblock,” check out this episode of “Top Line.”

ABC News’ Alexandra Dukakis, Tom Thornton, Chris Carlson, and Mary Quinn contributed to this episode.