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Advertise on the Tentacle

April 23, 2010


Roy Meachum

My first job out of the Army was with The Washington Post, not as a reporter but a copyboy; sort of an apprentice journalist. With a wife and not-quite two-year-old boy, the G.I. Bill did not cover our expenses. At the time, my plan was to finish the University of Maryland and return to law school in New Orleans.


In the old Post building, 1515 L Street, N.W., while there were chairs around the copyboy cubicle, the hottest spot was sitting at the desk and manning the phones. At times, it seemed we functioned as little more than an auxiliary to the switchboard, located in the lobby, three stories below. We took a lot of messages and directed callers to the desks we hoped had the answers.


The steadiest stream of traffic came from Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy's followers and admirers; they were merely irritants and not taken seriously. They phoned the "Washington Daily Worker," as they called The Post, laughed at their own peculiar sense of humor and immediately hung up. They brought to mind my childhood when kids staged corny jokes. (We called a number and when anyone answered, we asked: “Do you have Prince Albert in the can?” Whatever the reply, the return repartee was always: “Let him out!” – immediately followed by youthful cackling; putting the phone back on the cradle.)


Two years after his famous speech to West Virginia Republicans, the senator from Wisconsin was taken very seriously, especially in The Post newsroom. The McCarthyites’ animus toward the paper was motivated chiefly by the editorial cartoonist.


Herblock ranks among the gentlest people I ever ran into. His office lined up on Editorial Row, a few steps removed from our cubicle. He stopped by the newsroom for his mail and then disappeared around the corner; ever friendly but equally reserved. He usually smiled but his was not a welcoming body language. Generally, but not always, as deadline loomed for the paper’s first edition, he brought out several pencil sketches for the next morning's cartoon and showed them around. He studied every face's reaction, even copyboys'.


Morning Maryland classes meant I worked evenings. I was sitting at the desk when I saw Herblock’s early version of 1954’s Pulitzer Prize. Word had come that day of the passing of the Soviet Union’s Stalin. At his diffident "Whatcha think?" I looked up and saw the sketch of two figures walking away, only their backs on display. One was cloaked and hooded, carrying a scythe and his arm around the second’s shoulders. The other wore familiar boots and a belt; his black hair cut short. In the balloon floating above them both, death says: “You were always a great friend of mine, Joseph.”


With no requirement for editorial balance or objectivity, Herblock took on all the nation’s points of power, including the atomic bomb that scared the hell out of my generation. His portrayal of public figures, especially politicians, was a matter of the bigger the better for pricking with his cartoonist pin. The new GOP administration fared worse than the departed Democrats – especially the retired five-star general at its head.


Dwight David Eisenhower incurred Herblock’s disdain and ridicule by not standing up to the people and causes that threatened life qualities, especially the national rights and principles. Most of all, nobody in that newsroom fancied the new president for dropping out when Joseph R. McCarthy attacked Mr. Eisenhower’s mentor, the chairman of the country’s armed forces. Gen. George C. Marshall’s biggest sin in the Wisconsin Republican’s eyes was coming up with the so-called Marshall Plan that I witnessed save Europe from domination by the Red Army.


What West Pointer Ike was reluctant to do, the guy from Chicago waded in with his sharp intellect and sharper pen. Reduced to ink by the hard-hitting editorial cartoonist, the McCarthyites’ hero was always unshaven: his beard and face dark and dirty. Smelly garbage slopped all over his suit. It was Herblock who stuck the word “McCarthyism” on the senator’s so-called “red crusade.” While other members of the Washington press corps, especially publishers, ducked their heads into Potomac sands, Post owner Eugene Meyer and son-in-law Philip Graham waded in, backing with robust vigor point-man Herblock.


And while the strongest language that memory says the great cartoonist ever used in the newsroom’s male locker room ambience was “Gee!” and “Golly!” His targets were subjected to ridiculing acid treatment, while the stoop-shouldered man with a pronounced paunch and restricted demeanor lashed and whipped around him. No one ever compared Herblock with Jesus in the Temple, beating out the moneychangers and crooked merchants. They should have.


Unlike the Temple, Washington, the seat of American government has an endless supply of liars and miscreants.


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