2010 Lecture

George Stevens Jr.
George Stevens Jr.
Writer, Director, Producer, Playwright and Author

George Stevens, Jr. has achieved an extraordinary creative legacy over a career spanning almost 50 years.  He is a writer, director, producer, playwright and author. He has enriched the film and television arts as a filmmaker and is widely credited with bringing style and taste to the national television events he has conceived, including The Kennedy Center Honors, which took place for the 35th time in 2012.

Stevens has earned many accolades, including fifteen Emmys, two Peabody Awards for Meritorious Service to Broadcasting, the Humanitas Prize and eight awards from the Writers Guild of America, including the Paul Selvin Award for writing that embodies civil rights and liberties. In 2012 the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voted to present Stevens with an Honorary Academy Award for “extraordinary distinction in lifetime achievement.”

Stevens serves as Co-chairman of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities following his appointment by President Obama in 2009.

Stevens made his debut as a playwright in 2008 with Thurgood, which opened at the historic Booth Theater on Broadway.  The play had an extended run starring Laurence Fishburne as Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Fishburne received a Tony nomination and returned to the role in the summer of 2010 with runs at the Kennedy Center and the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. Thurgood was filmed while at the Kennedy Center and shown on HBO in 2011.

Stevens was executive producer of The Thin Red Line, which was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture.  He co-wrote and produced The Murder of Mary Phagan, starring Jack Lemmon, which received the Emmy for Outstanding Mini-Series. He wrote and directed Separate But Equal starring Sidney Poitier and Burt Lancaster which also won the Emmy for Outstanding Mini-Series. Stevens won two Emmys for the 1994 documentary, George Stevens: D-Day to Berlin, which depicted the wartime experiences of his father – one of the most highly regarded directors of all time.  He produced an acclaimed feature length film about his father, George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey.

Stevens is the founder of the American Film Institute and during his tenure, more than 10,000 irreplaceable American films were preserved and catalogued to be enjoyed by future generations.  In addition, he established the AFI’s Center for Advanced Film Studies, which gained a reputation as the finest learning opportunity for young filmmakers. 

In 2006, Alfred A. Knopf published Stevens’ Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age – the first book to bring together the interviews of master moviemakers from the American Film Institute’s renowned Harold Lloyd Master Seminar Series.  Conversations with the Great Moviemakers – The Next Generation was released by Knopf in April, 2012.

Stevens, in collaboration with his son and partner Michael Stevens, is nearing completion of a feature length documentary on the famed political cartoonist Herb Block.

Lecture's Transcript

George Stevens, Jr., Lecturer

The Seventh Annual Herblock Lecture

April 15, 2010, The Library of Congress

The Herblock we know and honor really emerged when a young Herbert L. Block left his job at the Daily News in his native Chicago for Cleveland to be a cartoonist for the Newspaper Enterprise Service – a syndication company with the odd acronym NEA.  He drew about the Depression and the New Deal and the rise of Fascist dictators in Europe – and he didn’t hesitate to let his readers know that he saw isolationism as a threat to Main Street America.  After a time he couldn’t help but notice that NEA, which was owned by Scripps Howard, was getting “jittery” about his cartoons.  His work expressed sharper opinions than his employers were accustomed to.  And NEA was concerned that if a client cancelled Herblock, they might cancel the entire service.  So when he was summoned to New York by Fred Ferguson, the NEA President – who was known around the office as Little Napoleon – and who started meetings by saying, “Well, have you seen what Roosevelt has done now?”  It was pretty clear that Herb was about to be fired.  He remembered sitting for a long time in the outer office cooling his heels, until Ferguson finally summoned him inside with what Herb remembered as an anguished smile – “an expression of mixed feelings never showed so clearly on a man’s face,” as Herb put it.  It turned out that Ferguson had just been notified that Herblock had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize.  For 32 year old Herb it meant that he kept his job – and he was on his way to becoming America’s most important political cartoonist.

I knew Herb Block for nearly forty years and now that I’m making a film about him – in collaboration with my son, Michael Stevens, and my long time associate, Sara Lukinson – I’m getting to know him a little better…this modest genius who spent his 72 working years on the side of the little guy.

Let’s say he was a man for all seasons – seven decades observing and commenting on the events and compelling issues that shaped our history – from the stock market crash of 1929 into the new Millennium. He drew 13 Presidents – from Herbert Hoover to George W. Bush – and so many of those portraits still linger in the mind’s eye.  He created over 14,000 cartoons and wrote twelve books.   And, lest we forget – won four Pulitzer Prizes and the Medal of Freedom.

Senator Barack Obama gave the Herblock Lecture in this room in April of 2005 and described what he called “the simple, graceful and challenging philosophy that Herb’s parents passed down to him: ‘Be a good citizen and think about the other guy.’” 

Pretty simple.

Herb remembered growing up in a “world of horse drawn milk wagons, long Sunday dinners, vaudeville houses and lots of newspapers.  No radios, no TVs, no jet planes – and films were silent.”  He was a Cubs fan, as he put it, “at a time when there were eight teams in each league – as God intended.”

He started drawing as a boy and recalled that his first picture was in chalk and he drew it on the sidewalk in front of his house.  It was a likeness of the despised Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany with his V shaped mustache and a spike in his hat.  “People could see and admire my work,” he said.  “And I could feel satisfaction when that hateful face was walked on, or stomped on.” That’s when Herb first realized the power of his drawings to affect people’s feelings. 

Shortly after Mr. Pulitzer saved his NEA job in 1942, Herb got a call from Uncle Sam and served in the army until the end of the war.  In 1946 he met a man who had bought at auction the fourth ranked of Washington D.C.’s four newspapers.  Publisher Eugene Meyer – remembered primarily today as the father of Katharine Graham – promised him editorial independence.  Herb’s new job meant that Washington leaders would be reading his Washington Post cartoon with their Post Toasties – every day Herb would be weighing in on the national debate.

As I understand it there are several models for the job of political cartoonist.  At some papers the editors tell their cartoonist what they’d like that day – a cartoon on the election or a cartoon about the war.  At some papers the cartoonist does one or two or three cartoons and submits them to the editors and they choose one – or suggest changes.  Herb had a different kind of job.  He decided what he was going to do.  He did the research, calling upon reporters in the Post newsroom for special insight.  And the cartoon he submitted went in the paper – sometimes six days a week.

This understanding worked well until the presidential election of 1952.  Phil Graham was now the publisher and the Post was supporting General Eisenhower over Adlai Stevenson.  Herb drew cartoons that were not altogether flattering to Ike and his running mate, Richard Nixon.  As Election Day drew near the editorial page editor informed Herb that his cartoons on Ike were embarrassing to Phil Graham.  The Post pulled Herb’s cartoons but he still sent them out to his 200-paper syndicate.  We have learned – thanks to research by Herb’s longtime associate Jean Rickard – that the Herblock cartoons of October 28, 29, 30 and 31 did not appear in the Post

I thought you’d enjoy seeing what the fuss was about.  Senator Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon were smearing Adlai Stevenson with some regularity, and here’s Herb’s October 29, 1952 cartoon – one of those that Washington Post readers missed out on.

(CARTOON: Unshaven McCarthy and Nixon hold large dripping paint brushes with a painted out Stevenson poster behind them.  A smiling Eisenhower is shaking his finger.  The caption:  Naughty Naughty.)

Well, the Stevenson campaign claimed censorship, the Washington Daily News ran an editorial about the “missing cartoonist,” Post readers complained – and by November 1st Herb’s cartoons were back in the paper where they would appear without interruption until his dying day.

A few years later the Post was desperately short of cash and Phil Graham came to Herb saying he would exchange some of the Post’s privately held “A Stock” for cash.  The Post was by then the capitol’s third ranked paper but Herb was a believer – so he plunked down his savings to invest in the paper he worked for.

What made Herb as good as he was?  It starts with his skill as an artist.  He could draw and create caricature with the best of them – recalling Daumier and Thomas Nast.  His caricatures were simple and fun, clear and concise.  His cartoons were informed by his keen interest in politics and world affairs and driven by a reporter’s intrepid curiosity, his brilliant sense of humor and a passion for justice.  And finally, there was his courage – the virtue that guaranteed the other qualities.

One might assume that the man who was capable of such savage satire would be a man of some darkness.  Not Herb.  He was this modest, sweetly playful sort of man who loved to laugh.  His friend Bob Asher said that Herb could boil down global complexities brilliantly, but he could never deal with the basics of existence, such as how to drive a car, buy a new refrigerator, or get to Virginia.  Roger Rosenblatt, who had an office next to Herb’s said it was like having your office next to the Marx Brothers.  He had a cap he called his Thinking Cap – a toy helmet topped with a light bulb that he could set blinking to indicate he had an idea.  And while he fought off interference from above, he enjoyed taking four or five drafts of the day’s cartoon around the newsroom for insights and opinions from below.  One friend described Herb shuffling around the Post newsroom in his slippers like Mr. Rogers.  Herb’s friend, John Kenneth Galbraith noted, “While Herb appreciates virtue, his real interest is in awfulness.  He turns his attention to rascals, scoundrels and frauds.  And once they have been so identified – the odor – skunk like, never leaves them.”

Herb saw a cartoon as a means for poking fun, puncturing pomposity, scoffing at the high and mighty – with the acid test being whether or not it gets at an essential truth.  Often he was just reminding public servants that they are public servants. His fellow cartoonist, Gary Trudeau admired Herb’s unwavering idealism and hope:  “I never thought of him either as a liberal or as a conservative but as a satirist with a satirist’s conviction that because this is America there is always room for improvement.”  Herb was fond of quoting a Republican President, Abraham Lincoln – “the object of government is to do for people what they need to have done but cannot do at all, or cannot do well for themselves.” 

Herb knew you didn’t have to act tough to be tough.  He knew that McCarthy was out to get him.  But he never flinched.  During Watergate his newspaper was under great pressure but he never pulled a punch.  And years earlier – after having been rough on Nixon in the 50’s, when he became President, Herb decided the new President deserved a fresh start.  He drew a cartoonist’s office with pens and brushes in bowls, with a stars and stripes barber pole at the door.   There was a sign: “This shop gives to every new president of the United States a free shave.  H. Block Proprietor.”   Herb was talking to the American people – we have a new president, give him a chance.

So Richard Nixon had a clean shave.  For a while.

Herblock cartoons were commentary on what was on the front page of the newspaper.  And I find it interesting how they have stood the test of time.  Here’s what Herb was thinking about in 1935:

(CARTOON:  Pictures of “exhausted oil wells, denuded forest areas and wasted farm land.”  Caption: Natural Resources and Human Greed.)

Yes, he was environmentalist decades before it was a common term. 

And that same year, 1935, he had an eye on Congress.

(CARTOON:  A lobbyist, an investigator and a congressman playing cat and mouse among columns in the Capitol.  Caption: Hide and Seek.)

And in May of 2000, he was still on the case.

(CARTOON:  A huge man with a cigar, Big Money Interests” sitting on top of a wing of the Capitol.  One little man below him with a sign, “One person, one vote.”  Caption: It’s Still A Representative Form of Government – They Represent Us.)

Sometimes looking at Herb’s work one thinks of Will Rogers’ observation, “There’s no trick to becoming a political humorist when you have the whole government working for you.”

Over thirty years ago, in 1979, Herb drew one titled “Hostage.”  Do you think it could play in tomorrow morning’s Post?

(CARTOON:  Blindfolded man (USA) with gas pump cord wrapped around him from pump labeled: “US Govt. Failure to End Dependence on Foreign Oil.”  Caption: “Hostage.”)

One of Herb’s gifts was that he could express his strong feelings without anger.  An exception was this one published days after the murder of John F. Kennedy.  You can feel the outrage flowing from Herb’s pen.

(CARTOON:  Ad displaying rifle with telescopic sight.  “SPORTSMEN! KIDS! MANIACS!  Only $12.78.  Shipped direct to you anywhere in the U.S.)

And at the height of the Lewinski scandal, President Clinton proposed the first balanced budget in thirty years – bringing forth Herb’s mischievous side. 

(CARTOON: Clinton on a high wire balancing a book labeled Budget on one forefinger, and on the other a dark haired woman in a short dress.  Caption:  Balance.)

And what would a night on Herblock be without Watergate for which he shared his 4th Pulitzer with colleagues at the Post.

(CARTOON:  Nixon in White House barricaded behind a desk and a file cabinet with tapes on the floor.  Caption:  Here I Am, Copper.)

Bob Woodward told me a story that speaks to the enduring effect of Herb’s images.  Bob and Ben Bradlee were on a panel about Watergate, and Ben was discussing the burglary and described these men in suits with burglar tools, wearing masks breaking in to the Watergate.  Woodward, who had been the beat reporter who covered the break in, interrupted and said, “No they weren’t wearing masks.”  Ben said, “Yes, they were.”  It was only later that Bob realized that Ben’s memory had been shaped by Herb’s cartoons that pictured the burglars in masks.

Finally, from May of 1968, at a time of rioting in the streets, Herb seems be wondering which of two strains of the fragmented civil rights movement will prevail.  Does the man in front – “progress” – bring anyone to mind?

(CARTOON:  Two black men racing – one slightly ahead, labeled “progress;” the other just a step behind, labeled “violence.”  Caption:  “RACE.)

Barack Obama was seven years old at the time of that cartoon. 

Katharine Graham said that five editors and five publishers all learned a cardinal rule: don’t mess with Herb.  Do you think an employee ever received a higher accolade from a publisher than these words?  “He fought for and earned a unique position at the paper: one of complete independence of anybody and anything.”

It all came from a little black ink bottle.  Herb’s approach was simple and optimistic:  “There’s always a clean slate, a fresh sheet of paper, a waiting space, and a chance to have another shot at it tomorrow.”

One more thing. 

I mentioned that transaction with Phil Graham in the late fifties –  that A Stock that Herb got for 50 cents a share.  Well, it split 72 to 1, then 8 to 1 then 12 to 1.  The cartoonist in rumpled clothes – who never owned an automobile, who hung out at Doc Dalinski’s drugstore and played his golf on the public course at Hains Point with the working men of this city – shocked his friends when his will was read.  He left an estate in the neighborhood of 90 million dollars. After taxes, most of that money went to a foundation managed by his co-workers to combat prejudice and improve conditions for the poor – so much in the spirit of Herb’s life-long fight against abuses by the powerful.  Herb’s success at investing means there’s also a small budget for food and wine so his friends and admirers can meet upstairs – and drink a toast to a great man – a good citizen who never stopped thinking about the other guy.

Thank you.