April 12, 1993 12:00 PM

DAVID HAD HIS SLINGSHOT. JOHNNY GOT his gun. Herbert Lawrence Block’s weapon of choice is the fountain pen, aided and abetted by a charcoal swirl or two. But right now he’s too preoccupied to select his next victim. “You know, it’s getting harder and harder to find these pens anymore,” mutters the man known to millions of readers as Herblock, reminding a visitor of Block’s Law: “If something is good, they’ll stop making it.”

If something’s great, they make only one, which explains why Block, 83, is a singular presence in American journalism. For 47 years he has drawn—and quartered—politicians as the editorial cartoonist of The Washington Post. His cartoons—sometimes vicious, usually funny—have won three Pulitzer Prizes, the first of which was awarded in 1942. “In person, Herb is the sweetest, gentlest man you could ever imagine,” says his friend ABC newsman Ted Koppel. “But put him behind a pen and something happens. His cartoons can be like a direct hit to the solar plexus.”

Most of the 12 Presidents Block has parodied would agree. Few have escaped Herblock’s wrath. Dwight Eisenhower, consistently satirized as a do-nothing doofus, refused to subscribe to the Post. Lyndon Johnson, furious over a cartoon portraying him as a terrifying plantation owner, scrapped a Medal of Freedom Award ceremony because Block was a recipient. Ronald Reagan, drawn as a pin-eyed dullard, lamented that Block “simply doesn’t like me.”

But the cartoonist’s target of targets was Richard Nixon, who first made his name as a red-bailing member of the House Un-American Activities Committee. “I distrusted an outfit that was going to decide what was and wasn’t American,” says Block. “And here was a guy who was out for publicity.” Nixon was famously caricatured as an unshaven, guttersnipe sidekick to the hateful Joe McCarthy. “[Nixon] was a bad egg from the start,” Block says. A favorite satirical devices was to portray a muck-encrusted Nixon emerging from a sewer, ready to smear an opponent. Block still hasn’t forgiven Nixon for Watergate. “I thought he was a lousy President,” he says. “And I still do.”

Block started out in Chicago. His father, a chemist, once worked briefly as a reporter and encouraged his son to go into journalism. “I didn’t like reporting. The cartooning came easy. I fell into a job early, and I just stuck with it.” In 1929, Block, then 19, became a staff cartoonist at Chicago’s now defunct Daily News, poking fun at a President named Herbert Hoover. His political beliefs were formed as he worked in Cleveland during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. “I had started working before the Depression and was never out of a job. But an awful lot of people were, and this guy was doing something about it,” he recalls. “It taught me that government can do the things that need to be done.”

A lifelong bachelor, Block prepares for each workday by perusing the early edition of the Post in bed at the Georgetown home he has lived in for 30 years. Never fond of driving—he considers cars as dangerous as right-wing Republicans—Block taxis to work by noon, arriving in his office with a pocketful of scribbled cartoon notions. Right now. Block’s problems with the latest President are purely technical. “He has a jawline that starts up around his ears and a very bulbous nose, a bit like Roosevelt without the thick neck,” he says. As far as policy is concerned, “I have a lot of hope for him.”

Wait a minute. What’s a cartoonist without a villain? Herblock says he still has plenty of targets. “With this job, I can look at the paper as I read in bed at night and think, ‘They can’t do that, for crissake! The next day I have a chance to do something about it,” he says. That means, he adds, that he has no intention of retiring. “If I gave it up, I’d be stuck writing letters to the editor.”

DAVID ELLIS in Washington

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