WASHINGTON -- Two gentle giants have left us, and the world is a poorer place.
Within 72 hours, death claimed both Mike Mansfield, the longtime Senate majority leader from Montana and all-time model of modesty and courage, and Herblock, the great cartoonist who was the conscience of The Washington Post and American journalism for more than half a century.
It was one of the privileges of my life to have known these two men. But, to be honest, the similarities of their characters had never occurred to me until these last few days. Forewarned that they were hospitalized with little time left, I began belatedly to reflect on what they had in common -- and it instantly became clear.
In a Washington marked by constantly shifting personalities, strategies, loyalties and concerns, they had remained true to themselves through the decades by the light of the strongest moral consciences I have ever encountered.
Let it be said at once that there was no priggishness in either man. Both were wonderful raconteurs and appreciated stories that made them throw back their heads and laugh. Both would insist that we temper our mourning with the realization that they had lived long, rich lives, full of honors, and had died peacefully, Mansfield at 98 and Herblock at 91.
What set them apart from the rest was not merely their talent. The Washington Post newsroom and editorial offices were filled with wordsmiths whose skills were comparable to Herblock's, though none of them could hold his pen. The Senate had legislators as capable as Mansfield and there were probably ambassadors as artful as he was in his second career as the U.S. envoy to Japan.
But no one I know carried out responsibilities of such public significance over so long a period without compromising their principles or bowing in the slightest to the pressures of powerful people or outside influences. They stood up to presidents or publishers and did what they thought was right.
Because their lives were, in that sense, so simple, so devoid of calculation, both were able to distill their messages to a few short words. Mansfield was famous for his monosyllabic, unequivocal responses to reporters' questions: "Would you consider ...? Nope. Might you accept ...? Yep." Herblock's captions were almost as succinct, rarely more than four words. But equally to the point.
What stoked the energy that kept them active and engaged and effective into their 10th decades on earth was a perpetually renewed sense of moral indignation at the injustices of the world, an inextinguishable sense of right and wrong. They must have been born with it, for the teen-aged Mansfield enlisted in three services, lying about his age to defend the country, yet refusing decades later to be bullied by Lyndon Johnson into abandoning his opposition to the Vietnam War. Herblock, who served in the Army in World War II, was targeting not just Hitler and Stalin but the enemies of civil liberties and the environmental polluters when he was barely out of school.
Fierce as they were in defending essential principles, they were the most modest of men. My enduring memory of Herblock is watching him shuffle out of his office around 4 p.m., often in carpet slippers, with a sheaf of rough drawings of possible cartoons for the next day in his hands. He would stand silently by a reporter's desk, not interrupting until the reporter looked up, and then almost apologetically ask if you could spare a moment to say which you liked best, and more importantly, which got the essential facts most accurately. Never once did he let on that this was the most flattering advice you could possibly be asked--and probably the most useful work you would do that day.
For the past decade, my favorite lunch of the year was the gathering that Charlie Ferris, Mansfield's great friend and former Senate counsel, organized each year around the time of Mansfield's birthday. Eight or 10 people would be there, mostly reporters who had covered the senator, occasionally joined by John and Annie Glenn or Dale Bumpers. Mansfield would walk over from his office, trim in a tweed sport coat, scorning an overcoat, whatever the weather. Customarily, he would solicit news and stories from everyone else before saying much himself. But once launched, whether on recollections of his days in the Butte mines or his negotiations over the civil rights bills or the current dynamics of change in China, the precision of his memory, the wealth of his knowledge, the wisdom of his years were breathtaking. He would see the looks of awe on our faces and remark, "Well, bored you again, didn't I?"
I know of no greater Americans than these two.
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