Sep 14, 2010

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson discusses his recent columns and the latest news.

Read today's column Gingrich, unhinged on Obama in which Gene writes: "Is Newt Gingrich just pretending to have lost his mind, or has he actually gone around the bend? His lunacy certainly seems genuine enough. It's one thing to be a rhetorical bomb-thrower, as Gingrich has long fancied himself, and another to lob damp squibs of pure nonsense into the fray. The man's contributions to the public discourse have become increasingly unhinged."

Hi, folks. Welcome to our weekly salon. It's election day in many parts of this great land, including in the District of Columbia, where pre-election polls showed Mayor Adrian Fenty in deep trouble. Delaware's going to be interesting, and New Hampshire. And meanwhile, today's column was about the latest nonsense to come out of the mouth of Newt Gingrich. Let's begin.

Hello, Mr. Robinson. Thank you for taking this question. Clearly Speaker Gingrich's remarks unflatteringly state that President Obama is out of touch. As for the impact of his Kenyan father's worldview on his own thinking, how is that so radical? Aren't we all a product of our upbringing, and even if we didn't know our fathers, we can imagine what they might be like? BTW-For years we were told by the Left that GW Bush only invaded Iraq because of some deep psychological need to finish his father's Desert Storm campaign against Hussein. Seems to me Gingrich (right or wrong) is painting the President with the same brush liberals used. Thanks for taking the question.

That's a stretch worthy of a gold-glove first baseman. First, I never told anyone that GWB was finishing his father's campaign. I believed all along that it was his very own idea. Second, do you think there might be a teeny difference between a father who is present, pretty much every day of your life, and a father who leaves when you're a toddler -- and whom you see only once more in your life, when you're ten? The thesis of the piece by Dinesh D'Souza is really the dumbest thing I've heard in a long time. Seriously. There are plenty of grounds to criticize the president, but that piece in Forbes is a piece of gibberish. Read it and tell me it ain't so.

In academia, the ideas you posed today in your column are widespread. You act as if you have never heard of this thesis on colonialism etc...when it is alive and well in core vs. periphery debates on capitalism in many scholarly textbooks. Are you not aware of this literature? Walk the Halls of Ivy and you can't miss it.

And I'm sure that President Obama's father grappled with those ideas when he was a young academic in colonial Kenya. But President Obama was born in Hawaii. He was mostly brought up by his corn-fed grandparents, for heaven's sake.

Thank you, Eugene Robinson, for trying to keep us on an even keel in increasingly turbulent seas. You wrote: "What in the world is 'Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior' supposed to mean?" Aren't comments like this the 2010 version of racist code words, just as the term "welfare queen" was a racially-loaded phrase used for political gain in Reagan's day?

Well, that possibility did cross my mind. It's not necessary, though, for it to be intended or taken as a reference to race. Not that it couldn't be, mind you. But I think it serves the rights purpose just to advance this bogus narrative about Obama's being "alien" in some sense.

Gingrich is one of the most astute observers of the political scene. If he sounds unhinged, it's because he correctly reads the GOP as unhinged. Newt merely reflects the new consensus of the right--that white America is under siege by minorities who don't know their place. Newt knows that if he wants to keep his influence on the right, he has to say what he's saying. He has to embrace antebellum politics and policies.

Let me twist that observation a bit into practical political terms. He's thinking about running for president, and he's clearly decided to position himself as a social conservative. He's not going to let Sarah Palin or Mike Huckabee get to the right of him and paint him as a creature of Washington. Which he is, of course, but he hopes no one will notice.

As an American of Mexican Heritage my viewpoint is somewhat skewed, but can you please explain what is happening to the Republican Party? Its sure is coming across as the Party that hates everyone who is of a different cultural or religious background. Are they really anti-gay, Mexican, Muslim, etc. I know that most white Republican people are not this way, however, the strategy they are playing seems to be alienating a lot of people. The scary thing about this is if they actually gain power on this platform. Gene, what is happening to the country, and the Republicans?

My opinion? The Republican Party has been hijacked by its right wing. There ought to be, in American politics, a party that stands for conservative principles but that also stands for inclusion and diversity. Sadly, the GOP has gone for short-term gain -- capitalize on white, middle-class anger -- in exchange for losing the support of the fastest-growing segments of the population, perhaps for a generation. In the long run, alienating Latinos and failing to even try to attract African Americans will severely limit the GOP's ability to win national elections.

No question--I just have to say how much I laughed out loud reading this article! I loved it! You are dead on and you played it perfectly--with hilarity! What else can you do with these quacking ducks!?? THANKS!

Well, thanks, I just thought the whole thing was so goofy -- "Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior" -- that it was hard to take all that seriously.

As an educated thinking person, I try to listen and learn vs. reacting to everything. Like many Americans outside the Washington Realm, I am hopeful when I hear words from (any) President that edify our form of government, confirm our Constitution. Do you not agree he has caused us to question his "world view", as it has been termed? His weakness may be his lack of helping us BELIEVE he loves America. Can you substantiate his love for our country for us in your writing? Maybe you can help us know him and maybe we will have faith in our President to lead us. We are still wondering what he is doing and why, and he's just letting the PRESS make suggestions that are even more confusing.

Thanks for writing, because this hits on something that I just don't understand. I honestly don't understand what would make anyone think that President Obama doesn't "love America." He has given any number of eloquent speeches about love of country. He has spent most of his life in public service. I opposed most of what George W. Bush did as president, as anyone who reads my column is well aware, but I never doubted that he "loves America." So what is it about Obama that apparently keeps people from giving him the benefit of the doubt on this simple question of love of country? Don't you assume that a sitting U.S. senator loves his country? I do -- even the ones I disagree with. Don't you assume that anyone who goes through the ordeal of running for president loves his country? I just don't get it.

Eugene, you might remember that when you point a finger at someone, 3 fingers are pointing back at you. Case in point is the following sentence from your article: "Gingrich seems to believe that our culture and values are also threatened from within -- by black and brown people who demand that they, too, be given a voice in defining that culture and those values." Who is being unhinged now? How quickly you jump to charges of racism and hyperbolic statements like the above. My question for you is the following: Isn't it inherently racist to view all issues through the prism of race? Can you not see how damaging it is to race relations for you to automatically impugn the motives of those you disagree with charges racism? How are we supposed to "get beyond race" if all criticism of our President is attacked as racist by people like yourself?

Hold it. I didn't attack this criticism of our President as racist or racially motivated. The conservative writer David Frum did, though -- he called the D'Souza article (and Gingrich's agreeme) pure race-baiting. When I referred to black and brown people, I was thinking about the way that Gingrich reacted in the Sotomayor and Sherrod episodes.

Hi, Eugene. Great column today. Do you think that Gingrich's appeal to both the "birther" and "America under attack by brown people" narratives may be his attempt to gain power in the GOP/Tea Party - perhaps to position himself for a spot on the 2012 ticket? A sizable portion of conservatives buy into one or both of these narratives, not just a few "gullible souls." Granted, it seems like a risky approach. But given Palin's popularity and the fact that extremists often do better in GOP primaries, perhaps it's not all that risky to paint oneself as a right-wing extremist these days. Your thoughts?

It's reasonable to look at the GOP landscape, see all the energy out on the Tea Party wing, and conclude that if you want to make it through the primaries, you'd better not be out Tea Partied by the likes of Sarah Palin.

If, as you say, Obama knew nothing about his father's economic and political views, why is his book titled "Dreams From My Father?" and what do you make of the following quotes from the book cited by D'Souza in his article? "When my tears were finally spent," he writes, "I felt a calmness wash over me. I felt the circle finally close. I realized that who I was, what I cared about, was no longer just a matter of intellect or obligation, no longer a construct of words. I saw that my life in America--the black life, the white life, the sense of abandonment I'd felt as a boy, the frustration and hope I'd witnessed in Chicago--all of it was connected with this small piece of earth an ocean away, connected by more than the accident of a name or the color of my skin. The pain that I felt was my father's pain." "It was into my father's image, the black man, son of Africa, that I'd packed all the attributes I sought in myself." Even though his father was absent for virtually all his life, Obama writes, "My father's voice had nevertheless remained untainted, inspiring, rebuking, granting or withholding approval. You do not work hard enough, Barry. You must help in your people's struggle. Wake up, black man!"

And your point would be? The book is about a fatherless son, a biracial young man, searching for his identity. It isn't about his father's articles in East Africa Journal about political theory. Obama found his identity as a black man. You may object to that, for whatever reason, but that's where he ended up. And he hardly made a secret of it -- he wrote a book about it! But there is not a scintilla of evidence supporting the ridiculous proposition that President Obama developed his political philosophy, in whole or in the slightest part, from his father. Not an iota. D'Souza is trying to proclaim Obama's guilt by association... with his own father... whom he only met once in his life. Come on, people.

If I wanted to call Obama a "philandering, inebriated African socialist" without calling him a one, just say he's channeling his father. Absolutely brilliant sophistry and disgustingly vile.

Correct. Imagine if all our presidents had been held responsible for the sins of their fathers.

ouch! That is a pretty unhinged piece of writing, with zero attribution to the "some say" and "theories are" statements. Two people can say something and have it described that way, but doesn't mean it is true!

See, I'm not exaggerating. It is the most total piece of... well, I can't say what it's a piece of, but the ediors of Forbes should be embarrassed for running that piece. There's zero support for wild-eyed conclusion after conclusion. I always thought that D'Souza was a smart guy, but this is gibberish, it really is.

Hi Mr. Robinson: This question is in light of your article on Gingrich. Why do you think conservatives such as Sarah Palin, Clarence Thomas and Glenn Beck, advocate a colorblind agenda (preferences are contrary to equal opportunity, no aff. action, etc) yet in advocating for that, they often use race and gender-conscious arguments? In Palin's acceptance speech, she notably mentioned her election as VP would "shatter the glass ceiling"; Thomas is famous for using race as the reason for his decisions- e.g., the Chicago gun case where he argued no 2nd amend. limitation on handguns because blacks have been discriminated against by not being able to own a gun in slavery and Jim Crow times to protect themselves.

I think that's called having it both ways. Race and gender aren't important -- until they are.

You gotta admit Obama plays it pretty cerebral. Would it kill him to do a fiery speech on his love of country? A lot of the gab about him being a Muslim would go away if he would publicly attend a church every couple weeks. I blame the Ivy Leagued-ness of his administration. He's bought into the idea that a competent technocracy is what's needed to run the country and it's killing him in the polls.

Thank you for a more substantive critique of the president's style. I think the "fiery speech" would be a mistake, if it's just a p.r. decision. It would seem contrived. In the end, you've got to be who you are. On the church question, though, I'll admit that I expected that Obama would have joined a local congregation by now. He speaks often, and quite movingly, of his faith. It wouldn't hurt to let people have a glimpse of that -- not just to counteract the "Muslim" thing, but to show that side of himself and his family. And about the technocracy, I see what you mean but I don't see what the alternative is. I want smart people running the government, I really do. These are times that call for a lot of brainpower.

Extremists do better in the primaries? Huh? Uh, whatever his faults, John McCain is no extremist. And in 2000, George W. Bush was the "compassionate conservative." He ran to the middle on gun control, the environment, and even hedged on overturning Roe v. Wade. In 1996, Bob Dole represented an old guard of the GOP. Barry Goldwater once joked that he and Dole were now "liberal Republicans." And Bush the Elder was certainly not an extremist, though, his willingness to exploit racial fears seems to have been forgotten in light of the sins of the son. Nevertheless, while the GOP electorate may be more conservative, they've often ultimately sided with more electable/moderate candidates at the national level. Granted, the same can't be said for the statewide or House races.

True. But the potential candidates are looking at the caucuses and primaries in Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire, and trying to position themselves to do well in those states. And they have to take into account the whole new Tea Party element.

I think that a lot of the questioning as to whether President Obama 'loves' this country comes from the premise that, to love the country, you basically have to take a 'we're number one!' approach (e.g. the best at having individual liberty, freedom of speech, freedom to practice your religion of choice [if any], freedom of the press). What many see (rightly or wrongly) in Pres. Obama is a different worldview, one that views this country as the cause of many of the world's ills (climate change, economic inequality, racial inequality, misguided/wrong actions in foreign policy). Since he doesn't view the United States as the shining example of what the world should strive for, this view holds, he does not love this country. My take is that he views our role in the world very differently than a lot of people do. Since they feel that they love the country and he holds a different view, he, therefore, must not love the country.

I'll give it one more try. Let me say, by the way, that there are plenty of legitimate grounds for criticizing this president, or any other president. (I've whacked him on Afghanistan any number of times, for example.) But "love of country" just isn't  one. Obama has indeed described this country as that shining city on the hill -- many, many times. But does wanting to make the country better imply not loving it? On climate change, it's just a fact that the United States has been the biggest emitter, by far, of greenhouse gases; I guess China has caught up, but we're still number one per capita. That's just fact, not rhetoric. He has not blamed the United States for the world's economic or racial inequality, quite the contrary. He believes the war in Iraq was a mistake, as do most Americans. Where is the suggestion of not loving our country? Attack him over health care or something, if you like. But make it something real.

How do I go about proving to these people I love America? What is the test? Who gets to make the final call? If Mr. Gringirtch decides I don't love America sufficiently, do I get kicked out?

You're outta here, Richmond, I'm afraid. Back to Kenya.

Could Fenty somehow be falling just because he is an incumbent? It's like the DC election is some sort of bizzaro tea party election. Education is better, the city is far better off and yet people are still mad.

There could be some anti-incumbent fever in the support for challenger Vincent Gray, but basically I think that Fenty lost touch with a huge and important part of his base.

Obama has said, quite convincingly, that one reason the family does not attend church services regularly is that it would be extremely disruptive to the congregation. Seems I remember Reagan making the very same point - that he and Nancy had attended a service, and it created such a ruckus of Secret Service, press, gawkers, etc. that they felt they had ruined the experience for the rest of the congregation, and never went back. I'm trying really hard to remember if anyone ever accused Reagan of not being Christian . . .

Not to my knowledge. And yes, it would be a big inconvenience for any congregation -- but I doubt the church would mind too much. It's not really my place, though, to tell anyone -- even the president -- how, when or where to worship.

I would like to think that the Republican party has been taken over by the extremists. But, if that's the case, why are so many Americans planning, ostensibly, on voting for a Republican this November? Are we as ignorant as I fear (as a voting public)??

In a recent NBC poll, the Democrats' approval rating was 33 percent. The Republicans' approval rating was 24 percent. It's not that Americans love the GOP, it's that they're dissatisfied with the way things are going. But as we've just seen, attitudes can change diametrically in the space of a year and a half. So whatever happens in November, it won't give us a clue about what will happen in 2012.


But I do know what happens now, folks. My time is up. Thanks for tuning in, and see you again next week.

In This Chat
Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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