Opinion Focus with Eugene Robinson

Nov 30, 2010

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

Read today's column: Tough times for a superpower in which Gene writes: The secret U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks leave one overriding impression: It's hard out there for a superpower.

Hello, and welcome to our weekly chat. Today, the Wikileaks affair continues to reverberate. Meanwhile, President Obama meets with the congressional leadership -- with everyone, I'm sure, seized by the spirit of bipartisan cooperation. And the Don't Ask, Don't Tell report, as was predicted, says that ending that dumb policy wouldn't be a problem. Let's get started. (And let me apologize in advance, but I have to end this session about ten minutes early. I'll make it up with an extra-long chat next week.)

I am frightened by the impotence of our government as revealed by the Wikileak revelations. I am disturbed by the lack of leadership demonstrated by the President. He plays basketball and golf during a time which later historians may write as being one of our country's most challenging periods. We have no effective leadership by the Obama administration to react competently to a series of daily challenges to our country's future. I wish Obama would resign. At least Joe Biden is not afflicted by the handicaps of arrogance and various egomaniac tendencies.

The Wikileaks revelations go much farther back and reflect the fact that even under a "strong" -- or at least cowboy-style -- president like George W. Bush, the United States had to ask, plead and cajole a lot more often than it could dictate. The world is a different place now. As for basketball and golf, I wonder if you think that's somehow less appropriate than Bush's many trips home to his Texas ranch, where he spent hours clearing brush and riding his mountain bike. Obama, at least, stays in town or at Camp David -- and I don't know anyone who thinks he doesn't work hard. And, um, have you ever actually met Joe Biden? I like him a lot, but I've never thought of him as shy and retiring.

In a recent column you stated that you preferred a "smart" person in Congress. By what standard do you define "smart"? We've had a lot of smart politicians in the past and look where we are today. Granted, "dumb" people are fun to listen to and have a beer with, but, I wouldn't hire them to dog sit. However, I've met a lot of smart people I hold in similar disdain!

I guess I mean intelligent, well-read, curious about the world, and susceptible to logic. Being smart doesn't guarantee that a politician will be effective, but it really helps.

So I'm starting the day with the Post homepage, and buried amongst a couple dozen stories is this little nugget: "CBO: TARP expected to cost U.S. only $25B." Wait, what?!? Why isn't this the lead story for every newspaper, broadcast and website? That TARP cost the U.S. $700 billion we don't have is one of those "facts" that "everybody knows." It's driving half the political discourse in this country right now. Why isn't the White House screaming this from the top of every mountain? Thanks.

Good question. I believe this is a good illustration of how the news business works -- and sometimes doesn't work. It has been known for some time, and widely reported, that most of the TARP money would be paid back and that the program would cost far less than originally feared. As the final cost estimate has ratcheted down, down, down, those new figures have been reported. but with every new figure, the subject feels to editors like old news. The result, though, is that a lot of people will continue to think the program cost $700 billion as opposed to $25 billion. This is a failure of our duty to inform, I believe -- not a technical failure, perhaps, but a failure nonetheless. As to why the White House folks haven't put up a huge Mission Accomplished banner, you'll have to ask them.

Gene, should the President hold his ground here on tax cuts at the $250K level? Or should he offer a limited extension with the explicit caveat of producing comprehensive tax reform? It seems like something big needs to happen here.

If he gives way and accepts a temporary extension, he should get something in return. Right now, the best candidate looks like an extension of unemployment benefits. But a temporary extension of all the tax cuts is definitely not (as some Republicans claim) a compromise.

I know it's not comparable, if only for the size, but how would you put the Wikileaks release of State Department documents in perspective to muckrakers such as the work of Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson. And, while it doesn't appear that Wikileaks is releasing material generated by or from other countries/governments (maybe the only "whistle blowers" are in the United States), what would be your perspective if such material, say from China, India, Malawi, Brazil, etc.) were released?

My colleague Anne Applebaum wrote an excellent column for this morning's paper asking why Wikileaks isn't publishing internal documents from repressive governments such as that of China. I agree that if Julian Assange and Wikileaks mean what they say about secrecy and sunshine, they should go after some other targets as well. The difference between Wikileaks and the work of muckrakers is the difference between activists and journalists. I'm not arguing that every journalist's motives are as pure as the driven snow, but there is indeed a difference.

Yes, wikileaks is not a new organization in the traditional sense of the word. Which is precisely why I fear this charge in the internet age. As a young attorney, I'm all too aware our courts are stacked with a generation removed from the technical and internet revolution. More so because of the Rules of Judicial Conduct, are the members of our judiciary isolated from the world the rest of us live in. Democracies should conduct their diplomacy in open, as the examples the prior Administration gave us of rendition and torture show us all too well. We don't live in a Cold War world anymore. Neither should our First Amendment. Wikileaks deserves First Amendment protections as they have only helped to advance, not hinder our democracy.

I've worked my whole career in journalism, so I'm a huge advocate of openness and sunshine. The fact is, though, that when I was a manager here at The Post and had to evaluate employees' performance, I didn't want those assessments made public. Likewise, if I was trying to engineer a reporter-swap with another section head, I didn't want those negotiations to be made public. These situations aren't entirely analogous to diplomacy, but they're close enough to make the point, which is that it's surely not possible to conduct all diplomacy in public. That doesn't mean that I, as a journalist, hesitate to try to find out what's happening behind the scenes. It just means that I understand why some diplomatic conversations are meant to be kept private.

Mr. Robinson, thank you for hosting the chat today. While I believe transparency is great--indeed of utmost necessity--for a healthy democracy, and thus applaud the Wikileak releases, another part of me feels appalled at the potential risks and damages it may inflict to real people elsewhere. Transparency is great in a democracy like ours, but what will that transparency bring to people elsewhere in the world that do not enjoy the same kind of civil rights and protections?

That's an excellent question, and it's immoral, in my view, not to take the implications of full disclosure into account. All the news organizations that published Wikileaks information say they took pains to redact the names (and other identifying information) of people whose safety might be imperiled. I believe them.

I assume that the documents were leaked to wikileaks by hundreds of different sources. So, which is worse, the fact that wikileaks has made the documents public or knowing that hundreds of government employees can leak confidential documents. At least we know what was given to wikileaks, but we don't know who else they have been giving confidential documents or what they contains.

The working assumption is that this whole data dump may have come from one person, Pvt. Bradley Manning. That has not been confirmed or denied by those in a position to know.

What did you think of Joe Scarborough's article in Politico about Sarah Palin? Not many Republicans are brave enough to tackle her possible presidential aspirations.

First, the conflict-of-interest disclosure: I have a contract with MSNBC and appear on "Morning Joe" twice a week. That said, I thought it was a good column offering wise advice to Republicans. It also tended to underscore Joe's assertion that he's not running for anything.

Honestly, a whole lot of voters would make it a point to vote against a candidate who was "intelligent, well-read, curious about the world, and susceptible to logic." See the example of Sarah Palin, who makes a virtue of ignorance. But here is my question: Is this kind of populist anti-intellectualism worse now than it was in the past? If so, why? Or was it ever thus?

You can find historical analogies -- Andrew Jackson, for example, was derided as an uncouth clod. Then again, Andrew Jackson had won the Battle of New Orleans. Sarah Palin has appeared in a reality show. I think the anti-intellectualism is certainly worse than it has been in the recent past, and I don't know why. It's true that the eggheads haven't had all the solutions, but I don't know why this suggests to some people that the dunderheads would do better.

"As to why the White House folks haven't put up a huge Mission Accomplished banner, you'll have to ask them." You do know it was Bush's program right? How can liberal pundits praise TARP and give Bush no credit?

I'm happy to give Bush credit for TARP. The point is, though, that Republicans blame it on Obama -- they scream "No more bailouts," neglecting to mention that it was the GOP that enacted the Mother of All Bailouts. So let's give both credit and criticism where they're due.

Gotta complain as a fed. Does nothing to solve the budget. Makes us a whipping boy for Congressional largess. And gets Obama ZERO. He loses federal employee support and got nothing from the GOP for it. And if you don't think the GOP is still going to try to shut the gov't down, you're more optimistic than I am. Another message, strategy and leadership bomb from the Obama WH team.

I sympathize with your plight -- federal workers just happened to be the ones wearing the bulls-eyes. I'm not so sure, however, that there's no political benefit for Obama. Outside of the [very expensive] Washington area, federal-worker salaries are not very popular. That may be unfair, but it's true.

The pure genius of Schumer's proposal to roll back the Bush-era income tax cuts only for all those earning $1,000,000 or more per year is that it creates a great campaign oportunity for Democrats running in 2012: My Republican opponents voted for (or favored) tax breaks for millionaires!

It struck me as pretty clever, too.

I predict that she would be the first president in memory to NOT pardon the presidential Thanksgiving turkey!

Poor gobbler wouldn't stand a chance.


And with that, folks, I apologize but I have to run. Thanks, and see you 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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