Eugene Robinson Live

Jan 21, 2014

Chat with Post columnist Eugene Robinson about his latest columns and political news.

Hello, everyone, and welcome. Today, we'll see if we can solve the problems of the world and freak out about a substantial (but not rare) snowfall at the same time. It is indeed snowing, but I think we'll live. My column today was about the relatively little attention being paid to the chemical spill in West Virginia, which tainted the water supply for 300,000 people and raised questions about ongoing health effects that have not been answered. There's also a lot of focus today on Chris Christie's second-term inauguration as boss, I mean governor, of New Jersey. And of course there is my friend David Remnick's epic interview of President Obama in the current New Yorker. Plus assorted international mayhem. Lots to talk about, so let's get started.

As a former CBS and NBC News correspondent who lives in Charleston, my place of birth, I wonder why media do not explore the larger story here of corrupt officials like Sen Joe Manchin and Gov Tomblin and Congresswoman Capito who're in the pay of BIG COAL who are dismissive of 300,000 West Virginians sickened by the pollution?

We should be looking at the influence of the coal and chemicals industry on politics and government in the state. It's huge.

Was the President playing the race card in the New Yorker interview? Doesn't pan out because Herman Cain was one of the most popular candidates among white Republicans. Isn't it simply because of the President's liberal policies rather than the color of his skin?

You're referring to the president's speculation that some critics don't like him because he's black. If you think this is playing the race card, you are wrong. First, President Obama went on to say that he also believed some people might give him the benefit of the doubt because of his race. I think he was being too even-handed in this. If you saw the racist e-mail I get about the president, you would not doubt for a minute that some part of the criticism is not about performance but about race.

Thanks Eugene for your column. What scares me about what happened in West Virginia is that there will be more to come, all because of the lack of accountability and credibility from corporations such as Freedom Industries. I'm disappointed, too, that the Government has done little. What would be your approach to handling this?

It would be great if state and local officials were aggressive in pursuit of the malefactors. The reality is that the coal and chemicals industries wield enormous power in West Virginia, so that leaves the federal government. I'd have thought  that the EPA director would be on-scene and that there would be investigations, hearings and possibly legislation in Congress. 

I have been outraged by the lack of reporting on this story. If the Hudson or Potomac River were tainted and caused the water to be undrinkable for nearly two weeks, the media would be going nuts.

Absolutely. But because it's way over yonder, across the mountains, in a small and relatively poor state, it's not as big a story as it should be. That makes me mad.

James Rosen reported earlier this week what many of us suspected all along: This administration knew within minutes that what was happening in Benghazi was a terrorist attack, not a spontaneous demonstration over a stupid video. That New York Times series claiming that Al-Qaeda was not involved has been mostly discredited. At least Chris Christie fired the two people who caused that bridge debacle. Susan Rice didn't get fired, she got promoted. So if you think that referring to me and other critics as conspiracy nuts will bail out this administration along with Hilary's presidential chances - well, to paraphrase President Obama, if you like your talking points, you can keep them.

Sorry, but you're sounding like a conspiracy nut. Read at least one of the Benghazi reports. It is clear that "this administration" didn't know anything solid about the attack within minutes. According to the Senate report, the intel community still believes the attack might have been spontaneous, or was at least partly spontaneous. Regardless of the genesis, and inconveniently for your thesis, the president promptly referred to the attack as an act of terror. But if you like your conspiracy theory, you can keep it.

Gene, Do you think because of Clinton's Benghazi and Christie's Bridgegate, that other candidates may feel there now is a chance to jump in and run since both Clinton and Christie are falling in the polls?

On the Democratic side, no -- I don't think Benghazi does any real harm to Hillary Clinton. The question remains whether -- if she decides to run -- she will face a challenge from the left, but Benghazi won't be the issue. On the GOP side, Christie may or may not have a problem. If he is caught in a lie, that's probably the ball game. If not, he will have to dispel the "bully" notion somehow. The thing to watch is how the big Republican campaign donors react. If they begin to shy away, he's in trouble.

Hi Eugene -- thanks for taking questions today. As an experienced observer, where do you think this whole Christie brouhaha is going? Or to put it another way, is it merely a kerfuffle, a brouhaha, or a full-out scandal? And are Democrats being just a little too gleeful about it? How do they avoid overplaying their hand, or is too late for that now?

It's a long time 'til 2016, so I don't know the answer to your questions. I think the real danger in this for Christie probably isn't that he gets caught in a flat-out lie. It's that the whole bully thing sticks and his candidacy starts to remind people of Rudy Giuliani's -- remember, the guy who spent $50 million to win, like, one delegate at the convention? I wonder if it helps Christie to have Giuliani out there on the cable airwaves as a surrogate. But what do I know?

The fact that congress and most of the media have stopped talking about the issue leads me to believe the issue is dead.

Shame on us and shame on Congress if your assessment is right. I hope it's not.

I don't doubt that some of the criticism leveled at the President is racism (what else can explain the birther movement), but I feel many of the Presidents supports see racism in any criticism of the president. When someone on the right accused his campaign of "Chicago style politics", which I took as a reference to the days of Richard Daley, some cable commentators stated it was racism. Wondered if you agreed at all with my concern.

Personally, I't take "Chicago-style" as more a reference to the Daley dynasty and the general elbows-out style of politics in the city than a racial reference. But when critics talk about "shucking and jiving" and that sort of thing, come on. I always keep in mind something that my colleague Richard Cohen told me a long time ago: The word "paranoid" has no meaning for blacks and Jews.

Since your column last week on the lack of passion Democrats have on extending benefits, have you publically or privately seen a change in their attitude? Seems like both parties are content to move on from the issue.

I got lots of great feedback on that column -- from people who were affected by the cutoff or had a sense of what it means for more than a million families. Sadly, Congress and the president do not always take my instruction.

Some are pointing out that the people of West Virginia would be a lot more confident in the declarations of government officials regarding water safety if the EPA and CDC were willing to allow their scientists to speak to the press. But everything seems to be funneled through main agency spokespeople who are reticent to talk. Do you see the water crisis bolstering the arguments of those who want more transparency at the EPA and CDC? Shouldn't people have access to what we know--and what we don't know--so that we can make informed decisions?

Absolutely, there should be more transparency. And, frankly, the environment should be higher on Washington's agenda.

The cause is clear: too much interference by the EPA. :-) Rely on private enterprise? The country responsible for the spill, which had not inspected the tanks in over 20 years, has filed for bankruptcy.

Right. There are reasons to have, like, a government. Among them is that otherwise we wouldn't have clean water or air. Speaking of which, is anyone trying to evaluate how much of this chemical might have found its way into the groundwater?

I wonder how many people outraged over the loss of lives there ever gave a second of thought to the safety of Foreign Service Officers and others working overseas (often in installations with limited security) and even now would tell Congress should appropriate more money to this. How many will forget about the issue should it fade as a political issue? Many more Americans died in the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in the 80s, but there was far less outrage and, much more importantly, no bipartisan push to spend enough money to make our facilities secure. I was in he Foreign Service so am acutely aware of how little most Americans think about security at embassies, consulates, etc. I know people who have been attacked, and even killed, overseas. Seldom makes the new.

You are absolutely right. It is obscene that critics will try to use the chant "Benghazi Benghazi Benghazi" as a political weapon against President Obama and Hillary Clinton, but won't propose or even support any increase in funding for State Department security. Note to conspiracy theorists: If you really cared, you would be looking for ways to keep such a tragedy from happening again.

Do you think the chemical spill in West Virginia will have any negative impact on the 2014 political candidacies in the state (e.g., on Capito)?

No. "Pro-coal, pro-chemicals" is a bipartisan position, pretty much. Maybe I'm being too cynical. If anything could make public opinion take another look at what those industries are doing to the environment, this episode might be it. My fear is that a lot of people who are concerned, and who have options, will just leave.

Do you share the President feelings that if he had a son ( I know from your column today you have at least one son) he would not let them play football? That is a fine thought in theory, but when you have kids in their teen years, if they really want to play, it's hard to force them not to.

Neither of my sons wanted to play football, so I didn't have to make that decision. Then again, we probably steered them in other directions (baseball and soccer). With what we now know about concussions, I think I'd have a hard time saying yes. However (he said, hypocritically), I'm a pro and college football fan. 

One at Widener University in PA and one at Purdue University in Indiana. Do you think there is anything that will ever compel the enactment of more gun control regulations in this country? (although we lost 26 people at Sandy Hook and nothing happened)

I think we should never give up hope. It's hard for me to imagine how we get sensible gun control, if after Newtown we couldn't even get better background checks. But it's wrong to stop trying.

While I did not vote for the President, I do sympathize with the position he is in, being the first black president. He has to answer questions that no other president would have to think about. Example, remember the whole "beer summit" with Henry Louis Gates. I thought the President answered the question correctly, the police were stupid to arrest him in his own home. Somehow that turned into a national crisis.

I agreed. I had the same view when the president made innocuous remarks about the Trayvon Martin slaying. Being the First Black Anything carries with it unique burdens. That's life.

Remember this 1990s film about a lawyer fighting the Grace chemical company over the deaths of eight children from leukimia after toxic chemicals were dumped into the water supply in a small Massachusetts town? Based on a true story and sadly illustrates what happens when citizens try to fight back against large corporations that have polluted the water.

It is incredibly difficult to prove long-term health impacts, such as the emergence of a cancer cluster, and it's even more difficult to won compensation/remediation in a court of law. 

I agree the lack of coverage and gov't intervention is stunning, but might part of it be because WV doesn't seem to do anything to prevent this kind of thing from happening? Do they fight for more regulation and elect people who will protect their interests? What is the responsibility of West Virginians to prevent this from happening?

It's their responsibility and ours as well. West Virginia air and water doesn't stay in West Virginia.


That's all for today, folks. My time is up. Thanks for a great hour, and I'll 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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