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Opinion Focus

Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, June 6, 2006 1:00 PM

Washington Post opinion columnist Eugene Robinson was online Tuesday, June 6, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his recent columns and anything else that's on your mind.

Read his latest column, Distracter in Chief , ( Post, June 6, 2006 )

The transcript follows.

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Eugene Robinson: Hi, everyone, and welcome. I'll be here for the next hour to talk about whatever you'd like. Last Friday's column was about the Dixie Chicks' success, in spite of their having the temerity to oppose the Iraq war; and today's column was about the president's discovery that the Constitution urgently needs to be amended in a last-ditch effort to save the Republican majority on Capitol Hill -- oops, I meant a last-ditch effort to save the institution of marriage. My bad.

I'll just start by quoting a question that was posted earlier, which pretty much sums it up:

Arlington, Va.: Somewhere there's a gay immigrant sneaking across the border while burning the American flag and singing the National Anthem in Spanish who is totally having the worst day of his life. Osama bin who?

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Baltimore, Md.: Mr. Robinson: What is truly astonishing about the President's call for a constitutional amendment is that everyone seems to see through it. Even the most right wing "family values" talking heads I have seen on TV in the past couple days sort of shrug their shoulders and say, "Yeah, we know nothing will come of this." And both Laura Bush and the Vice President, when asked about the effort, have clearly said they have no interest in it. I don't knew whether their diffidence comes out of common decency (in the Veep's case, it's literally a family issue of course) or because the White House is now so battered and confused that it just sort of goes through the motions, like an NFL team down by 24 points with 4 minutes to go.

Eugene Robinson: It really is astonishing, when you think about it, that no one expects an amendment banning gay marriage to actually get out of Congress -- not opponents, not supporters. The president has paid lip service to the religious right for six years but only brings up this issue when an election is coming around. Clearly his wife and his vice president think an amendment is a terrible idea. It really is surreal, this Kabuki drama.

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Arlington, Va.: Has anyone ever asked Dobson and the other extremely vocal members of the religious wrong who they will be giving their votes to once "W" fails to pass the gay marriage amendment? I don't think their idle threats scare him or any other republicans. Dobson and his crew know that Republicans believe they can keep using stooges like them to get votes while ignoring every social agenda except the one set by the richest 1% of our population. But where are they planning to take their votes to if they ever leave the republican party? Really can't see any member of the religious wrong wearing a "Hillary in 08" button.

Eugene Robinson: You're right, but Hillary Clinton has been doing her best to at least neutralize some of the opposition to her (probable) candidacy among the religious right. She doesn't need them to vote for her, she just needs them not to vote against her. I don't know if it will work.

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Oakland, Calif.: I read your piece and EJ Dionne's piece this morning. Mr. Dionne thinks that the obvious pandering and posturing will come back to bite Rove et al. this year. I couldn't get a sense from your piece if you think the pandering will work -- what do you think? Are religious conservatives (on the whole) like Pavlov's dog, or do they know they're being played for fools?

Eugene Robinson: I think most religious conservatives know perfectly well what's going on. The question, as a previous questioner pointed out, is what's the alternative for them? If they decide that sitting on their hands in November is an alternative, then the Republican Party is in real trouble.

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Missouri: The president is well-named the "Distractor in Chief." He seems to be quite good at it, considering there are at least three opinion articles about gay marriage on this page alone today. And I agreed with all of them.

Comment on this phenomenon?

Eugene Robinson: One of the inherent powers of the presidency is the ability to change the subject, at least temporarily, pretty much whenever you want to. The problem is the "temporarily" part -- eventually people remember that there's a war in Iraq, and that gas costs $3 a gallon, and that the NSA is keeping a record of your phone calls...

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Ogden, Utah: Speaking of distractions -- yesterday the Web site of the WP led with a story of 56 Iraqis who had been rounded up, seemingly at random, by people dressed in Iraqi military uniforms.

Today I see not a word of follow-up -- is anyone looking for those people? Is the U.S. military involved? The FBI? CIA? NSA? Anyone?

Nope, today it is congressional travel and worries about gay marriage.

Is the news media in this country no longer able to cover a story longer than 24 hours?

Eugene Robinson: Good questions, all of them. I think the reason you're not seeing follow-ups on those kidnappings in Baghdad is that nobody knows much more than we knew yesterday. But it's true that the U.S. media seems to suffer from ADD in the worst way. More news, real and fake, flies at us every day, and we tend to get, well, distracted.

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Alexandria, Va.: Mr. Robinson,

During the 2000 primaries and subsequent election, there were frequent suggestions that George Bush was not very bright, not very thoughtful, and not very accomplished if somehow politically astute and successful in business in spite of himself.

Given the personal nature of these criticisms, the media never really took them seriously and oftentimes wrote of how wrong they were.

I submit that six years into his presidency, his performance can be completely explained by these very characteristics.

Is it beyond the media to write from this perspective ? Or is it somehow too personal ?

Eugene Robinson: You're right, it's "somehow too personal."

But not too personal for this chat. There's an understandable reluctance on the part of journalists to try to assess the intelligence of the people we write about -- How are we supposed to judge? Administer IQ tests? But that dodges the question. It's objectively true that the president can be stunningly inarticulate. That makes him the butt of late-night jokes (and sometimes op-ed columns), but we don't take the next step and ask what the relationship is between the way he speaks and the way he thinks. That said, there are counterbalancing facts. He did get elected president, twice, which isn't easy.

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Rockville, Md.: This isn't meant as a dig against you, but why do folk who oppose the FMA do so because it's a "distraction" from other issues but rarely ever defend same-sex marriage? Yes, there are other, more pressing issues. But since we're talking gay marriage, why do so few Democratic Senators and commentators defend the merits of extending marriage rights to same-sex couples?

Eugene Robinson: Because they're afraid to. I've always thought that while views about homosexuality vary somewhat between parties, they vary even more between generations. There are a lot of older Democrats whose view of homosexuality is much less enlightened than that of their children. If I'm right that this is mostly a generational issue, attitudes will change over time.

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Rochester, N.Y.: Pundits give credit to anti-gay initiatives in several states drawing enough religious/social conservatives out to swing the national election to Bush's favor in 2004. Personally, I have not seen any hard data to support that position, but given the closeness of the election, it is certainly possible. The current Senate farce is seen by some conservatives more as a litmus test for support of individual congresspersons in the fall elections than a real initiative. My question is, are there enough people who will vote on this single issue to make a difference in local elections where national issues often take a backseat to district concerns?

Eugene Robinson: I, too, wonder whether those initiatives really swung the 2004 election. In a really close election, maybe the gay marriage "issue" could give a GOP candidate an edge, I guess. I can't believe it's enough to make a huge difference.

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Atlanta, Ga.: The institution of marriage was under attack long before homosexuals decided they wanted to be recognized as official couples, wouldn't you agree?

Eugene Robinson: No, I wouldn't. Who's attacking marriage? What does that mean? Anybody who wants to get married, and stay married, can do so. Except gay people.

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Port Orange, Fla.: I'll leave it to the legal minds to separate the pepper from the fly specs in the Rep. Jefferson's Capitol Hill office search, but I keep wondering: why bother??

They have him on tape taking money; they find the money in his freezer. What more do they need to send him away??

Or is it just the nature of cops (and governments) to try to find even more? To locate every little thing else? I guess it's nice to have the "insurance" of more charges just in case one heads south; but the bribery case against Jefferson is about as air-tight as a space craft.

Eugene Robinson: I had to take at least one question about the Cold Cash scandal. And this is a good question: If they have all that evidence on Rep. Bill Jefferson, why search his office on Capitol Hill? I think there are three possibilities. One, the case against him isn't airtight after all, and they needed more evidence. Two, the cash in the freezer is just the tip of the iceberg, or ice tray, and there's even greater alleged larceny in those office files. Three, that was a shot across the bow of the members of Congress, most of them Republicans, who will soon be facing investigation in the Jack Abramoff scandal; under this scenario, Justice wanted to establish that if it wanted to come in and root through congressional files, it would do just that.

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Alexandria, Va.: I haven't read the Post's recent articles about black men yet, but they are on my short list. I did, though, look at some of the ancillary features (video, photos), which included a list of all the people were involved in producing this series.

I know that you were not, and I was somewhat disappointed to see that. You have, I think, a very forthright and constructive way about talking about race, and, although I'm sure your colleagues are capable, I would have thought you'd have a lot to add.

Were you just not drawn to this project? Did the project already have all the bodies needed to carry it off? I'm really just being snoopy here, but I'd be interested in hearing why, given your experience as a newspaper guy, as a black man, and as a person who communicates with insight, authority, and sensitivity about these topics, you aren't involved.

Eugene Robinson: I will be. Actually, I was involved in the early meetings that conceived the series, and will at least write several columns that try to complement the project.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I appreciated your column this morning. I am particularly appalled by the continued demonization of "activist judges". I would like to pose the question: What more proper role of the judiciary is there than to protect the rights of a minority from the tyranny of the majority?

Eugene Robinson: Couldn't have said it better.

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Louisville, Ky.: Worse than Bush being portrayed as too stupid was Al Gore being portrayed as too smart. The overwhelming narrative of Al Gore was that he was stiff, too educated, and spoke too intellectually for general Americans -- you know, the beer test (as in who would you rather have one with?).

In 2004, instead of learning from those mistakes and their consequences, the MSM again pushed the chummy Bush against the windsurfing, New England-native Kerry.

Of course, neither time was the narrative that Bush was born in Connecticut to a family of elected officials, given posh treatment throughout his life, and has failed -- yes failed -- at every business he has ever touched.

Eugene Robinson: Well, I can't agree that the MSM "pushed" Bush against Kerry. My opinion? Al Gore's problem wasn't being perceived as too stiff or smart, his problem was that he didn't make the proper use of Clinton in his campaign -- in Arkansas, in Tennessee, somewhere, anywhere. George Bush has learned to disguise his patrician, Ivy League heritage; John Kerry hasn't, or at least hadn't in 2004.

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New York, N.Y.: As someone who has worked with President Bush (inarticulate in public? Yes. Ignorant? No, not by a long shot, quite smart in fact - and Dems who know agree on this too - privately!), I can say that there is an entrenched attitude that the media "hates", and I use that word very carefully, the President. But, it really goes back to President Bush, Sr. who I also worked for - I was present when a reporter for the LAT told Sen. DeConcini (D-AZ)that "we".. "hate Bush." Those who worked for both men have long memories. The tension is beyond palpable. Are you willing to concede that some reporters from the WP, NYT, and LAT, etc. "hate" this President?

Eugene Robinson: If you phrase it as "some reporters," then sure, the answer is probably yes. "Most reporters" or "most reporters who cover the White House"? No, not true. But who is it who "hates" George Bush the First?

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Gulf Shores, Ala.: Good Morning Mr. Robinson: Loved your column today. I watched a little of the Senate Judiciary Hearing on the Justice Department wanting to jail journalist for leaking classified information, probably to shake from them the Leaker(s) name instead of investigating the Department the leak came from. Do you think we will be seeing more journalist jailed as a result? Do you think that there will be a Shield Law to protect journalist given the current make up in the House and Senate? How do you and others in your profession view this?

Eugene Robinson: It's a frontal attack. I do think we'll see more journalists jailed, because this administration has made clear it has no squeamishness about going after reporters to force them to name their sources. I don't think there's going to be a shield law, given the composition of this Congress. Reporters are going to have to take extraordinary means to protect sources, and some reporters likely will go to jail. This too shall pass, I hope.

Thanks, everyone. My time is up. Back next week, same time, same place.

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