Opinion Focus

Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, March 6, 2007; 1:00 PM

Washington Post opinion columnist Eugene Robinson was online Tuesday, March 6, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his recent columns and the latest news.

Unaccountably Called to Account (Post, March 6)

The transcript follows.


Eugene Robinson: Hi, folks. So many stories, so little time. This just in: Scooter Libby is guilty on four of five counts. Meanwhile, the Walter Reed scandal continues to percolate -- is anyone surprised that a new, blue-ribbon, bipartisan, elderly commission has been named -- and the story of the fired U.S. attorneys continues to escalate, with new charges that they were being pressed to accelerate investigations targeting Democrats. Obama and Hillary had their showdown in Selma, while McCain snubbed the CPAC confab. Oh, and back in the real world, something like 90 people dead in suicide bombings in Iraq today. Whew.


Arlington, Va.: Eugene: How far back do you think the problems with the military health system go? Have the problems been exacerbated by the Iraq war? Will this be an issue in the 2008 elections?

washingtonpost.com: Special Report:The Other Walter Reed

Eugene Robinson: I'm not an expert, but the consensus seems to be that the veterans' health system was in really bad shape, improved somewhat in the Clinton years (but not enough), and now is once again in decline. In terms of saving people on the battlefield, military doctors have amazing new techniques and technology -- they are saving people who would have died, say, during the first Gulf War. Their survival puts added strain on the system, especially at Walter Reed. Looks to me as if, yes, it will be an issue for a good while.


Fairfax, Va.: I am afraid I can't share your view about accountability regarding the VA scandal. This is exactly what I would expect this Administration and their complicit loyal opposition would do: i.e., go after bureaucrats not doing their jobs while ignoring those who shred the rules of our democracy and lie about the reasons for sending our kids to war in the first place. What's such a big deal about a VA scandal that's been going on under the noses of a visiting President and congressmen for years? That disgrace pales in comparison with the timidity of Democrats who, despite overwhelming public opinion and the results of an election only three months ago, are keeping our troops in harm's way until the President can figure out how to shift the blame for "losing" an already lost Iraq onto the "Democrat" party.

Eugene Robinson: What's different (and refreshing), in my view, is that Robert Gates took names and dealt with the generals who had allowed this outrage to happen. He didn't try to round up some sergeants and lieutenants and blame it all on them. And he seemed genuinely outraged, both at what The Post's reporters found at Walter Reed and at the nonchalance with which Gens. Harvey and Kiley dismissed the whole thing. "I don't do barracks inspections," Kiley said at the hearing yesterday. amazing arrogance. When I was running the Style section here and a mistake got into the paper, I wasn't able to go to Len Downie and say "I don't do copy editing." It's called responsibility.


Arlington, Va.: Nice to see Libby convicted. But as with everything in this administration, it is a minor character taking the fall for the policy at the top. When should we expect Dick to go on trial?

Eugene Robinson: I don't expect to see the vice president in the dock. Prosecutor Fitzgerald just said that he doesn't contemplate filing any further charges, although he left the door open in case "new information" surfaces.


Baltimore: Re: Your column today on Robert Gates and the Walter Reed scandal: Not only was Secretary Gates' quick action in dismissing those responsible a remarkable change from the usual in the Bush administration -- in his public statements, he showed genuine anger at what was happening. It will be interesting to see how he deals with the fact that a substantial portion of operations at Reed had been privatized, being turned over to a company headed by two former (of course) Halliburton executives.

Eugene Robinson: The privatization angle is going to be quite illuminating, I think. That's one big change that I think most people aren't aware of -- just how much of the government has been contracted out to private firms. (Including much of the war...)


Arlington, Va.: So the verdict is in, and Libby is guilty. How soon can we expect the pardon, or has the Bush administration learned anything in the past week?

Eugene Robinson: I would never presume to calculate what the Bush administration has or has not learned.


Washington: I know it's going to a Libby chat, but can I sneak in my Barack Obama question? I used to bug you about Obama running, and as it turned out, I was right. Now I wonder, in your gut, what odds do you give him? I am sure you saw his speech on Sunday, which I thought was wonderful. Do you happen to know who he was pushing in the wheelchair across the bridge?

Eugene Robinson: I don't know who he was pushing in the chair. Yes, you were definitely right about whether Obama would run. It's way early to give odds, even on his getting the nomination -- let alone getting elected president. But if you had told me a year ago that he would be in this position -- second in the Democratic polls and climbing, positioned to raise more than enough money to be competitive, unbloodied and apparently unfazed by attacks -- I'd have said you were nuts. Wait a minute, I guess you did tell me all that a year ago...


Ashland, Mo.: Why are you a captive of your past? Why does it matter? Isn't one of this country's distinguishing characteristics (in fact, ideals) that you are free to pursue whatever you wish regardless of your family's past? To the extent others prevent you from doing it because of your roots, they are to be criticized -- that's harder to do if you admit it is relevant to who you are. I never wanted to be what my father or others in my family had been and didn't and don't care about my family history. It is fine for those who do, but I never saw the point. It is a hobby, like gardening, but not important. But it is to you -- why?

washingtonpost.com: The Story I'll Never Know All Of (Post, March 2)

Eugene Robinson: I think most people are interested in their family history. It's not a burden, it's a comfort. But maybe not everyone feels that way.


LOL:"I would never presume to calculate what the Bush administration has or has not learned."

Molly Ivins, is that you?

Eugene Robinson: Alas, no. I miss her.


Helena, Mont.: Please, please be correct in this -- Walter Reed is an Army hospital, not a VA hospital. The Defense Department is responsible for Walter Reed, the VA is responsible for the VA hospitals. Not saying there aren't problems with VA system, but Walter Reed is not one of them.

Eugene Robinson: You are of course correct, and I was sloppy earlier in my reference to the VA system.


Washington: Congrats Mr. Robinson -- the mainstream media managed to make this case about whether or not Libby leaked the name, which he didn't, and which wasn't even a crime. If someone asked me five different times over the course of a year about something, I might give conflicting stories. In 1998, when Hilary was under the gun, she just said "I can't remember" about 200 times and it was okay. Yet Sandy Berger and William Jefferson aren't being prosecuted. We have wasted millions of dollars for nothing. This trial should have never have happened, Fitzgerald was way out of bounds and Libby rightly will be pardoned. Congrats on helping to pervert the justice system!

Eugene Robinson: I don't know how Libby's travails can be blamed in the "mainstream media," since the mainstream media were essentially on trial along with him, at least in the court of public opinion. In any event, this wasn't a case about whether or not Libby leaked Valerie Plame Wilson's name, it was about the fact that he lied to the grand jury and others. Perjury is perjury, and Libby made up this story about Tim Russert that was just patently false.


Falls Church, Va.: I know this is probably a little off topic, but I keep forgetting to ask it in the chats ... do you think that the congressmen who did visit Walter Reed missed seeing all the issues because they were visiting "inpatients" (I don't know the correct term) versus the outpatients who clearly seemed to have suffered so many of the problems?

Eugene Robinson: Yes, the photo-op visits were mostly to another part of the complex. But at least one congressman did know about the deplorable situation in outpatient care, and when he complained to Gen. Kiley and others he was blown off.


Albany, N.Y.: Do you see the fired U.S. Attorneys issue as breaking open into a full-blown scandal?

Eugene Robinson: Looks like it should. This story is getting more interesting every day. Why would Republican Sen. Pete Domenici and Republican Rep. Heather Wilson be calling a U.S. Attorney to ask about the "time frame" (Domenici's words) on a corruption investigation involving Democrats? What kinds of pressures did the other U.S. attorneys feel?


Alexandria, Va.: Does Senator Domenici really think we are that naive? "I called him, but didn't pressure him"? There's a reason pursuit of an employee by a supervisor is generally considered sexual harassment when the same actions by a peer is not. A personal phone call by a sitting U.S. Senator to a federal employee is inherently pressure, pretty much regardless of what words were said. Duh. (I am a federal employee, and the day a Senator calls me and personally inquires as to the status of one of my projects, I'm gonna interpret that as pressure to prioritize that project. Find a fed who says otherwise.)

Eugene Robinson: Exactly. No U.S. Attorney is going to treat a phone call from a U.S. senator the same way he or she would treat a phone call from any average citizen.


Pittsburgh: Hello, and thank you for taking questions. I watched the testimony regarding the situation at Walter Reed yesterday and the comment that really hit me was General Kiley's assertion that the Army has a great system and plenty of resources, and that the failure was that of a "few junior officers." I nearly fainted. My question: do you think the convoluted system that rates disabled veterans for retirement benefits will get as much attention as mold and mice? Will the Congress really get on this, or will the sticker shock of what it takes to care for veterans be too much for them and for the country?

Eugene Robinson: First, I hope Robert Gates is as royally ticked off as he seems to be. I think he's more angry at this "few junior officers" stuff than anything else, and I don't blame him. If that's the way generals of the U.S. Army regard their responsibilities these days, we're in more trouble than I thought. As for your excellent question, I really don't have a sense yet of whether this will lead to a systematic evaluation and improvement of Army care and veterans' care.


Washington: My question is a bit off topic, but I hope you'll take it. What did you think of HRC's Selma speech? Was I the only one who found myself cringing at her "southern drawl"? I am an undecided Dem but this really really did not sit well with me. And not to give Obama a free pass, the whole event seemed exploitative and shallow. I know it's just politics and that my complaint is a common one, but the whole sorry affair -- and especially Hillary -- just seemed so fake.

Eugene Robinson: I cringed a little too, tell the truth. It was a pretty good speech, but it sounded as if it were being delivered by someone else. I have to agree that there was something a little unattractive about both candidates suddenly deciding to make their first visits to the Selma commemoration in a year when both happen to be running for president.


Re: Washington Congrats: Let's see, the media convicted Libby, the media lost Iraq, and I suppose the media causes global warming. Where do you find the time to actually report and write stories?

Eugene Robinson: In between all the Grand Conspiracy meetings. Oops, I wasn't supposed to reveal that.


Alexandria, Va.: I'm no military expert, but I did spend two years in the Army (drafted in 1967) and my father was a career officer, so I do know a bit about the culture. It seems to me that in recent years, generals have forgotten that their most important duty is the welfare of the men under their command. All too many of these guys have one goal -- advancing their careers -- and they accomplish this by playing it safe, not rocking the boat, and eagerly going along with whatever program their civilian bosses lay on them. I think this is part of what has led to such recent failures as Abu Ghraib and Walter Reed.

Eugene Robinson: That's certainly the sense I got from Gen. Kiley yesterday. On the other hand, Gen. Weightman -- who inherited the mess last August -- at least faced up to his responsibility and apologized to the family members and soldiers at the hearing.


Fort Washington, Md.: Now that Libby has been convicted, do you think Bush will entertain questions from the media about pardoning him? How hard to you think Cheney is lobbying for a pardon for Libby?

Eugene Robinson: The White House doesn't call me to consult on media strategy, for some reason, but it's still possible to take the position that since Scooter has said he plans to ask for a new trial (which the judge will deny) and then appeal, the matter is still in litigation and thus the president couldn't possibly comment. How does that sound?


Baltimore: What are the chances for Eleanor Holmes Norton's bill asking that Walter Reed not face closure in the next round of base closings? From my relations who work there, I sense that a lot of the malaise was related to "short-timer" syndrome, knowing that the whole place was going away in a few years.

Eugene Robinson: That's an interesting question. You could argue it either way -- that Walter Reed is such a valuable institution that it has to be kept open and improved; or that this shows the wisdom of shutting the place down and shifting everything out to Bethesda, where they could give better care.


Pander City: There's a saying in Missouri: "the only people who still say "Missourah" are politicians in an election year."

Eugene Robinson: Right. Only now, we have a two-year-long election year. Twice the pandering.


Re: Domenici: What's interesting to me is that many of the fired attorneys were Republicans with good records and reviews who were thrown out after having not been complicit with conservatives trying to attack liberals and liberal positions. This group of Republican lawyers should be commended for standing for what is legally appropriate. I'm probably doing them no favors by disclosing that I'm a liberal.

Eugene Robinson: This mass firing of U.S. attorneys really was extraordinary -- and yes, in general they were Republicans. You get the sense of an administration that thinks it can do any damn thing it wants. Shocking revelation, right?


Winnipeg, Canada: Your column today about accountability reminded me of a BBC report on the image 12 nations in the world enjoy. They asked 1,000 people in 27 countries if the 12 countries had a positive or negative influence in the world. Your country came in third-to-last, behind Iran and Israel. More than half of those surveyed (51 percent) said the United States was a bad influence on the world, while 30 percent said it was a good one. This negative rating is worse than last year, which was worse than the year before, the first survey the BBC did. I cannot help thinking that a survey done seven years ago would have produced a reverse effect. If you ran the zoo, what would you do to repair your country's image around the world?

Eugene Robinson: I'd stop threatening everybody and I'd stop announcing that whatever I wanted to stop some other nation was doing was "unacceptable." I would try diplomacy.


San Francisco: Well, Mr. Robinson, if you weren't watching Dana Perino at the White House, you certainly got her talking points right -- "new trial, ongoing legal proceeding, right to an appeal, no way we can comment." Do you suppose the White House press corps give the President and Vice President a free pass based on this attempt from a Tony Snow subordinate to shut down questions about how we were lied into the War on Iraq?

Eugene Robinson: I suspect Dana Perino lifted those comments directly from this chat. As for the White House press corps, what do you mean by "free pass"? Unfortunately, we don't have subpoena power. We can ask the question, we can shout the question, whatever, but we can't compel Tony Snow to tell us everything he knows under pain of arrest.


Bethesda, Md.: Well, if someone gives answers in a judicial proceeding that are "intentionally false" or "false, misleading and evasive answers that were designed to obstruct the judicial process," they should be prosecuted, right? By the way, those are quotes from Judge Wright's opinion finding Bill Clinton in contempt of court. For balance, please give us the link to your column on that matter.

Eugene Robinson: I wasn't writing a column back then. But I do recall that Bill Clinton faced a pretty serious legal proceeding -- impeachment.


Arlington, Va.: Hillary's "accent": Gene, here's a newsflash for you, Hillary lived in Arkansas for nearly 20 years. Her husband grew up in Arkansas. The fact that her speech sometimes "slips" is no surprise to me. You should hear my husband's accent change when we visit his parents!

Eugene Robinson: Thank y'all for pointing that out.

And thanks, everyone, for participating this afternoon. See you next week.


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