Opinion Focus

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

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

Latest Column: Oprah the Avenger (Post, Nov. 6) | Discussion Group: Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood

The transcript follows.

Archive: Eugene Robinson discussion transcripts

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Eugene Robinson: Hi, everybody, and welcome to our weekly get-together. I'll be here for an hour to solve all the problems of the world. Today's column was a departure from the usual fare of war, politics, torture, Cheney, etc. -- a piece about the allegations of abuse at Oprah's school in South Africa. But there are lots of other things to talk about. For one, Pakistan is in turmoil. And of course the endless presidential campaign marches on. The biggest political news today is that Ron Paul raised more than $4 million in a single day via the Internet. Oh, and people are blaming the Obama campaign for denying Stephen Colbert a spot on the South Carolina primary ballot. My view is that Colbert has made enough money from his book and can put the faux-campaign thing to rest.

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Washington: Gene, you've really been drinking that Harpo Kool-Aid -- Oprah is the most sanctimonious so-and-so on the planet, and people are eager to see her and her "matron" in the dock in South Africa or anywhere else. I'm just surprised it's not in Chicago.

Eugene Robinson: Now, now. I don't recall drinking any Kool-Aid. But as I wrote that column yesterday, I surprised myself by basically coming down on Oprah's side. That's not how I would have spent $40 million, if I had $40 million to spend on a charitable project (or if I had $40 million, period). But she was trying to do good, and she seems genuinely horrified at what happened -- and determined to set it right.

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Fort Washington, Md.: Oprah's school is a tremendous gift of opportunity and symbol of hope for South Africa, especially the girls selected to attend. Oprah's reaction and anguish only may be understood by an adult who was a victim of sexual child abuse and had the same type crime occur to children under her/his care.

Eugene Robinson: For the girls selected to attend, the school is life-changing. Another approach would have been to provide extra teachers, or computer equipment, or whatever for ten township schools. Or a hundred schools.

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Correction, I think: I don't think it's the Obama campaign so much as Obama supporters. That is a significant difference. I don't think Obama's official staff pressured anyone (the way I read it); rather, a supporter of his who had authority weighed in with her opinion and view of the matter.

Eugene Robinson: I think you're right. Duly noted.

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Atlanta: It appears that Oprah has all of her hired and unpaid PR people talking in the media. Without question, they are 100 percent supportive. No one seems to be asking the hard questions. Are people in the media afraid of Oprah?

Eugene Robinson: I'm not sure what tough questions are going unasked. She said unequivocally that the buck stops with her, and she seems determined to find out exactly what happened. And is Oprah's school really any more of an ego trip than, say, Bill Gates' lavish philanthropy? This isn't a new story. Andrew Carnegie has his name on a whole lot of libraries.

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Vienna, Va.: Mr. Robinson: I think your column today addressing the problems of Oprah Winfrey's school in South Africa may be on to something. Rather than building standalone, state-of-the-art facilities, it may be more beneficial for Oprah to use her influence and money to identify existing, nascent initiatives that already are attempting to reach the same goals, and provide to those initiatives modest resources that would improve educational opportunities on a broader spectrum. Your recommendation for an organic approach would be more effective, by establishing a healthy community infrastructure that hopefully through time would impact more young women positively than one single facility ever could. Thanks for the opportunity to comment.

Eugene Robinson: Thanks. The approach you outline is closer to what I might have done, or tried to do. What I was trying to say is that even in the context of Oprah's approach -- one school for 450 of the best and brightest -- it sounds as if the school is far too isolated from the community. Granted, it's a boarding school. But successful schools embrace the larger community of parents, neighbors, local officials. Trying to wall the place off from the rest of South Africa isn't a good idea.

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Washington: Mr. Robinson, I enjoyed your Oprah article, but I'm not way into Oprah, though I agree she has put on a clinic on how to deal with this situation. I wanted to ask you about something else. I read this morning that at a Department of Homeland Security Halloween party, an employee came dressed as a prisoner. Their custom included, among other things, dreadlocks and darkening face makeup. This person originally won some dumb custom contest, but now it seems word has got out and he has been "counseled." I know this isn't the biggest issue of the day, but this is outrageous to me, and it deeply angers me. Am I overly-sensitive (as a white woman, by the way)? Do I need to let it go?

washingtonpost.com Costume Triggers Complaints at Agency (AP, Nov. 5)

Eugene Robinson: Sigh. It amazes me that in 2007 -- that's right, the 21st century -- there are bozos who haven't gotten the message that blackface is not, repeat not, a laugh riot. No, it's not the biggest issue of the day. Don't lose any sleep over it. But if anyone out there is wondering where on earth black people get the idea that racism still exists in America...

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Bowie, Md.: Why did you write about Oprah Winfrey in today's paper? Does she not get enough regular press? It seems like we have plenty of reporters covering every breath she takes -- do you have to add yourself to the list, too? Don't get me wrong, I think she is an incredible person and she has worked hard to get where she is, but there have got to be more pressing issues in this country to address in your column.

Eugene Robinson: I'll let the following comment begin my answer:

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Vero Beach, Fla.: The local Wal-Mart is selling Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel, "Love in the Time of Cholera." Given that Marquez is on good terms with Fidel Castro, I doubt that the novel would be there without a big imprimatur from Oprah's Book Club. She is someone to take seriously.

Eugene Robinson: Oprah Winfrey is an incredibly powerful figure in contemporary American culture. That's reason enough to write about her.

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Winnipeg, Canada: Regarding Oprah's school, hasn't there been a rush to judgment? No one has been convicted of anything yet, and although Oprah is not one of my favorite TV personalities, her heart seems to be in the right place. And although it might seem incredibly naive (and just a bit arrogant) to set up one's own school instead of funding an existing infrastructure, her effort stands far ahead of people who just pontificate about problems in that part of the world. And I seem to remember a Dr. Schweitzer from my youth who set up a clinic in Africa and then endured criticism about the way it was run. A signal difference between these two people is that Dr. Schweitzer moved to the clinic and made it his full-time job, while Oprah's involvement has been less hands-on. Oops -- I just realized that I've rushed to some judgments of my own.

Eugene Robinson: I think "rush to judgment" is the key phrase. We really don't know what, if anything, happened at that school. The allegations are serious, apparently, but we don't know in any detail what is alleged and we certainly haven't yet seen any evidence.

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Silver Spring, Md.: What are Oprah's credentials to even run a school? She is an absentee landlord who really shouldn't be trying to run a school in South Africa from Chicago. What Oprah should do is invest her money in helping several schools for both girls and boys rather than focusing on a spa-type school for only a handful of young girls. She should also join Bono in his effort to get debt relief for African nations. This would make a real difference for the people of Africa.

Eugene Robinson: As I said earlier, I would have looked for a way to impact the lives of more than 450 people. But let me argue the other side of the issue for a moment. For those 450 girls, the experience of going to this school will be more than uplifting, it will be utterly transformative. In years to come, they will have a positive impact on their community and their nation. That's a good thing, no? It's certainly infinitely better than doing nothing at all.

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Richmond, Va.: I like Oprah and I feel certain that her South African girls's school is a genuine effort to better those girls' lives. I do wonder why she would call a press conference and make it so art-directed, with her elaborate hair and makeup, her beautiful clothes and her studio immaculately lit. If she truly wanted to convey her distress, ease up on the image stuff.

Eugene Robinson: Art-direction of press conferences is pretty much standard procedure these days. Oprah and her staff just do it better than most people.

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Ballston, Va.: What the heck are we going to do about Pakistan? We backed Musharraf and now he is turning out to be exactly the tyrannical dictator we should have known him to be all along. And Osama bin Laden is probably in Pakistan. And they have nukes. And we are hamstrung in Iraq. Seriously, do we have any options other than waiting it out and seeing what happens?

washingtonpost.com: Ousted Pakistani Chief Justice Urges Lawyers to Continue Protests (Post, Nov. 6)

Eugene Robinson: Back to reality.

Yes, what are we going to do about Pakistan? I suspect there is little anyone can do, at this point. The Bush administration might have been able to pressure Musharraf out of office a few years ago, but wanted his cooperation, or at least acquiescence, in the terror war. Now, it looks like one good shove might send the whole place tumbling down, and that's not an attractive prospect. The administration pushed hard for him to make a deal with Benazir Bhutto, and he did, reluctantly. But this self-coup seems to have gone far beyond anything the administration imagined, and it's starting to look as if Musharraf has overplayed his hand. I just don't know what happens next.

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Woonsocket, R.I.: Gene, regarding this Colbert-Obama issue: the point isn't that Colbert's candidacy wasn't serious, it's that Obama -- or his campaign -- were willing to indulge in a bit of back-door arm-twisting to keep Colbert off the ballot. It makes him look a bit sleazy, just as he did when his campaign took over a MySpace site set up independently by one of his supporters.

It seems that for all of his self-proclaimed niceness and his "new approach" to politics, Senator Obama is willing to get down in the muck if he thinks he won't be caught. Unless, of course, the targets are Republicans, in which case niceness rules the day. All of which tells us something important about his character, and possibly his political savvy. I think he lost some potential supporters today!

Eugene Robinson: Well, I'm not here to shill for Obama (or any of the candidates), but I hope he doesn't lose votes over an actor's mock run for the presidency. Colbert is brilliant, but come on, he never was a real candidate. And this is an all-too-real election cycle, with an awful lot at stake.

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Pleasant Prairie, Wis.: So ... political repression very bad in Burma, not so bad in Pakistan. Is that our Dick Cheney foreign policy?

Eugene Robinson: Yes.

In fairness (!) to Dick Cheney, I should point out that there's a long tradition of U.S. support of repressive dictators. Does the name Pinochet ring a bell?

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Arlington, Va.: In all the polls I see of Iowa, Ron Paul is just about last. How did he raise so much money? Or is Iowa not typical of his support elsewhere? Or will he surprise a lot of people in Iowa?

washingtonpost.com: The Trail: Ron Paul's Record Online Haul (washingtonpost.com, Nov. 5)

Eugene Robinson: I don't think we'll see a big electoral surprise from Ron Paul. He has a substantial, extremely avid following nationwide among Libertarians. But there probably aren't enough of those followers in any one state to boost him into the top ranks. Now, if he were to run in the general election as a third-party candidate, that would make things a bit more interesting.

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Eugene Robinson: Thanks, everybody. My time is up. See you again next week.

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