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No 'do-overs' in the Gulf -- Opinion Focus with Eugene Robinson

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Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, August 10, 2010; 1:00 PM

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Eugene Robinson: Hi, everyone. Welcome to our weekly discussion -- and we've got much to talk about, even in the middle of August. Today's column was about Adm. Thad Allen and the Gulf oil spill. But we'll probably also get into Robert Gibbs' attack on the "professional left," the ethics charges against Charlie Rangel and Maxine Waters, and lots of other juicy topics. So let's begin.

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Rhode Island: Why did it take two months for the real story of this administration's response to hit the mainstream? Allen's account might have mitigated some of the damage during those weeks and months that Obama was being pilloried for not taking action, not making use of volunteers with boats, etc.Second, I agree with the Admiral that this disaster could be an invaluable learning lab. However, I have heard snippets from news stories indicating that BP is refusing to release much of its data due to upcoming court cases. Have you heard more about this?

Eugene Robinson: Good questions. For the first month, at least, I thought the administration did a bad job of telling the story of what it was -- and was not -- doing. It was weeks before we got anything like a full picture of how they were trying to handle the spill. Perhaps that's because they didn't really grasp the full picture, either -- and also because it took them some time to get their act together.

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Gulf oil spill: BP has called for grant submissions on the disaster. Some have been so off-subject as to request a new fire engine to a Gulf Coast community. However, I know of one proposal by a biologist that BP liked so much that they denied with the intention of conducting the research themselves, internally--or so the biologist was told. Seems highly suspicious. I suspect that BP either wanted to stop the study or if done internally, BP could control its dissemination--or lack thereof. I am a big Robinson fan. Please look into BP's "grants" and the ones accepted and denied. Seems to me more control of information.

Eugene Robinson: I'll do that. Sounds interesting.

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dispersants: How seriously are the effects of the dispersants being studied and what are the hopes for serious controls being installed on usage in the future?

Eugene Robinson: The administration says the dispersants have been studied extensively, and there's no currently known reason to worry about the effect on marine or human life. I am skeptical, if only because the dispersants have never been used before in this manner and this quantity. I don't think anyone can honestly say that they're definitively safe -- or that there will be no adverse effects down the line.

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Barack Obama 2005 versus Barack Obama 2010 (I like 2005 one more): Considering you probably read Robert Gibbs knocking you and your cable news buddies, you might like to read the last paragraph of this 2005 post by Barack Obama (or whoever wrote it under the Obama campaign).

Eugene Robinson: I did read the Gibbs screed. Robert should try switching to decaf. I don't think this is the way I'd go about trying to close the enthusiasm gap.

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When will you be sending flowers with a note to apologize to Robert Gibbs and the rest of the Obama administration: While I loved your columns on the court case on Prop. 8, I was just curious what you thought of Robert Gibbs lamenting the "professional left" and saying they needed to get drug tested?

Eugene Robinson: Now that you mention Prop. 8, it's a fact that President Obama's position on gay marriage tries to have it both ways. My position is pretty clear. Does that make me a member of the "professional left?" Oh, dear.

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Robert Gibbs: Gene,What is up with the White House and their repeated stupidity in handling their base? First their tonedeaf response to the AR primary results. Now Gibbs's tirade against the base that is not only nasty but is based on the type of straw man arguments we used to get from the previous administration. I'm apparently unhappy with them because they have not eliminated the Pentagon. What? Who's proposing that? I am really tired of the White House. I'm a life long Dem, but this was the first campaign to which I contributed time and money. I did so because I felt that his messages were directed to all of us, left, center and conservative. Well, they better not be knocking on my door in 2012. All they seem to do is pander to the Fox News crowd and, I presume, expect the rest of us to be lap dogs who will be happy to be occasionally petted by them even though the majority of the time we are condescended to. Ugh. Any idea why they have this strategy?

Eugene Robinson: I don't mean to pick on Robert, whom I like and respect, but I have to take one more shot because of that "straw man" thing he did. You're right -- nobody is calling for the Pentagon to be eliminated and nobody is calling for the reach of Canada's health care system to be expanded all the way down to the Rio Grande. It's perfectly appropriate for the president's spokesman to take on those who criticize the administration's positions or actions, but he should address what critics are actually saying rather than these absurd exaggerations. This doesn't sound like a strategy to me. Maybe more of a spasm?

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"Engineers found ways to capture some of the oil.": In the article, "Adm. Thad Allen on what can be learned from the gulf oil spill" Robinson quotes and writes, what was created, in effect was, "an oil production system that did not exist in the Gulf of Mexico." This is an alarming fact to learn. My question is: don't the oil companies around the world collaborate with each other on this kind of technology? And, if not why?

Eugene Robinson: What Allen meant was this: Before the blowout, oil from deepwater wells in the Gulf was conveyed to the shore through pipelines on the sea bed. So to capture the oil, they had to borrow techniques from the North Sea and the Angola coast -- specifically, bringing the oil to the surface in a riser pipe and offloading it into tankers. Of course, this was all before they finally got the flow stopped.

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Charlie Rangel: Will you ever admit that blacks have the same weaknesses as whites when it comes to political corruption, rather than defend them (Charlie Rangel and Maxine Waters) on the basis of their skin color, as you did on the Chris Matthews Show "Hardball" the other night?

Eugene Robinson: Give me a break. I wrote a blog post saying that after reading the allegations against Charlie Rangel, I saw no indication that he had broken any House rules for personal gain. I made no mention of Rep. Waters, because I hadn't had the opportunity to read either the charges or her response. I made no mention of race. Commenters immediately attempted to label me a racist, which I found interesting. By that logic, I assume that no white commentator could ever defend a white politician, since that would be racism too, right?

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Charlie Rangel: It's ironic that Mr. Robinson's Charlie Rangel apology ended with the word "disgrace," because that's the one word that best describes the entire article. Unfortunately, it also aptly describes Mr. Robinson's career - which is buried in the past.Taken at face value, I would laugh off Mr. Robinson's op-ed piece as just another liberal trying to defend the indefensible; just as I would any conservative doing the same for a republican crook. However, I happened to catch Mr. Robinson on last night's Chris Matthews show, when he openly declared that race was a factor in both the Rangel and Maxine Waters cases.I can accept the political biases of people like Mr. Robinson, because that's who they are and that's what we expect from them. But each time he and others like him use race to define their views it diminishes the effectiveness of their arguments. Unfortunately for some, including Mr. Robinson, race has become the last line of defense in an argument that is otherwise indefensible. Maybe this represents progress in racial relations since the word is rarely used to describe real racial prejudice any more.

Eugene Robinson: Check the tape. I didn't "openly declare that race was a factor" in eiher case. Asked about the fact that at one point recently all of the active Ethics Committee investigations that we know about concerned members of the Congressional Black Caucus, I pointed out that some African-American members of Congress had claimed in the past that they were held to a different standard. I didn't endorse that claim. To cite one example, I've written posts in the past ridiculing "Dollar Bill" Jefferson's case and the $90,000 found in his freezer. That's different from the case against Rangel, in my view.

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Jim Webb and Willie Horton: I was surprised that the story about his attack on affirmative action lasted only a day or so. Whatever the merits or faults of that program, Webb was turnjng it into a Willie Horton, telling poor whites that non-whites and immigrants would take their jobs. The clincher was his use of the phrase "hardworking white Americans," which was worthy of Lee Atwater. Do you think we've become desensitized to this type of pandering to racial resentment?

Eugene Robinson: Your premise is wrong. I like Jim Webb -- a lot. I don't agree with his view of affirmative action, and he doesn't agree with mine, but we've been able to sit down and talk about it and find elements of our positions that do coincide. It's simply wrong to associate him with Lee Atwater. What Atwater did so well was appeal to racism and drive wedges between people who really should be allies. That's not what Webb is about -- even if I'd like to convince him that there's a better way to look at the affirmative action issue.

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Obama Waffling on Same-Sex Marriage: At first I thought he was simply trying to keep fence-sitters on the issue from fleeing to the GOP. But I thought of another possibility - Obama might perceive himself as being so politically toxic (Tea Party, Birthers) that he believes that his mild opposition would actually help the cause of same-sex marriage. The Justice Department put up only token opposition in the recent cases in Massachusetts in California, almost as if they were deliberately throwing the cases.

Eugene Robinson: Wheels within wheels within wheels? Nah. Remember Occam's Razor -- the simplest explanation is like the right one. I think that either the president genuinely believes that gay marriage is wrong or that he thinks endorsing the idea would damage him (and maybe the party) politically.

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Putting away childish things: One of the most moving lines from Obama's Inaugural address was that this is the time to put away childish things. Along with partisan bickering and the idea we can get something for nothing (never-ending war and no new taxes) one childish thing I would have liked to do away with is the media's need to have the President hold our hand every time something goes wrong. I say the media because I'm not sure the common American expects Obama to personally wrestle crotch-bombers to the ground or dive to the bottom of the gulf and turn a magic valve. It is enough that he sees the problem fairly quickly (which he actually did in both cases), put the best team on it (i.e. Gen Allen) and give them the resources to proceed. All of that actually happened in the gulf and I think the response was the best that could have been mustered after eight years of malignant neglect of our government.When will we, and especially the press, put away our childish need for a father figure who can solve all our problems as if life were an episode of a one hour TV drama?

Eugene Robinson: Probably never. We will, I think, become more accustomed to Obama's style as president. Just being honest, though, I do believe that the ability to play the father-figure role is a valuable talent for a president to have. I still remember Ronald Reagan -- whose policies I abhorred -- giving that short televised speech after the space shuttle disaster, the one (written by Peggy Noonan) that ended with the line from an obscure poem about how the astronauts had "slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God." It may look corny now, but it was perfect for the moment.

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Rangel breaking rules: Maybe he broke not for personal gain-- but he still broke the rules. Ethics rules. He did not report income on rental property. the fact that he has sense paid the taxes does not mean he did no break the rules. Of course it is not racist for you or anyone else to defend him, however I think that he should have taken the position of apologizing for breaking the rules, however unintentional. accept whatever reprimand, and then move on, showing the American people that no one is above the rules and that he has the integrity to admit error and rectify it. Instead it has now been blown out of proportion and will be used by Repubs. in the fall campaign as an example of how corrupt the Dem party is in Congress.

Eugene Robinson: But, as I said, we don't know the full story of what went on inside the committee.

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About Jim Webb: I gave money to his first Senate campaign, but after reading the WSJ op-ed, I sent an email to his office saying why I would have to think long and hard about giving him money again. What disappointed me is that Webb is a brilliant man and a fine writer and he is capable of making a very nuanced case for basing affirmative action on class, not race. But instead, the piece used language, like that cited by the previous poster, that had a very nativist tone to it--I could almost have been hearing Daniel Day Lewis as Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York as he denounced the immigrant Irish. I think that Webb's romantic attachment to his own Scots Irish ethnicity sometimes works against him. It sure did in that piece. By the way, his office never responded to my note, which was civil and detailed.

Eugene Robinson: Let me preface this by saying that I'm not a spokesman for the Jim Webb Campaign Committee and will be be first to criticize him when I think he's wrong. But here's why the language he used in that piece didn't offend me. As this becomes a country without a racial or ethnic majority -- as will happen in a few decades, and has already happened in Texas, California and other states -- I think it's inevitable that at least some white Americans have difficulty with the transition to just-another-minority status. Webb is a very good writer and I thought he did a good job of putting the Scots-Irish question out there -- and I think we're going to have to work through a lot of these questions of race, class and history by talking about them.

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Let Them Eat...: Hi Eugene -- Please give us, if you would, your take on the Michelle Obama Marie Antoinette non-scandal (my words). No one would begrudge the First Lady a trip with her children, but is it simply the optics that are wrong? Or is it simply summer and the media needs something else to do?

Eugene Robinson: I think this is easily the media's worst performance of the summer, and that's saying something. Is it a "controversy" that the First Lady of the United States takes a vacation with her daughter? No, it isn't. That's just mean.

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Can't wait for the Sports Metaphor that Mr. Gibb will be using to explain this: Have you read Robert Gibbs' walkback yet? It makes it all the more confusing. Why would Robert Gibbs say this to get flack from those offended while also not getting the support from those who agree since he does a quick walkback. Robert Gibbs is an odd duck. He is the only person I know who can take a rather simple issue and make it HARDER to understand with a sports metaphors. The man sure loves his sports metaphors. I've seen him use a sport metaphor to explain his sport metaphor. I honestly couldn't even remember what he was trying to explain.

Eugene Robinson: The whole episode would be called a "fumble." Or maybe an "error." Or even an "own goal."And with that, folks, the clock runs out on this week's contest. We'll take the field next week, same time, same stadium. See you then.


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