News From Terre Haute, Indiana

October 17, 2010

MARK BENNETT: Pulitzer Prize winning columnist to speak at ISU

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

---- — Slogans are compact enough to find a spot in the minds of busy people. Detailed and unjaded explanations often require extra space and time.

Popular or not, the latter comprises Eugene Robinson’s job. He peels away the rhetoric surrounding a topic and illuminates realities as a Washington Post columnist. Robinson analyzed the 2008 presidential campaign so well he received the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary last year.

In the midst of another election season — this one, a battle for control of Congress and several state governors’ seats — such a voice of seasoned reason gives people the chance to rethink, if they’re willing.

An August column by Robinson, who will speak next month at Indiana State University, is a good example.

Acknowledging, right at the beginning, that the piece was “a radical break from journalistic convention,” he proceeded to explain that President Obama “is on a genuine winning streak.” Robinson pointed out that Obama’s goal to bring U.S. combat forces home from Iraq was met ahead of schedule (while also listing the lingering thorny complexities of that long war); that General Motors’ financial recovery was under way and it had begun to repay its federal bailout; the BP oil spill had been contained, and the company put up a $20-billion compensation guarantee; and that the president clarified during the mosque-at-Ground-Zero debate that America’s “fight is against terrorists, not against Islam itself.”

Yet, Robinson understands the wave of dissatisfaction pervading the 2010 campaign. Though Obama said in his election night speech that the problems facing the country — including two wars, the Great Recession — might take more than four years to mend, people are still hurting in this “jobless recovery.”

“He was very clear, absolutely, that this is a long-term project,” Robinson said in a telephone interview last week. “But people are impatient, and you can understand why, when unemployment is 9.6 percent [nationally, and 10.1 percent in Indiana].”

Dissatisfaction isn’t a recent campaign phenomenon. It flared in 2006, when Americans voted out a 12-year-long Republican majority in Congress. It continued in 2008, when “the swing was completed to the Democratic side,” as Robinson put it. Two years later, the Democrats and some long-serving Republicans are feeling the unrest through the Tea Party protests.

“I think this volatility is a reflection of the fact that what is really bothering people, what is really wrong with the economy are structural things that are, indeed, going to take some time to fix — easy to appreciate, if you have a job,” Robinson said.

As a result, the Republicans could regain Congress, but also emerge quite changed. Some victories by Tea Party-favored candidates in the primaries over established Republicans have forced the party to adjust and accept unorthodox nominees, such as Christine O’Donnell in the race for the U.S. Senate seat in Delaware.

“As for the Republicans, the Tea Party has had a huge impact,” Robinson said, “but it’s basically trying to smooth out the edges of the less experienced, and in some cases more extreme Tea Party candidates who have a habit of saying things that are perceived as outrageous or, in some cases, kind of dumb.”

O’Donnell, the Republican nominee, upset GOP opponent and former Delaware Gov. Mike Castle in last month’s primary, but trails Democrat Chris Coons in the general election polls. She’s received notoriety for telling voters in a campaign ad that she’s “not a witch,” after conceding she’d “dabbled” in witchcraft as a youth. O’Donnell’s deficit in the polls, with just a couple weeks left before the Nov. 2 election, makes her a longshot to win, Robinson predicted.

Another factor in some of the November contests could be the turnout, and Robinson speculated last week that Obama’s political strength could be tested by his ability to encourage African-Americans to vote this time. Robinson, whose book “Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America” was released this month, emphasized that sector of the population is “no longer one-size-fits-all” and is more economically, socially and culturally diverse. But its support for Obama, the nation’s first black president, is an overwhelming 87 percent, according to a Gallup survey quoted in the Washington Post.

Obama’s overall approval rating is 46 percent, similar to that of presidents Reagan and Clinton two years into their first terms.

More so now than in 1994 or 1986, many Americans choose to receive their political information from sources that openly reflect their opinions, rather than traditional news outlets that strive to be unbiased.

“Look at cable television and look at what works,” Robinson said. “Fox News is by far the leader, and it usually leans to the right. MSNBC has gone from being the number 4 cable network to being the number 2 cable network in prime time, and in prime time it typically leans to the left. And CNN, which has made a point of trying to play it down the middle, is having all sorts of ratings problems. So, at least in that medium, preaching to the choir really does work.”

In an atmosphere where network pundits host rallies on the Washington mall, a newspaper columnist such as Robinson (who frequently appears on MSNBC) finds himself or herself peeling away the rhetoric. When asked if he spends an increasing amount of time re-explaining an issue that’s been convoluted on cable TV or the Internet, Robinson answered, “Oh, yeah. Yes, I do, but I guess that’s in part what we’re here for.

“But I do feel that a certain inaccurate or just plain factually wrong view of an issue or an event can take hold,” he added. “And once it takes hold, it can be really difficult to kind of convince people otherwise. But I think that’s just a fact of the media world in which we live right now.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or