Eugene Robinson: Not Too Smart to Smile

Reared in the Jim Crow South, the Pulitzer-Prize winning writer has always believed “it’s just as well to laugh.”

Reared in the Jim Crow South, the Pulitzer-Prize winning writer has always believed “it’s just as well to laugh.”

By Helen Mondloch
Photos by Seth Freeman

Eugene Robinson

In his fourth-floor office at the Washington Post Building, Eugene Robinson is surrounded by books and papers piled high. A computer screen reveals a half-written column that will appear on tomorrow’s Op-Ed page, a reader-friendly dissection of the latest battle between Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Tucked among the teeming bookshelves is a telling artifact—a piece of paper, perched on its own fold, displaying an image that immediately catches the eye. It is a mug shot of a lady dressed in a lacy Victorian blouse, adorned by an elegant broach, with her hair pinned up in a bun. She is doing something you might not expect from her: flipping you the bird.

Robinson received the picture in the mail about a year ago. He chuckles as he ponders it from his desk chair: “It could be photo-shopped, but it could be her [the sender]—I don’t know. There was nothing else in the envelope,” the journalist muses.

Perhaps the sender is the same woman from New York who frequently used to call the office on weekends and fill his voicemail with “screams” (beginning with, “You liberals!”). Sometimes, when she got tired of screaming, says Robinson, she would hold the receiver up to Rush Limbaugh’s radio program and let the vociferous right-wing commentator do the rest. A male caller from San Diego still leaves angry rants on his answering machine three or four times a week, says the columnist—and these are just the tip of the adversarial iceberg.

But the legions of detractors are offset by those who rank Eugene Robinson as one of America’s most distinguished journalists—including the executors of the field’s most coveted honor, the Pulitzer Prize, awarded to him in 2009 for commentary during the 2008 presidential campaign. The award cited a series of “eloquent columns … that focus on the election of the first African-American president, showcasing graceful writing and grasp of the larger historic picture.” A 30-year veteran of news and media, Robinson says that winning the award was simply “an out-of-body experience.” For an African-American with vivid memories of growing up in the racially divided South, the chance to cover Obama’s rise to the presidency was itself a breathtaking privilege that, even for Robinson, sometimes defied words.

At 57, Robinson is a slender man whose dark-frame glasses and close-cropped facial hair give him a professorial aura, one that is enhanced by his baritone voice and the fact that he just knows so much about everything. His sophistication is somehow eclectic, like his choice of clothes—a white shirt and burgundy tie, worn with close-fitting jeans and loafers. But if at first glance he seems too smart to be living in the real world. Glance again. Whether he is talking one on one, before a live audience, or into the cameras at MSNBC or C-SPAN, Robinson is plainspoken and real, his words punctuated by abundant bursts of warm laughter.

The same tang of humanity permeates Robinson’s writings, which take readers on a thought-provoking journey through history and the pressing issues confronting 21st-century America and the world beyond. Love his views or hate them, he helps connect the dots of a complex universe in ways that might awaken your inner activist.

Complicated road trips and other memories

In his first of three books, a 1999 memoir titled, “Coal to Cream: A Black Man’s Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race,” Robinson recounts with characteristic nuance the experience of growing up in Orangeburg, S.C., during the “last throes” of Jim Crow. As he grew, so did his awareness of the myriad indignities imposed on members of his race. He recalls that while his parents could afford to send him to a white orthodontist to correct the problem of “really buck teeth,” he did not have the privilege of sitting in the doctor’s waiting room. He waited instead in a private office, oblivious for years as to the reason why.

Likewise telling are the writer’s recollections of his family’s road trips. When setting out for a long drive to visit relatives in Michigan, his parents would plan the trip’s every detail—including a stay at the same “colored” hotel along the way—and would pack the car with so many provisions that he and his younger sister barely fit inside the vehicle. Such measures, he would later learn, were the norm for “prudent black families driving through the segregated South.” He notes that “… many of those roadside diners would have refused our business if we’d been naïve or foolhardy enough to stop and ask … ” He also recalls the exhilaration of ritual stops at a playground in Columbus; the privilege of playing on decent equipment was denied him back in Orangeburg, where the well-maintained city playground was designated “whites-only.” In typical arresting prose, Robinson reflects on his enslaved ancestors’ escape journey across the Ohio River, noting that “now, more than a hundred years later, crossing the Ohio meant for a young black boy that soon he would reach a playground where he could climb and slide, where he could swing so high that it felt like he could almost stretch out his toes and reach the sky.”

Despite such poignant yearnings, Robinson often describes his childhood as content, even “idyllic.” As the home of two historic black colleges—South Carolina State College (now SCSU) and Claflin College—Orangeburg fostered an enclave of black intellectuals who placed a high premium on hard work and academic achievement, a place where young Eugene and his peers could thrive even in the face of heartless discrimination. His mother was head librarian at Claflin, and his father held a law degree. Orangeburg itself boasted more doctorate degrees among blacks per capita than any other American city.

As a teenager, Robinson joined about a half-dozen other black students to help break the racial barrier at previously all-white Orangeburg High School. A watershed event for him—one that provided a dramatic wake-up call about racial injustice and the first impetus of his writing career—was the Orangeburg Massacre of 1968. After a days-long protest outside a segregated bowling alley, police fired gunshots into the crowd of demonstrators, killing three unarmed black students and injuring 27 others. The tragedy took place within a short distance of Robinson’s home.
Over the years, Robinson would reflect on the Orangeburg Massacre many times—once in a stirring column side-lighting the Democratic primary debate that was held on the campus of SCSU in 2007. Robinson would write, “For me, coming home to cover the debate was one of those time-warp experiences that leave you awestruck.”

At the University of Michigan, Robinson started out as a “particularly lousy architecture student.” After he wrote an essay on the Orangeburg Massacre and entered it in a writing contest—winning $200—he was instantly “hooked” on writing, switched to journalism, and later became the first black co-editor of the school’s newspaper.

After graduating he spent several years writing for the San Francisco Chronicle before moving to Arlington and embarking on a long and varied career at the Washington Post, starting in 1980. He began as a city hall reporter, covering the never-a-dull-moment reign of Mayor Marion Barry, before getting promoted to a number of editorial positions, eventually becoming an editor of Style. In between he took sabbatical to study as a Neiman Fellow at Harvard, then he served in foreign correspondence in South America and London. Robinson’s travels inspired his first book and also his second—“Last Dance in Havana,” a firsthand exploration of Cuba’s underground music culture and its remarkable saving graces.
Robinson’s most notable stint, of course—earning him both fans and brazen critics —is the six years he has devoted to cranking out opinion columns and traversing the political air waves.

Syndicated soapbox

Eugene Robinson at work

Asked how he manages to stay on the cutting edge of so many issues, his twice-weekly columns probing everything from foreign policy to economics to homegrown politics and more—with frequent trajectories into historical undergirds—Robinson simply says, “I’m really happy I didn’t become a columnist till I was 50-years old.”

Of course, a columnist’s success transcends knowledge, experience and the knack of a wordsmith. Robinson is not only a master of rhetoric; he’s an artful, passionate truth-monger.

Perhaps his artistic sensibilities have been heightened by Avis Robinson, his wife of 33 years (and the mother of his two adult sons, Aaron and Lowell), herself an artist. Moreover, his mentors include not just the “tremendous writers” surrounding him for the past 30 years but, interestingly, a former photography editor at the Post, Joe Elbert. “I actually think about writing in Elbert’s visual terms,” says the columnist. “He had this push-pull idea—going from a 35,000-foot altitude ‘big-picture’ to close-up detail.”

The push-pull model brings to mind a positive tension ubiquitous in Robinson’s articles. In one instant, he is capturing the national debate on health-care reform by hovering over scenes of jeering protestors; in the next, he deadpans on a smiling Virginia Democrat who declares, “Years from now, we’re all going to look back and say that this was one of the days when we were worth a damn.” Elsewhere he shifts from a young man’s searing memory of deadly shootings in Orangeburg, 1968, to the excitement of a national political event—and so on, compelling his reader with all the power of an amazing picture.

Robinson’s technique also involves telling startling truths as he parses and probes the different sides of an argument. He often finds something to praise even in those with whom he has major beefs. Take, for instance, a column he wrote right after President George W. Bush left office.

Referring to the president’s last news conference, Robinson remarked that Bush “spent surprisingly little time on his actual achievements.” He went on with, “Yes, I said achievements.” (These included, in the columnist’s view, Bush’s efforts to combat AIDS and even some of his initiatives on immigration.) Conversely, Robinson doesn’t hesitate to call out President Obama when he sees the need. This is in keeping with a pledge he made in his column on November 6, 2008, titled, “Morning in America,” the final piece in his Pulitzer Prize-winning series. After declaring Obama’s election victory a “gesture of recognition and acceptance for African-Americans”—one that the writer confesses brought him to tears more than once—Robinson peered into the future: “I’ll disagree with some of his decisions, I’ll consider some of his public statements mere double talk, and I’ll criticize his questionable appointments. My job will be to hold him accountable, just like any president, and I intend to do my job.”

Robinson has done just that, especially in response to some of the president’s foreign policy decisions. In June, he recoiled after Obama’s prime-time speech about a planned military withdrawal from Afghanistan, a plan he charged would bring troops home “far too slowly” considering the dubious benefits and inevitable costs. After quoting a string of “mellifluous phrases” in the president’s speech, Robinson quipped, “If you have any idea what this means, please let me know.”

In dissecting both foreign and domestic policy, telling the truth often involves debunking common misconceptions. Robinson has done so repeatedly when examining health-care reform, arguing that those who press for repeal based on clamorous claims of popular opposition and high costs have engaged in “intellectual distortion.” He cites evidence—a close reading of polls and Congressional Budget Office figures, the same data his opponents have grossly oversimplified, he says—to show, for starters, that the majority of Americans disgruntled with the new law “complain not that it went too far but that it didn’t go far enough.”

Paradoxically, perhaps, one of Robinson’s greatest assets as a commentator is his restraint. He is great at letting an argument speak for itself and refraining from the vitriol so common in today’s media. His “Southern manners,” as his wife calls them, are regularly displayed on shows like Chris Matthews’ “Hardball.” Whether sparring with Liz Cheney about “enhanced interrogation techniques” (he prefers the term “torture”), or with conservative commentator Pat Buchanan about Sonya Sotomayer’s high court qualifications (Buchanan argued she had none), Robinson keeps his cool, doesn’t interrupt, speaks in the same reasonable adult voice he uses in his columns.

Not that he always holds back. He just saves his most incisive words for circumstances that are truly warranting. In one column he called Sarah Palin “one of the most unfortunate unintended consequences of social networking.” And don’t get him started on Glenn Beck, a “puffed-up blabbermouth” whose “Restoring Honor” rally was “an exercise in self-aggrandizement on a Napoleonic scale.”

Even Robinson’s toughest critics could hardly blame his indignation considering Beck’s boast that his rally—on the anniversary of the March on Washington—would “reclaim the civil rights movement.”

Redefining “black”

When it comes to the history and demographics of the African-American community, few scholars match Robinson’s expertise or passionate desire to bring Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream to full fruition. Robinson’s 2010 book, “Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America,” has been called a compelling and groundbreaking chronicle. He presents a new paradigm for looking at black America, arguing it has now splintered into four groups: a “mainstream, middle-class majority with full ownership in the American dream”; a small but powerful “Transcendent elite”; the “Emergent,” made up of recent immigrants and those of mixed race; and a “large Abandoned minority,” whose prospects for advancement have grown increasingly bleak in a nation of outsourced jobs. While Robinson’s main objective is to shine light on truth, his hope is also to spearhead reform: “I believe the problem of the 21st century is the problem of the Abandoned. The longer we wait to solve it, the harder it will be to even know where to begin.”

At last year’s Texas Book Festival Robinson expounded “Disintegration” before a captive audience. One “admirer” inquired about his “bemused take” on the world. Robinson replied, “It comes from my grandmother, Sadie Smith … She used to say, ‘Well, just as well to laugh as to cry.’”