After They Walk: Eugene Robinson, the man with the pen

Courtesy of Steve Kagan
Eugene Robinson during his visit to the Stanford Lipsey Student Publications building in October. Buy this photo

BY JILLIAN BERMAN
Managing News Editor
Published March 29, 2010

ARLINGTON, Va. — University alum Eugene Robinson’s house was bustling on a humid afternoon late last summer. His nephew was relaxing on the couch, while his wife, Avis, and a friend were chatting and working in the kitchen. Like most in the Washington area in August, the household was preparing for a vacation.

But unlike many Northern Virginia residents, Robinson was also preparing for a television appearance. Later that evening, Robinson would be criticizing Sarah Palin’s approach to health care reform as a guest on MSNBC’s “Countdown with Keith Olbermann.”

Robinson, a regular guest on “Countdown,” is also a twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. He’s addressed a wide range of topics – from the recently passed health care bill to racial profiling. But Robinson wrote one set of columns that got him more attention than usual — his coverage of the 2008 presidential election for which he won the Pulitzer Prize, journalism’s most prestigious award.

“It was psychedelic, it really was,” Robinson said of winning the award in an interview last summer. “I never thought that a career was in any way invalidated if you didn’t have a Pulitzer because it’s like a crapshoot.”

Robinson said he was sitting with his wife on his patio when Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor of the Post called to tell him that the paper won a Pulitzer for 2008 for his columns.

As he sat on his back porch fiddling with small sticks that fell off the trees outside his home, Robinson described the moment when he found out he had won the prize, calling it “an out-of-body experience.” Robinson added that he was doubly lucky because he won the Pulitzer for covering a story with such huge historical implications.

“In quieter moments it felt like you were watching something really important,” Robinson said of covering the election. “You were learning a lot about the country and the country was learning a lot about itself. You almost couldn’t make this stuff up.”

“(The 2008 presidential election) was the best political story certainly I’ll ever cover, maybe the best story I’ll ever cover, and there were many stories I thought were huge and were hugely important,” he said.

In fact, Robinson began his career covering one of the most talked about stories of the 1970s. As a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, Robinson said he got a ticket to the “incredible” trial of Patty Hearst, the heiress of publishing millionaires, who was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army.

“I was the junior reporter on the Patty Hearst trial, which essentially meant I got to carry the handbag of the granddame Carolyn Ansbacker who was the Chronicle’s trial reporter,” Robinson said. “She was a great lady. She chain smoked unfiltered camels, I think they were.”

After covering city politics at the Chronicle for a few years, Robinson applied for a job at The Washington Post and received an unexpected call from the Post’s metro editor at the time.

“I got a phone call from someone who claimed to be Bob Woodward, and I almost didn’t believe it at first, but it was Bob Woodward," Robinson said.

Robinson cut his teeth at the Post covering the first term of Marion Barry, a figure so well-known in Washington that some still call him the city’s “mayor for life.”

Barry was elected mayor in 1978 in a three-way race and was only the second person to be elected to the position — Washington had been given the right from Congress to govern itself less than ten years earlier.

Barry went on to serve three consecutive terms as mayor and was reelected a fourth time, even after being arrested on cocaine charges.

Tom Sherwood, who co-authored “Dream City: Race, Power and the Decline of Washington D.C.,” said Robinson covered Barry during a time when residents had high hopes for the city’s future. Sherwood, the local political reporter for Washington’s NBC affiliate, said though the Post’s editorial board endorsed Barry, his relationship with the paper was fairly tense.

“(The Washington Post’s) editorial page is very influential on what happens — people follow it very closely,” he said. “But on the other hand people felt like The Washington Post and the business community did things irrespective of if they were helpful of the black community.”

Sherwood said this put Robinson in a tough position as the Post’s city hall reporter who also happened to be black. He said Robinson often faced criticism from both black and white readers who claimed he was being too friendly to the mayor or not friendly enough.

“He had to walk the tight rope between what community people felt about the news media and what he needed to report,” Sherwood said of Robinson.

Robinson described Barry as “a fascinating character,” and added that covering the mayor was a great job because his byline was often on the front page. But Robinson also said he could feel the “constant tension” between the newspaper and the Barry administration.

“This was a black government and The Washington Post was this kind of elite white institution and so I was kind of the ambassador from one group to the other in a sense,” he said. “(Barry) used the Post as sort of a foil and sometimes it could be a fairly contentious relationship.”

After spending a few years covering Barry, Robinson said he got “tricked” into becoming the paper’s city editor.

Robinson spent a few years “at the desk” and then finally got his escape. In 1988, Robinson and his family packed up and moved to Cambridge, Mass. for the academic year where he studied Latin American history and politics, as part of Harvard University’s Nieman Fellowship in Journalism.

During his time at Harvard, the position of South American bureau chief became available – Robinson took the job, and enrolled in what he called an “instant conversational Spanish course,” to get ready for the position.

Robinson moved to Buenos Aires and was responsible for covering all of South America for four years, an experience he called “life transforming.”

“Living overseas I really believe changes the way you see things in this country in that it exposes you to people and societies that have somewhat different ideas about things we take for granted,” he said.

Robinson stayed abroad in London for another two years and then returned to Washington to become editor of the Post’s Style section, where he stayed for six years.

“(Editing the Style section) was a great job because you got to run your own alternative newspaper within the newspaper,” Robinson said wearing gym shorts and a t-shirt to deal with the humid weather.

Robinson said it was working all over the world and in multiple sections of the Post that made it easy for him to transition to writing his column in 2005.

“I had thought for some time that it would be really interesting to do a column and I thought I could do it,” he said. “So when I started doing it, it just really felt — easy is not the right word — but it felt natural and it felt right.”

“I was happy to have started doing the column after having had all these other jobs and been all these other places,” he said. “And every time I sit down to write including this morning for tomorrow’s paper, I’m happy that I have — what am I saying — am I actually saying I’m happy that I’m old? Well kind of. But I’m happy that I had so many varied experiences so I don’t get stuck for something to say.”

According to Hiatt, the editorial page editor of the Post, Robinson’s wide range of experiences is only part of what he brings to the page.

“He has this great facility of making readers feel as if he’s talking to them, as if they know him and to know him is to like him,” Hiatt said. “He can take on the most serious issues, and he does so frequently, from torture to war to politics, but never loses that connection with his readers, including me, and never loses that sense that readers have of wanting to be part of Gene’s circle.”

But Hiatt, who also worked as a foreign correspondent when Robinson was foreign editor at the Post, added that Robinson’s vast experience doesn’t hurt either.

“He’s also a very good reporter and I think that’s a foundation for most really good columnists,” he said. “They know how to find things out that other people don’t know – they know how to ask the right questions that other people haven’t asked.”

Besides his editor, Robinson has another, more surprising fan at the Post’s editorial page: conservative columnist George Will. A few months after Robinson began writing his column in 2005, Will invited him to lunch to share some tricks of the trade. Over the meal, Will, who has had a column since 1974, told Robinson he doesn’t understand how one could live without a column, a sentiment Robinson didn’t understand at the time, but one he said he almost agrees with now.

“I still don’t think I’d ever say that, but I understand it now because something happens and you want to talk about it,” Robinson said. “That may be a natural human impulse given that there are about 8 gazillion blogs. But I have this incredibly valuable real estate twice a week to just spout off about what’s going on and explain to everybody how they ought to think about it.”

But before he was a nationally respected voice, Robinson was a student at the University. He came to Michigan from South Carolina intending to study architecture, but three weeks into his time at school he “stumbled in” to the Student Publications Building and began an illustrious career at The Michigan Daily, ultimately rising to become the paper’s co-editor in chief in 1973.

“It was a great time to be at Michigan and it was a great time to learn to do journalism because there was so much going on,” Robinson said of his time in Ann Arbor.

Jonathan Miller, a University alum who worked with Robinson at the Daily, said Robinson always maintained a “maturity” during his time at the paper amidst young journalists who could often be “very excitable.”

“In the early 1970s the campus was an extremely turbulent place,” Miller said. “The (Vietnam) war was at its height. He stepped into all of this and managed always to maintain a kind of sanity amidst all this madness.”

Robinson said the paper functioned just like professional papers at the time, with reporters and editors filing stories upstairs and unionized workers using hot type technology to put the pages together downstairs.

“When I came out of Michigan I certainly was not fully formed as a journalist,” he said. “Obviously there was a lot that I still had to learn, but I really felt that I had such a head start over any possible alternative. We critiqued each other pretty mercilessly in those days.”

In fact when the “great and grand editor of the Daily,” Marty Hirschman, criticized the structure of one of the stories Robinson wrote his freshman year, he penned a “very pompous and pretentious reply” to Hirschman.

“The tradition of doing good journalism there and being rigorous about it was very much alive and served me very well,” Robinson said.

Though Robinson classified his letter to Hirschman as pretentious, Miller, who remains close friends with Robinson, said he’s anything but.

“He’s a guy who’s always been able to talk to people from the highest to the lowest in society,” Miller said, adding that Robinson has “instant empathy.”

“He’s sort of a big, amusing man, with a great, global view on things,” he said.

Hiatt said Robinson’s personality also makes him an asset to the editorial page.

“What makes him so unusual and successful as a columnist also makes him wonderful as a friend and made him great as a colleague in the newsroom,” he said.