Daily Times Herald writer Jared Strong (right) and The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson delivered lectures to Iowa State University students Wednesday in Ames.
Daily Times Herald writer Jared Strong (right) and The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson delivered lectures to Iowa State University students Wednesday in Ames.
September 19, 2013


There's a tried-and-true crowd warmer out on the hustings of American politics: "The most frightening eight words you can hear from a stranger is 'I come from the government with good news.'"

Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist and MSNBC commentator Eugene Robinson brought his version of that to Ames Wednesday night for a Iowa State University lecture.

"I wish I came bearing better news, but I live in Washington," Robinson told an overflow crowd of about 800 people at the Memorial Union.

Robinson said he hasn't seen such a canyon-sized congressional partisan divide in more than 30 years with The Washington Post.

"The words 'Congress' and 'responsible' cannot be used in the same sentence," he said.

Robinson, who has been with The Post since 1980, delivered the Chamberlin Lecture, a signature event for the Greenlee School of Journalism sponsored by the Gene and Margy Chamberlin family, which has roots in Iowa and South Dakota journalism.

The school selected Carroll Daily Times Herald writer Jared Strong, a 2005 ISU graduate who has earned numerous national and state journalism awards, as a companion Chamberlin lecturer. Strong, a member of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council's executive committee, spoke to several classes and gatherings of aspiring journalists on the campus during the day - and introduced Robinson as the featured speaker.

Robinson won the Pulitzer for a series of columns on the 2008 campaign of President Barack Obama.

"He wrote elegantly about what the first African-American president meant to this country and to himself personally," Strong said. "And if you've seen him on MSNBC, you know he's a double-threat. He speaks elegantly, too."

At the University of Michigan, as a college student, Robinson initially sought to pursue a career in architecture but quickly learned he didn't have the design chops, Strong joked.

"He built a 3-foot bridge out of balsa wood for a class project once that was supposed to carry the weight of a big metal can of Hawaiian Punch," Strong said.

The end result of the attempt: "His bridge without the can weighed seven times that of the winning project, the winning bridge," Strong said. "And he says that most of his other models were always slightly askew and slathering in glue."

At the height of the Vietnam War Robinson walked into the student newsroom in Ann Arbor and launched a career that would take him from the San Francisco Chronicle to The Washington Post, from city halls to foreign correspondent assignments, and to the set of the modern arbiter of contemporary liberal America, MSNBC.

Robinson spent much of his lecture detailing his belief that Congress is mired in reckless partisan dysfunction - that the "spirit of common endeavor" is something of an endangered species on Capitol Hill, if not already dead and buried.

"There is less after-hours socializing and even contact" among members of Congress, he said.

That means walls go up that rarely, if ever, crack to allow serious work to occur for the American people.

"We can't even get our business done," Robinson said.

Specifically, Robinson said the tea party-led GOP strategy to attach riders de-funding the Affordable Care Act - federal health-care reform widely known as Obamacare - to government spending and federal-borrowing measures takes lawmakers and the nation to unknown destinations, with no clear path to restoring stability.

"The truly crazy thing is that the Republican Party doesn't want to go over this cliff," Robinson said.

Some of Robinson's other quick takes on politics and journalism:

- Had Mitt Romney been elected president he'd be facing some of the same problems as President Barack Obama with right-wing maneuvering in Congress, said the Washington Post columnist. Romney, a former Republican governor of Massachusetts, led as a centrist in that role, Robinson said.

- Legendary former Washington Post editor Benjamin Bradlee said "readers deserve one good shot at the facts." That said, "opinion-tainted" news is continuing as a business model because it is financially successful for its purveyors, Robinson said. He said a return to the journalism of previous centuries, with party-based newspapers and media organizations is likely.

Self-selecting viewers of Fox News and MSNBC often operate with "two whole different realities," Robinson said.

- Robinson doesn't expect Vice President Joe Biden to wage a "bitter-end" primary campaign if former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seeks the Democratic nomination for the presidency.

- The Washington Post columnist gives the edge to Hillary Clinton in a potential presidential race with Republican Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey. Clinton is much more of a known quantity, Robinson said.

"How's South Carolina going to take Chris Christie? I just don't know," said Robinson, a native of the Palmetto State who affected a "Jersey" accent to make his point.