Eugene Robinson may be surrounded by the Beltway crowd in Washington, D.C., but it’s Key West where he and his artist wife Avis feel especially comfortable.
“We occasionally go to a restaurant on the beach. I walk a lot in Key West. We’ve been down so often now, we know people so we bump into people we know,” says Robinson, a Washington Post politics columnist who won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.
Robinson will be back in the Southernmost City this coming week. Monday at 11 a.m. at Key West High School, he’s the featured speaker at a rally for the Take Stock in Children student mentoring and scholarship program. At 6 p.m. the same day, he speaks at the Studios of Key West, 512 Eaton St., as part of the Friends of the Key West Library free lecture series.
These days, Robinson, a frequent guest on MSNBC political programs such as “The Rachel Maddow Show” and “Hardball with Chris Matthews” and NBC’s Sunday morning show “Meet the Press,” is focused more than ever on the presidency. He doesn’t like what he sees a month into Donald Trump’s term.
“I don’t believe we should grade presidents on a curve,” Robinson said Wednesday from D.C. before heading to a dental appointment. “I think we have a right to expect that any public official, they don’t have to be great orators but you think they could give a normal speech.”
He was referencing Trump’s address to Congress Tuesday night, which fellow liberal commentator Van Jones, a frequent CNN political guest and former adviser to President Obama on “green jobs,” said marked the moment when Trump “became president of the United States...”
“With all due respect to my good friend Van, he’s wrong,” Robinson said. “I did not think there was anything paradigm-shifting about that moment” when Trump spoke about the death of a Navy SEAL in a Yemen raid.
“I’m willing to be shown [Trump] has changed,” he said of the man whose statements many consider misogynist, racist and, often, outright lies. “I think the speech was all over the map. He’s going to cure drug addiction and crime? How do you take that seriously? You kind of don’t.”
Robinson came to know Key West at least a decade ago when Avis, who had an exhibition of her quilts and paintings at the Studios of Key West a few years ago and has another opening at the Studios in May, met Jacob Dekker at an art gallery in New York. Dekker is the partner of John Padget, a former Monroe County schools superintendent and a major force behind Take Stock in Children in the Keys.
“My wife is a big collector and she and Jacob both were essentially buying things from the same gallery in New York. Through the gallery owner, my wife met Jacob and through Jacob we met John. We’ve become very good friends,” Robinson said. “The relationship goes back a decade or more.”
“Turns out we were buying some artwork from a gallery in New York. Then we got to meet Avis and Eugene through them,” Padget said.
With Trump as president, the Post, Robinson’s newspaper since 1980, has adopted the slogan “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” The New York Times similarly has added the motto “Truth. Discover it with us.” They are responses to Trump’s repeated false statements and his constant criticism of some media outlets for reporting what he calls fake news.
Robinson says media criticism of the president falls squarely on Trump. His Feb. 27 column was titled “Does Trump know he’s president?”
“At the lunch with the television anchors [the day of Trump’s Tuesday speech], apparently he said we’ll do comprehensive immigration reform. He said, ‘Hey, maybe we should put that in the speech.’ But he didn’t put it in the speech. So if you don’t know whether to take what the president says seriously, you can’t take his aides seriously.”
“Particularly on the domestic front, whatever is coming out of the mouth of [Trump aides] Steven Bannon or Stephen Miller, these are people who don’t have experience in government and obviously don’t know how to draft an executive order,” Robinson said. “I’m projecting here a bit, but I wonder if we’ll see policies more grounded coming through down the road.”
“I think we in the media should take it as reminder of what our job is. Our job is not about access. It’s about accountability and holding officials accountable,” he said. “If this whole dust-up with the press is to remind us of our jobs, I say thank you. It’s completely crazy to pick a fight with the media like that.... In the end, we’re going to be there, and we’re going to be doing our job.”
When not on the job, he supports Avis’ art and always looks forward to his Key West visits. He’s asked what he especially likes about the city.
“We eat a lot at Cafe Sole because it’s near John’s and Jacob’s house and the hogfish is fabulous. Of course, we spend a lot of time at the Studios. We ride bikes. Hanging out is what I am trying to say.”
What’s he plan to talk about with the Take Stock kids Monday? (He’s previously addressed a Take Stock gathering at Marathon High School.)
“I’m just going to tell them my story, how I went from the segregated south to the Washington Post,” Robinson said.
Larry Kahn: 305-440-3218