The Tea with Robert Gibbs was very irenic, but in an ingratiating way, not a productive one. Too often, people look at our (allegedly) coarsening civil discourse and conclude stark differences are the cause (true) and, therefore, we ought to get rid of the “extremes” (not true). The tea yesterday is the kind of dialogue (used loosely) many of these people envision as ideal, but, from my perspective, it was almost completely devoid of content.
There was only one question that really prompted Gibbs to get excited: whether the position as press secretary was becoming obsolete. And even for that, his response was less profound than interestingly superficial- he gave us a short history of the office and some recent changes to it. The other questions were softballs usually asked with the tone of “explain why you agree with me” about Citizens United, social media, the disadvantages of new media, etc.
I’m not sure if it was more the nature of the audience or Gibbs himself, but he never left the level of moral platitudes in his responses- and no one pressed him for more. I wish I were faster with raising my hand because he said several things that made my head turn (apparently, no one else cared): he implied any corporate donation was bribery; he said, “Having a free press is good, but a press that reported the facts for us would be better”; and he airily dismissed Citizens United by effectively arguing that it hurts incumbents.
There were more, but how did we pass on by his “free press” comment so quickly? There are two possible interpretations of his comment: either we need a regulated press because the free press just isn’t cutting it; or the readers are too stupid to discern what is important or true from what they read (although, coming from a former Obama Administration official, the interpretation that Americans are too stupid to appreciate Obama’s genius might not be too far from what he meant…). Either way, there was something really significant behind his words! But no one called him on it because they were too busy shaking their heads in agreement, “Yes, man, those silly Americans, they just don’t get it.” (I was in the back, so I got a good feel for how the room was reacting).
Overall, the event proved my original contention that “a left-of-center speaker inherently cannot challenge a left-of-center campus…” This was partially because Gibbs rarely used facts or evidence to support his argument, but mostly because the audience let him do that because they agreed with his a priori assumptions. Disagree with Karl Rove all you want, but his speech was laden with facts supporting every statement he said. And very few students at UNC agreed with him at all. In the paper the next day, we were criticized in choosing softball questions ourselves, but at least we pressed him on Bush’s outrageous spending and the Tea Party- those were exceedingly difficult compared to the, “So why is Citizens United bad”-esque questions Gibbs received.
I could be wrong, but I’d be surprised if anyone left that room challenged in their own ideas. I doubt you’ll see much campus debate outside of this post on CRDaily. Having a figure like Gibbs come to campus is great, but we ought to at least leaven it with some intellectual diversity. Bring the occasional George Will, Charles Krauthammer, someone that, even as a conservative, would challenge all of us in our beliefs. That’s the whole point of a liberal arts university, isn’t it?