Still, not everyone sees Robinette as a beneficial force in New Orleans these days. His once-warm relationship with Mayor Nagin has devolved to the point where Nagin will no longer return his calls (a common complaint among members of the New Orleans media). Robinette’s frequent excoriation of Nagin, who is black, and other local politicians have alienated many in the city’s African-American community. Robinette is clearly vexed by this disconnect with what is, after all, still the majority population in New Orleans. Robinette does get black callers and says he receives a lot of feedback from the African-American community about the show. Yet market surveys contradict this. “You know how big my listenership is in the black community?” he asked one day, before curling his hand into a circle. “Zero.”
Clancy DuBos, the political editor of Gambit, the city’s largest alternative newspaper, says Robinette’s difficulty is more a byproduct of the city’s larger racial division (which in many ways has been intensified by the stress of rebuilding after Katrina), than anything to do with his show. “It’s a natural tension between media and politicians in a town where the media is dominated by whites and politics is dominated by blacks,” says DuBos. Robinette estimates he’s done about thirty shows in just the last year aimed at addressing the city’s racial mistrust—“not just kumbaya, hand-holding talk either,” he says—and has conducted on-air roundtables with black political leaders to sort out differences of opinion. But he doesn’t think any of it has made an appreciable impact. “I’ve tried and tried to bridge that divide, but now I’m just tired. You want to say I’m a racist, go ahead. I know it’s not true.”
Robinette grew up on the bayous of southern Louisiana, the adopted son of an oil-rig worker and his wife. Until age thirteen, when his father died, his family lived in a camp behind a petroleum refinery near the town of Des Allemands (the movie critic Rex Reed also lived there for a time). In contrast to the stereotypical image a Cajun country upbringing might conjure, Robinette was not a rough-and-ready outdoorsman, but a kid with asthma who hated hunting or the idea of killing anything. Instead, he learned the piano and liked to draw. An indifferent student, Robinette washed out of college three times—he never got his degree—and was drafted into the military in 1965. He wound up a member of the so-called brown-water Navy that patrolled Vietnam’s waterways in small boats. “Did you ever see the movie Apocalypse Now? That was my boat,” says Robinette. (John Kerry, the Massachusetts senator and former Democratic presidential nominee, was also a “Riverine” in Vietnam, but, Robinette notes, “he had a bigger boat.”) The duty was notoriously hazardous. Robinette was the only survivor from his original crew, and was wounded twice. He spent months in the hospital recovering from shrapnel wounds he received when his boat was ambushed by enemy rocket fire.
As I spent time with Robinette and listened to his show, it became clear that Vietnam remains the defining moment of his life. Though he is low-key about it, it informs his views on everything from the torture of suspected terrorists (he went through the sere training that was the basis for the Bush administration’s enhanced interrogation program, and recalls being shown propaganda movies about how no Rockefeller had ever served in a war, then being dunked headfirst into a barrel of ice water); to the federal Department of Veterans Affairs (he thinks the VA hospital system is irretrievably broken and should be abolished in favor of sending wounded vets to the best hospitals in the country at taxpayer expense); to the conduct of warfare (he made headlines in 2006 for advocating the use of nuclear weapons to speed the end of the Iraq war, a stance he doesn’t apologize for. “The average American doesn’t want to know what war is about,” he says, with some heat. “They want to wave their little flags and cheer and then run the other way when the women and children start getting killed”).