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”).
When Robinette returned from the war in 1969, he moved in with his mother and got a job as a janitor on the overnight shift at a local chemical plant. That led to another janitorial job at a small radio station, where he changed the urinal cakes and occasionally filled in reading the weather report (he had been trained as a radio man in the Navy). He was twenty-six, scarred, and going nowhere fast. Soon, though, things began to change. Robinette bluffed his way into a job as a part-time reporter at a radio station in the small town of Houma. The station’s owner also had an unused vhf television license and wanted someone from his radio network to organize a news department for his start-up television station. Robinette lied about his experience and got the job (“I told him I had been a ‘news director’ in college,” recalls Robinette). At KHMA, Robinette was basically a one-man operation, shooting stories, editing film, and appearing on the air. His most memorable moment came when a set collapsed during one broadcast, pinning him to his desk while his camera guy was out getting coffee. “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe,” people on the street would whisper at him for months afterward, mimicking his distress on the air.
In less than a year, Robinette was recruited to wwl-tv in New Orleans as a reporter. There, while filling in as a temporary anchor (the regular anchor went on the air drunk and was fired), Robinette caught the eye of Sherlee Barish, a prominent television agent who happened to be in New Orleans. She arranged for Robinette to audition for jobs in major markets, and he got plum offers, including chances to anchor at flagship stations in Los Angeles and New York.
Less than three years earlier, he’d been cleaning urinals. Now, still shy of thirty, he was on the verge of TV-news stardom. But he turned them all down. “Barish was furious,” Robinette recalls with a laugh. “Swore she’d ruin me.”