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Columns / GWEN'S TAKE

The Skeptics vs. the Cynics (and When it’s Tough to Make the Distinction)

Thoughts on President Obama, Eric Cantor, Jon Huntsman, and Al Gore.

photo of Gwen Ifill
June 24, 2011

I am a great champion of the notion that it helps to be skeptical but hurts to be cynical. Still, weeks like this one make it tough to distinguish between the two.

Because I strive to maintain my balance, I toss these examples over to you, dear readers:

BREAKING: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., walks out of Vice President Joe Biden’s budget talks.

 

“We've reached the point where the dynamic needs to change," Cantor said. "It is up to the president to come in and talk to the speaker.”

Hours later, we discover an interesting thing one can only assume Cantor already knew. House Speaker John Boehner had actually visited the White House the night before to chat the president up about the status of the negotiations.

Am I a skeptic or a cynic if I believe these two events are related and add up to less than the sum of their parts?

BREAKING: The administration announces it will release 30 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve because of market disruptions caused by the civil war in Libya.

Democrats and Republicans wondered at the timing. Gas prices have actually been declining recently, and the administration has previously resisted opening the reserve for anything short of natural disaster. But crude oil prices dipped after Thursday’s announcement.

Were lawmakers being skeptical or cynical about the decision? Was the Obama administration?

BREAKING: Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman announces he is running for president, weeks after he resigned from the Obama administration.

Former Obama White House adviser David Axelrod mocked Huntsman’s anti-Obama street cred, telling reporters that the former ambassador to China was once quite fond of Obama policies on the economy and health care. “That's politics,” Axelrod said. “He's a politician. And he sees an opportunity."

Huntsman denies that he supported Obama's domestic policy. But during his announcement speech this week, he staked out a middle ground in the race that had heretofore remained unoccupied. Obama is not the problem, he said. His policies are. “The question each of us wants the voters to answer is who will be the better president,” he declared, to modest applause. “Not who's the better American.”

Great lines from both men. Am I being a skeptic or a cynic here?

BREAKING: Former Vice President Al Gore chastises President Obama for dropping the ball on climate change.

This is one of those stories that are tough to tell in an “on-one-hand-on-the-other-hand-format.” So we took a stab at representing three points of view when we tackled the topic on the "PBS NewsHour" this week. We invited a disappointed environmentalist who agreed with Gore; another who thought Obama was handling things fine; and a climate skeptic who believes the science is wrong.

One would think we set out to make someone on every side of the issue unhappy. I believe we succeeded.

It was also a balancing act that risked falling into exactly the trap the former vice president laid in the article he wrote for Rolling Stone. Because although he did criticize the president for not pushing environmental issues strongly enough, he gave the news media a far tougher tongue-lashing for entertaining the climate skeptics at all. (Which, of course, we did.)

Who’s the cynic and who’s the skeptic here?

Before you decide in all three instances, I will share with you my general rule of thumb on these matters. Cynics believe they have already arrived at the answers to their questions; skeptics hold out the possibility that there are always more questions to be asked.

I ask questions for a living, so you know where I land.

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