Bombshell or Blip on the Screen

By Becky O’Malley
Thursday September 10, 2009 - 12:03:00 PM

A couple of weeks before Van Jones resigned his Washington job, I happened to have a casual conversation with an old friend about a media organization we’d both been instrumental in founding in the distant last millennium. He was complaining that the group had, rather soon after it began, turned into an arena for ambitious self-promoters instead of being the advocacy organization which its founders intended. Most of this happened in the 15 or so years when I was too preoccupied with earning a living to pay attention, but I believed my friend’s annoyed recital of pointless power struggles within the group, since anyone who’s ever been politically active knows that it happens all the time. 

Among the players he was kvetching about was Van Jones. 

On a Bay Area e-mail tree that I sometimes see, just after Jones’ resignation, most activists of my acquaintance were wringing their collective hands about it. One of them, however, a person who founded a pioneering green business before Van was even a young Yalie, noted that he was a pain in the neck to work with when he became a born-again eco-capitalist: evidently charming, bright and charismatic, but also arrogant and uncooperative. 

Anyone who reads Jones’ Wikipedia bio might wonder who vetted him for a high profile White House job. He started out as a typical Preachers’ Kid: a good student, conventional, an adept user of language, and yes, ambitious. Between twenty and forty, as many of his fellow PKs have been known to do, he cut loose in all kinds of dramatic and high profile ways. He called himself a small-c communist for a while, though years after that label had lost its shock value and the official party had self-destructed.  

Now, you can’t believe everything you read in a Wikipedia bio. (We have first-hand experience with that problem, since the entry for the Berkeley Daily Planet is being stalked by one “Dr. Mike” Harris of Sausalito, a card-carrying member of the lunatic fringe of supporters of right-wing Israeli politics. Every time someone corrects the misinformation he’s inserted into the entry, he changes it back.) So for all I know Glenn Beck and his ilk might be altering Van Jones’s story, but it seems clear that he’s been fairly rowdy from time to time.  

How about that petition he signed? Rabbi Michael Lerner told me that the circulated version, which he himself signed, was considerably milder than the one that appeared in print, to which the sponsors had added a lot of unsupportable accusations without the consent of the signers. It was bad judgment to sign even the original, for sure, but not the worst decision Jones has ever made. My own view has always been that signing petitions for anything except local ballot propositions and candidates is risky business, and that most petitions make very little difference anyhow, so the risk usually outweighs the benefit.  

The most curious aspect of the story is that it illustrates the way some members of the American public, left, right and center, have come to look on political events as if they were episodes on made-for-TV series about fictional people. What are we to make of the number of poll respondents on the left who don’t believe that planes crashed into the World Trade center eight years ago this week, good matches for those on the right who think Barack Obama was born in Kenya? It’s not Van Jones’ political correctness that is called into question by his seeming endorsement of the 9/11 doubters, it’s his good sense. But maybe he just wasn’t paying attention that day. 

It’s possible, as my hyper-critical leftist buddies have been quick to assert, that “Obama caved in to the right wing.” Last weekend I was at a nostalgic gathering of old radicals, alter kockers in training, who almost uniformly expressed deep disapproval over how Jones had been let go, sure that the Fox News crowd had gotten their way. Some people love to bring the bad news. 

But if you believe the word on the street in the Bay Area, it’s also possible that some folks in Washington were not unhappy to turn loose of Jones while blaming it on the right. It’s possible that some Br’er Rabbits in the White House were begging Glenn Beck not to throw them in that there briar patch when they actually wanted to get away from Van Jones themselves. Remember that he’s frequently described as “a gadfly,” and a gadfly has an unpleasant way of stinging whatever it lights on. He might have been driving the White House insiders crazy by this time.  

I’ve never met Van myself, or even heard him speak, but many reports from people I trust who have, except the two above, rave about his quick intelligence and his power to move audiences. For the Obama administration, though, that might not be the good news.  

I’m still chewing over my recent exposure to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Just as it was in the time of “the noblest Roman of them all,” politics is a curious mixture of idealism and personal ambition—there’s that A-word again. Even Van Jones’s biggest fans will admit that he is indeed ambitious, and likes to be the center of attention in whatever he does. Rumors among the devoted fans of the current West Wing reality show say the same thing about Rahm Emanuel. Maybe the stage there just wasn’t large enough for two tremendous egos.  

The old Russians used to say “if our little father the Tsar only knew about this, he wouldn’t allow it.” If my totally unsubstantiated hypothesis is true, and it really was a clash of ambitions, and if Obama knew about it, he should have stepped on both of them, but the man’s busy these days with a number of bigger problems. The republic will survive Van Jones’s resignation, and he’ll live to fight with characteristic panache on another day in another arena.