Takeaway Lessons From The Van Jones Saga

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on September 8, 2009

Van Jones

After a few days of trying to deny the increasingly obvious, the White House conceded–as quietly as it possibly could over the long Labor Day weekend–that Van Jones needed to go spend more time with his family. While Jones may be little remembered, the lessons that stem from the saga surrounding his foray into public life are worth contemplating.

For one thing, as the Wall Street Journal points out, while President Obama has sought to present himself as a politician of the center, and while Jones has met the same fate Jeremiah Wright and William Ayers met–i.e., thrown under the bus when his presence became politically inconvenient–the fact remains that his presence in the White House, however brief it was, served to undercut the Administration’s efforts to capture the political center. While Jones was not vetted as closely as he could have been (remember how much grief John McCain got for the vetting process that led to the selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate? Want to bet that Barack Obama won’t get nearly as much grief over Van Jones?), the fact remains that he had powerful patrons that helped push him into government service:

. . . Mr. Jones wasn’t some unknown crazy who insinuated himself with the Obama crowd under false pretenses. He has been a leading young light of the left-wing political movement for many years. His 2008 book—”The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems”—includes a foreword from Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and was praised across the liberal establishment.

Mr. Jones was a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, which was established, funded and celebrated as the new intellectual vanguard of the Democratic Party. The center’s president is John Podesta, who was co-chair of Mr. Obama’s transition team and thus played a major role in recommending appointees throughout the Administration. The ascent of Mr. Jones within the liberal intelligentsia shows how much the Democratic Party has moved left since its “New Democrat” triangulation of the Clinton years.

So, Jones did not arrive out of nowhere to land a job in the Obama Administration. His entrée into the Administration came thanks to some very significant backing that had a hand in shaping the transition to the Obama Administration. Mainstream figures helped propel Jones into the position he held in the Administration.

One would therefore think that Jones’s association with the “truther” movement would have merited some significant media attention from the outset of the controversy that led to Jones’s resignation. Jones’s association reflected badly not only on him, but on all of those people who vouched for Jones and worked to get him a place at the table in the Obama Administration. His excuse that he did not closely examine the substance of the petition he signed–a petition endorsing the idea that “people within the [Bush] administration may indeed have deliberately allowed 9/11 to happen, perhaps as a pretext for war,”–is laughable; if it is to be believed, Jones is not a conspiracy theorist, just someone incompetent enough to sign just about any document, no matter how absurd that document’s assertions. But as Byron York writes, it was exceedingly difficult to get the press to pay any kind of attention to the Jones saga until quite late in the game.

Why the media tried to refrain from paying attention to the Jones saga is a mystery. Republicans are regularly lectured on the need to control and isolate fringe elements on the Right; the rationale being that the Right will start winning elections again at some point, and one does not want its fringe elements near the levers of power. I have no problem arguing that fringe elements ought to be kept from hijacking the Right, and that the Right’s intellectual foundations need to be preserved and enhanced so as to marginalize the fringe elements. But doesn’t the Left have a similar obligation to police its own side? Isn’t that obligation especially important, given that the Left currently is in power? Arianna Huffington doesn’t think so, but then, Arianna Huffington sold out her principles long ago so that she could achieve influence, power, and celebrity status. The fate of the Republic requires less craven thinking, which means that it would be nice if someone on the Left acknowledged that however much Van Jones may have been liked on the Left, his poor judgment made it impossible to keep him in a position of power, authority, and responsibility in the Obama Administration.

Some have argued that Jones was targeted for his race. I suppose there is no way to disabuse many of those who believe that race was behind Jones’s ouster from their notions, but I invite them to consider the following thought experiment: Imagine that a Republican President brought in a white person to serve in the White House as a staff member of some import. Imagine further that said staffer put his/her name on a petition circulated by, say, some neo-Nazi site. Imagine still further that said petition alleged . . . well . . . all of the insane and hateful things that Nazis have been known to allege in the past. Think this white staffer would be long for the political world once this news came out?

Neither do I. And while one may view Nazis as more vile and reprehensible than “truthers,” the fact is that the latter are plenty vile and reprehensible. Why should anyone who signs on to their silly ideas–whether by accident, or on purpose–get a pass?

Van Jones got his job through mainstream elements in the Democratic party, despite an affiliation that should have had him laughed out of polite society. The press sought to avoid coverage of the Jones story for as long as possible, and many on the Left continue to try to cover for Jones. Want a takeaway lesson from all of this? Here it is: It’s reassuring to see that Jones lost his job. But the amount of ambivalence that has gone into finding what should be plenty obvious to all–that Jones was and is hardly a model public figure–shows that we still have a lot of maturing to do as a political society. Casting Van Jones out should have been an easy-as-pie call, but for some reason, his defenders decided to make the process harder than it should have been by trying to ignore his story, and then, trying to defend the indefensible.

Read more at Pejman Yousefzadeh’s blog.

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