Oakland environmentalist Van Jones had a chance to make a real difference. As President Obama's green-jobs advisor, he was going to help the nation transition to a green-tech economy, while assisting millions of unemployed workers gain valuable new skills. But when he suddenly resigned last weekend it was clear that he had been caught up in an unfortunate series of events that also served as a stark example of the nation's increasingly ugly public discourse.
Jones couldn't have known it, but the beginning of the end to his short White House career took place nearly two months ago when a white Massachusetts cop arrested a black Harvard professor in his own home. Cambridge police Sergeant James Crowley put Henry Louis Gates Jr. in cuffs because he wrongly thought he was a burglar. Gates was quickly released and the city's mayor apologized profusely, but the incident instantly became a racial flashpoint.
The controversy intensified when the president said a few days later that police had acted "stupidly." Right-wingers immediately pounced on Obama's remarks, and leading the way was Fox News host Glenn Beck, an unhinged, far-right demagogue who regularly spews falsehoods and spins wild conspiracy theories. Beck quickly labeled the president a "racist," and claimed Obama harbored a "deep-seated hatred of white people."
In response, an Oakland liberal activist group, Color of Change, which Jones had helped launch but is no longer involved with, began a national advertising boycott of Beck's show. The boycott worked well - more than forty corporations pulled their ads. And so Beck and his far-right minions launched a counterattack, targeting Jones and using an East Bay Express cover story as ammunition.
The 2005 profile noted that after the Rodney King verdicts in the early 1990s, Jones said he considered himself "a communist." It was an off-hand remark that was apparently meant to convey how angry he was at the time. The story also noted that for a few years afterward, Jones was a member of Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement, or STORM, a group that dreamed of a multiracial socialist utopia. Although the Express article made it clear that Jones had outgrown his radical roots to become a national leader of a mainstream environmental movement, right-wingers claimed he was proof that Obama was operating some sort of shadow regime bent on turning America into a socialist country.
Beck and the conservative blogosphere then unearthed a YouTube video of a speech Jones gave earlier this year in Berkeley before joining the administration in which he called Republicans "assholes." Jones also calls himself an "asshole" in the video. By themselves, the remarks appeared to be no big deal, and after Jones quickly apologized, it looked for a moment as if the right-wing firestorm might fizzle.
But then bloggers discovered that in 2004 Jones had signed a petition that called for an investigation into whether the Bush administration had allowed the 9/11 terrorist attacks to happen in order to sway public opinion for a war against Iraq. Jones quickly said he didn't know what he had signed and said the petition didn't reflect his views then or now. But it was a no-win situation - either he was lying about not knowing what the petition said or the Yale law school grad had signed something without reading it first. Moreover, circumstances outside of Jones' control were about to overwhelm him.
Throughout the summer, Obama's approval numbers had been falling because of incessant right-wing attacks on the Democratic health-care proposal, including the absurdly bogus allegation that the plan included "death panels." Obama and the Democrats were unsuccessful in combating the falsehoods, in large part because the mainstream media failed miserably in pointing them out. But the damage had been done. And so when the president decided last week it was time to launch a full-court press for health-care reform, Jones realized that he had become too much of a distraction for the young, embattled administration.