Leave Van Jones Alone

What do the liberal Jones and conservative Virginia statehouse candidate Bob McDonnell have in common? Ideas—and that's costing them their careers.

09.08.09 7:20 AM ET

What do the liberal Jones and conservative Virginia statehouse candidate Bob McDonnell have in common? Ideas—and that's costing them their careers. Plus, Glenn Beck's next targets.

My guess is that Van Jones and Bob McDonnell aren't the closest of friends. One is an African-American activist from the progressive left, who's spent much of his adult life in inner-city Oakland fighting The Man; the other is a white middle-aged pro-life Catholic Republican, who has long represented The Man in the deep-red Sunbelt suburbs of Virginia. But I'd recommend that Jones and McDonnell get in touch. Over the past few weeks, both men have run into a media buzz-saw for the crime of daring to have had actual thoughts at some point in the distant past, rather than filling the space between their ears with poll-tested nothings. And while liberals are outraged about the right's jihad against Jones and conservatives insist that McDonnell is being crucified by the left-wing media elite, hardly anyone appreciates the pervasive—and nauseating—hypocrisy that has left American democracy at the mercy of a gang of self-policing, sanctimonious nerds.

By railroading the McDonnells and Joneses of the world out of public life, we're left with colorless numbskulls.

Until his resignation on Saturday, Van Jones served as a special advisor for green jobs, enterprise, and innovation at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, a little-known office that, as the name suggests, helps coordinate environmental policymaking efforts in the Executive Branch. At the CEQ, Jones answered to Nancy Sutley, who in turn answers to chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. In the White House pecking order, Jones was a small fry, who wasn't exactly sitting in on cabinet meetings. Yet Jones is also the best-selling author of The Green Collar Economy and a charismatic veteran of the environmental and civil rights movements, who tried to build alliances between white and black progressive activists in the name of a pro-growth, pro-jobs urban agenda. Indeed, Jones's gift for creating quirky coalitions led at least some to see him as a younger, more culturally-savvy version of the president himself. But while many on the left doubt whether Barack Obama is truly one of them, Jones has always made it clear that he is "down for the cause." And for conservative provocateur Glenn Beck, that was precisely the problem.

Big Fat Story: Who Will Be Glenn Beck's Next Targets?Late last month, Beck's Fox News program featured a beautifully produced segment, complete with haunting strains of piano music that drew heavily on a 2005 profile of Jones written by Eliza Strickland for the East Bay Express, an alternative city weekly. When you watch the Beck segment, you get the overwhelming impression that Jones is a gifted public performer, one who may well have been wasted in an obscure White House role. The segment is full of wild and strangely entertaining exaggerations, and it all but accuses Jones of being a secret Maoist radical. The truth, as Strickland reports, is rather more prosaic. Like Beck, Jones is a raconteur with a penchant for dramatizing things to comic effect. His early flirtation with extreme left-wing politics suggests the mild insecurity of a geeky youth who wanted to be taken seriously by his tougher, more formidable peers. Jones is in no sense a thug; even in his radical phase, he was at best "an internet thug," the kind who'd never hurt a fly but who talked a big game. Given his extraordinary intellect, Jones shrewdly decided that macho bluster about fighting The System was far less constructive than using his wit and charm to become part of and ultimately to reform The System. One can imagine an authentic Maoist radical condemning Jones as a sellout. It's easy to see how this might pose a problem for Jones; he seems to value the opinion of the most militant and thus most authentic voices, yet he sees their path as a dead end. And so he tries to win over all comers, from matronly white Republican Meg Whitman, who found him persuasively pro-business, as well as kids in the Oakland neighborhoods he's left behind, who want him to stay true to his roots. In the age of saturation news coverage, it's very hard for public personalities to carefully tailor their self-presentation to different audiences, which the rest of us do constantly. It's unfair. But unfortunately it's a fact of life.

Which leads me to Bob McDonnell, the GOP's gubernatorial candidate in Virginia. As you may have heard, McDonnell was cruising to victory over his lackluster Democratic opponent Creigh Deeds when the Washington Post unearthed his 1989 master's thesis. It turns out that McDonnell, a devout Catholic conservative, was, twenty years ago, a devout Catholic conservative, one who believed that mothers of young children should work in the home, that no-fault divorce was a danger to society, and that abortion should be strictly forbidden. The most explosive revelations, if you can call them that, relate to McDonnell's views on working mothers, views that McDonnell has since strongly repudiated. The tone of McDonnell's thesis suggests that he was a committed ideologue when he wrote it, not unlike Jones. And just as Jones moderated his views as he tried to build coalitions, McDonnell found that voters in suburban Virginia were not interested in his take on contraception and the right to privacy. Recognizing that the state’s voters have moved steadily to the left on social issues, McDonnell has focused his campaign on job creation. But Deeds, a dismal campaigner who's struggled to gain traction in a place that seemed to be heading in a strongly Democratic direction, has tried to keep the focus on McDonnell's social conservatism. Thanks to the thesis, Deeds now has a decent shot at doing just that. I'm reminded of Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas, in which the author argued that conservatives whip up furor over abortion in an effort to dupe working class voters into ignoring bread-and-butter issues. Deeds seems to be doing something like that to the more gullible members of Virginia's suburban middle class.

Notice that the liberals defending Van Jones aren't also rushing to defend Bob McDonnell. Meanwhile, Beck and his allies aren't accusing McDonnell of secretly harboring a sinister papist agenda that he'll impose on Virginians as soon as he comes to power. That's to be expected. What's depressing is that these tactics keep interesting oddballs out of elected office. Yes, Bob McDonnell's social views might be at odds with most suburbanites. But unlike George W. Bush, McDonnell clearly spent a great deal of time thinking seriously about these issues. While conservatives might object to Van Jones's love of government-driven green industrial policy, surely his work with inner-city communities should give him credibility that your typical affluent liberal lacks. By railroading the McDonnells and Joneses of the world out of public life, we're left with colorless numbskulls. Frankly, I resent it.

Reihan Salam is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the co-author of Grand New Party.