SEE UPDATE BELOW
A couple days ago I ran a post defending Van Jones from some of the more absurd charges leveled at him by noted race-baiter Glenn Beck over the last month. Jones is not an “ex-con,” he’s not a communist, he’s not even a czar. He’s not, to pick just one of Beck’s darkly hinted smears, on a top-secret mission to commandeer the U.S. Treasury and dispense slavery reparations. He is, however, two things that scare the whitey tighties off of Beck and his tighty-whitey audience: black and liberal.
It was mostly a tempest in a teabag until the last couple of days, when Jones got tagged with a few things that could very well end up spelling the end of his career in the executive branch.
The first and less consequential is a video of Jones answering the question of why Republicans in Congress continually vote against clean energy as follows: “Because they’re assholes.” That is a) pretty funny and b) a little difficult to get worked up about. When he said those words, Jones was an activist speaking to an activist audience, not a government official. When a Republican vice president told a senior Democratic senator to “fuck himself“, the rightosphere responded with enthusiasm that bordered on tumescence. Republicans — not activists, but senior politicians — spent years cavalierly calling everyone to the left of Genghis Khan a traitor. Call the waahbulance.
Anyway, let’s face it, blocking progress on the signal challenges of our time for partisan political gain does kind of make you an asshole. Jones issued an apology anyway.
Yesterday brought a more disturbing discovery: that Jones had signed a Oct. 24, 2004, petition from the 9/11 Truth organization. The so-called “truthers” come in many varieties. At the far end are the loony tunes who believe the Bush administration rigged the whole thing using some combination of thermite bombs, missiles, and holograms. Ever so slightly less loony, though much more widely believed, is the notion that Bush officials knew the attack was coming and looked the other way. Not loony tunes at all — in fact shared by tens of millions of Americans — are concerns that warnings were insufficiently heeded, reaction to the event was riddled with incompetence, and official investigations have answered many questions poorly, if at all.
It was in this latter vein that the petition was written, with some political flourishes tossed in, reflecting the political context of the time. Many of the questions raised by the petition were banal, if anything, about topics addressed (adequately or not) in the official 9/11 commission report. What made it so toxic was a part of the preamble, which “calls for immediate public attention to unanswered questions that suggest that people within the current administration may indeed have deliberately allowed 9/11 to happen, perhaps as a pretext for war.”
That’s bona fide crazy town. Did all 100 of the signatories notice it? I have trouble believing they did, even in the angry panic that preceded the 2004 election. There are some fairly prominent names, members of 9/11 families, heads of NGOs, professors, authors– Paul Hawken and Richard Heinberg among others. People who have reputations to risk (alongside predictable cranks like Cynthia McKinney and Ralph Nader, of course). Were they mostly concerned with the unanswered questions or did they really want to associate with the notion that Bush officials knowingly let 3,000 people die? A source says Jones said he didn’t read the petition closely — thought it was just a petition to support the families’ questions — and I suspect that’s true for many of the signatories. In a released statement Jones disavowed it:
In recent days some in the news media have reported on past statements I made before I joined the administration — some of which were made years ago. If I have offended anyone with statements I made in the past, I apologize. As for the petition that was circulated today, I do not agree with this statement and it certainly does not reflect my views now or ever.
My work at the Council on Environmental Quality is entirely focused on one goal: building clean energy incentives which create 21st century jobs that improve energy efficiency and use renewable resources.
Paul Hawken also released a statement corroborating Jones take on it:
In the fall of 2004, I was approached by 911Truth.org to support the grieving families of the 9/11 tragedy. Family members who had lost a loved one, and many American citizens, felt that the 9/11 Commission had not fully explored key questions involving that fateful day.
My concern then and now was for the victims. I felt that a deeper inquiry into policies and security would be helpful to reach a fuller understanding of the cause of 9/11 and how to prevent future terrorist attacks.
I do not recollect any of the questions that are posed on the website, never saw the subsequent press release of Oct 26, 2004, and never signed such a statement. I was interested in questions, not blame; inquiry, not jumping to conclusions.
It is unfortunate that Van’s name has been used in this way as I know he would not knowingly endorse a statement that would place blame or create divisiveness.
That would probably be that, except: Today, it emerged that Jones was on the organizing committee of a 2002 march also geared at demanding an inquiry into 9/11– again, the document combines sensible questions and objections to the way the Bush administration used 9/11 … with some slightly crazy implications of conspiracy. The explanation’s likely the same — signing on before reading all the details — but in D.C., two is a trend.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was asked today if Jones still has the confidence of the president, and he basically refused to answer, saying only that Jones is “still employed at the White House.” That doesn’t bode well — even money has Jones out by the end of the day.
Is it just? Of course not. Jones is certainly guilty of poor judgment: As a lefty activist fighting a malign administration, he basically signed on to anything that came across his desk, without always reading closely or thinking it through. He was far, far from alone at that time. But he’s had nothing at all to do with the truthers outside of having his name on these documents. By no even mildly charitable interpretation is he “a truther” like the lazy-ass media is now saying.
Of course the right will offer no charity, and the media will echo whatever the right says. Politics ain’t beanbag.
Kate Sheppard observes that …
… when Jones joined the administration last March, many environmentalists worried they were losing their most charismatic and visible spokesman.
Instead of playing a public role in drumming up support for clean-energy polices—something he was extremely effective at—[Jones] is now a relatively low-level bureaucrat struggling to steer stimulus funding toward green-job programs. In all honesty, Glenn Beck may have more to worry about with Jones outside the White House than in it.
It may be true that Jones can be more effective on the outside, but this is about a lot more than him. It’s about whether an outspoken progressive can work in government. About whether the likes of Glenn Beck, a revanchist, fear-mongering huckster who would have no place in the public sphere of a sane country, can collect a scalp.
Next week Obama will give an address to school children, encouraging them to stay in school and study. In response to yet another outbreak of mendacious bullying, the administration just changed the wording on its press release. It was a gutless move, evincing the kind of news-cycle jumpiness the Obama team eschewed so well during the campaign. Dumping Van Jones would be the same kind of thing.
This is all about bitch-slap politics. If Jones drops out, think Beck or the right-wing slime industry will stop? Think they won’t keep going after Carol Browner, John Holdren, and the rest — twisting and attacking every word and gesture from the Obama administration? “Uncovering” people as wildly caricatured leftists? Faux-populist fear merchants are like sharks; they have to keep moving, keep eating. There’s no sating them. Letting Beck bag Jones would be like chum in the water.
Jones will end up on his feet and doing good in the world no matter what. But the resolution of this fight will tell us a great deal about the balance of power between the Obama administration and the toxic 25 percent. The wingnuts have an active propaganda network, including a devoted cable news channel, but Obama still has the trust of the American people and a popular agenda. He needs to get his mojo back.
UPDATE: Ben Smith of Politico reports that two more signatories to the petition — Rabbi Michael Lerner and historian Howard Zinn — also claim to have been misled, and to have signed onto something much narrower. Both claim never to have seen, and denounce, what ended up in the final press release.