Glenn Beck Is Still Smearing Van Jones, Even After Jones Takes High Road Preaching 'Love' for Fox Host
The following is an adapted excerpt from Alexander Zaitchik's forthcoming book, Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance (Wiley, 2010).
Last Friday, the environmental activist Van Jones re-emerged on the public square, ending a six-month self-imposed gag order. For the first time since resigning from the White House in September, Jones was heard chatting with reporters and seen flashing his trademark easy smile.
Jones' rollout was marked by a sense of triumph, and Obama's former green jobs czar had good reason to grin. The controversy that led to his temporary withdrawal from public life had merely forced Jones to switch tracks, but did not appear to have reduced his speed. He rejoins the national energy discussion clasped as tightly as ever to the bosom of the progressive establishment, and begins his post-White House career with twin fellowships at Princeton University and the Center for American Progress.
One detail of Jones' return drew the most attention. It was not the prestige of his new posts. Nor was it his Image Award from the NAACP. Rather, it was his Christian air-kiss to Glenn Beck, who famously hounded Jones last summer during his final weeks working in the White House Council on Environmental Quality. At the close of his speech last Friday to the NAACP, Jones directly addressed his serial-lying Fox News antagonist for the first time.
"To my fellow countryman, Mr. Glenn Beck, I see you and I love you, brother," Jones said. "I love you, and you cannot do anything about it. Let's be one country. Let's get the job done."
Beck's response the following Monday made it clear that the host is not and never has been interested in any "one country" that includes the likes of Van Jones. If Jones had spent the last six months imagining a new dialogue with Beck and his Tea Party followers—perhaps one based on a shared concern over national and personal debt and America's attenuated manufacturing base—Beck obviously had not. At the first opportunity, Beck returned to the lies that he mouthed without cease the previous summer. In his response to Jones' olive branch, Beck tartly declared, in the face of all available evidence, "You, sir, are a self-avowed communist."
Though a lie, this charge was actually an improvement over the original lie with which Beck launched his crusade against Jones (and, by extension, Barack Obama). Last summer, Beck called Jones both a communist and a black nationalist, one pushing a green jobs agenda that was nothing but a stealth form of "reparations."
Here's how Beck initiated his sustained attack on Jones during the July 23 edition of the Glenn Beck Program:
[Obama's] new science czar, what is this guy's first name, Jones? Van Jones. Van Jones is a guy that was all caught up in the Rodney King trial and he was actually arrested. He was a radical communist. He hasn't shed that. He's still a radical. He is still a black nationalist. He is also now your green job czar. . . . Your country is being hijacked. They are using things like green jobs as a front. They are using health care as a front. In the context of Obama-style reparations, that's what they're doing. [Jones] is yet another community organizer. This is yet another black nationalist in the same way that Reverend Jeremiah Wright is a black nationalist. . . . America, you need to wake up, because this country is being transformed. It is way beyond socialism. It is into black nationalism.
Even by Beck's filthy standards, this tack represented an audacious leap. In effect, he was telling his listeners that they were not only in danger of losing "their" country, but that they were on the verge of becoming white chattel. One day, a Yale-educated lawyer like Jones is working in the office of the Council on Environmental Quality; the next day, Old Glory is drained of red, white, and blue and is retrofitted like some energy-inefficient office park with red, black, and green.
From July 23 to September 5 of last year, Beck used much of his four hours of daily national airtime as an anvil on which to pound away at Van Jones. Throughout the campaign he crudely sought to blend the activist's face into several other themes that had already been cultivated as intertwined bugaboos in the conservative mind: Barack Obama, Jeremiah Wright, black nationalism, revolutionary communism, climate change policy, "street" community organizing, and the very ideas of social and economic justice.
Only on AM radio and Fox News could this effort not only go unchallenged, but actually gain traction. For years, Jones had been making his name on the cutting-edge of capitalism, famous for looking not back to Beck's favorite century—the eighteenth—but forward to the twenty-second. Whatever stale slogans Jones once uttered as a younger man, anyone who followed the debates over energy and environment with even one eye half-open understood that in 2009 Jones was a darling of Silicon Valley and a gifted builder of coalitions and consensus.
It would be an accurate but meaningless understatement to say that Beck has never been in command of the facts when it comes to Van Jones. Facts were always completely beside the point. There was a very specific purpose to Beck's first wild attack on Obama's green jobs czar, a purpose that had nothing to do with Jones' actual record, or what that record might say about the president. The real target was the Democrats' environmental agenda, centered on a miserable piece of legislation known as cap-and-trade.
It was a man named Phil Kerpen, not Glenn Beck, who decided Jones would make a fine piñata. Along with coordinating the legislative agenda for Americans for Prosperity, a Koch-funded policy shop, Kerpen produces a daily podcast called Washington Update and writes regularly for a number of conservative outlets such as Fox Forum and the National Review Online. He's also a frequent guest on Glenn Beck.
Kerpen's top legislative priority for Summer 2009 was defeating the Democrats' cap-and-trade bill. In this he had no shortage of media allies. Throughout the spring and into summer, conservative commentators routinely trashed the legislation, which they dubbed "crap and tax." But it was always overshadowed by the debate over health-care reform. Because electric bills are less personal than doctor's visits, Kerpen was faced with a challenge: How to maintain the level of conservative awareness about and opposition to the bill and other pieces of the White House environmental agenda? How to divert attention from the fact that conservatives had no positive agenda of their own? Kerpen was mulling over this question in early July when he found a newspaper profile of Obama's young green jobs czar, Van Jones.
The article, published in 2005 by the Bay Area weekly East Bay Express, detailed Jones' radical political activities during the early and mid-1990s, most notably his involvement with an organization called Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement (STORM). The profile explained that Jones had outgrown revolutionary communism by 1996, but for Kerpen this was good enough. If Jones' past could be connected to the present, it would put a scary radical face on the Obama administration's moderate environmental agenda, from cap-and-trade to green jobs. "I couldn't believe what I found," Kerpen later wrote about his discovery on FoxNews.com.
Kerpen emailed the article to Beck's Fox News producer on July 9. He attached the following note: "Please share with Glenn this article about green jobs czar Van Jones, a self-described communist who was radicalized in jail. Confirms ‘watermelon' hypothesis." Kerpen knew that Beck would understand the watermelon reference because two weeks earlier he had discussed the hypothesis with him on Fox News. During a June 26 appearance on Glenn Beck, Kerpen described the cap-and-trade bill as having "the thinnest green on the outside, [but] inside, it's deep communist red."
America's only prop commentator then produced a large watermelon from under his desk and cut it in half to illustrate the point.
Kerpen's July 9 memo provided Beck with the missing piece to the complete metaphor: the seeds of "black nationalism." Beck waited two weeks before using Kerpen's initial info dump. Once Beck began his attack, he was tenacious. He went after Jones almost daily, repeating the facts of his former radicalism and describing him each time as a "self-avowed" communist in the present tense. Between July 23 and Van Jones' resignation on September 5, Van Jones garnered 267 mentions on Glenn Beck—more than anyone else, and 227 more than Osama bin Laden. Beck played and replayed audio and video recordings that he said proved Jones had not changed since his days in STORM. He frequently played a clip of Jones describing green jobs as a way to "change the system."
But Beck's summer-long multimedia campaign was built on several large lies. When the White House tapped Jones to advise on green jobs, he was neither a communist nor a black nationalist. Beck also twisted and then disregarded the known facts of Jones' 1992 arrest. He said that Jones had been arrested for participation in the 1992 Los Angeles riots and was a "convicted felon." Both claims were false. The easily accessible truth was that Jones was arrested while working as a volunteer legal monitor during a protest in San Francisco. After weeks of repeating the smear, Beck corrected himself on Jones' involvement in the Rodney King riots. But he never mentioned the fact that after an investigation and a hearing, the state of California dropped all charges against Jones, declared his arrest unlawful, and awarded him a settlement.
The racial undertones of Beck's campaign against Jones were present from the start. The host introduced the green jobs czar not as part of a discussion of his actual portfolio, but in a wild blaze of innuendo over an extremely marginal political movement—black nationalism—with which Jones had no affiliation. At other times the racial innuendo was farther beneath the surface. As he ran down what became a familiar list, Beck frequently mentioned Jones' support for Mumia Abu-Jamal, who Beck described as a "cop killer." As with Jones' own arrest, however, Beck failed to address the known controversy surrounding Abu-Jamal's death sentence. Beck also exaggerated the radicalism of Jones' opposition to this sentence, which is shared by a long list of others, including Nelson Mandela, Amnesty International, and the NAACP.
Beck also attacked Jones for simply describing the fundamental premise of the environmental justice movement. One of Beck's favorite pieces of evidence in his case was an interview Jones gave as the head of the Ella Baker Center, in which Jones explained, "The white polluters and the white environmentalists are essentially steering poison into the people of colored communities." The extent to which this is true is debatable—indeed, the environmental justice movement has been heavily criticized by some in the progressive community, most notably by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus—but it's hardly outside the boundaries of mainstream political discourse. It was a Republican president, George H. W. Bush, who created the Office of Environmental Justice in the Environmental Protection Agency. The Clinton administration extended Bush's interest, issuing an executive order that directed federal agencies to study how pollution from industrial projects disproportionately affects poor communities of color. Moreover, there is a vast literature on the environmental justice movement created over twenty years that Beck could have referenced, had he been interested in the subject.
Instead, the host repeatedly doubled down on his ignorance. Never was this more glaring or abhorrent than during the September 1 edition of The Glenn Beck Program. This was when Beck dismissed Jones' comments about environmental racism by comparing them to what he considered another black urban legend: The Tuskegee Syphilis Study. He followed a Jones audio clip with one of Jeremiah Wright stating a simple, uncontested fact of American history: "The government lied about the Tuskegee experiment." For most Americans, the Tuskegee experiment —a 40-year clinical study conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service in which black subjects with syphilis were experimented on and allowed to die even after the discovery of penicillin—is shameful chapter in black America's long and frequently nonconsensual relationship with experimental medicine, one that does much to explain the lingering anger and suspicions of a generation of African-Americans, including Jeremiah Wright.
For Beck, who knows nothing about Tuskegee or the well-documented tradition of which it is a part, it is just another bit of radical nonsense spouted by America's black nationalist enemies within. "I only have a staff of seven," Beck said proudly after airing the Jones and Wright clips. "And all of a sudden we can come up with these things. Gee, you'd think the FBI or the president of the United States would surely be able to find these things."
Then there was a snippet from a speech that Jones gave at the 2009 PowerShift conference, a volunteer environmental organization consisting mostly of college kids. It was a vague and boring speech, panned at the time by many greens, in which Jones discussed the need for a new energy grid. In one section, he spoke of a "new system" in the following terms:
This movement is deeper than a solar panel. Deeper than a solar panel. Don't stop there. Don't stop there. No, we're going to change the whole system. We're going to change the whole thing. We're not going to put a new battery in a broken system. We want a new system. We want a new system.
What did Jones mean by a "new system"? The answer was always as near to Beck as the local bookstore. Had Beck possessed a shred of genuine interest in Jones' current political views, he could have simply read Jones' best-selling 2008 book, The Green Collar Economy, in which the author argues that the government's role in building a green economy is "strategic and limited." The ultimate purpose of government involvement, Jones explains, is to spur new and lasting growth in the private sector.
"We need open markets," Robert F. Kennedy Jr. writes in the book's foreword. "The energy sector needs an initiative analogous to the 1996 Telecommunications Act [that] instantly precipitated the historic explosion in telecom activity." Jones then builds on Kennedy's foreword, describing in detail the "pivotal role" to be played by entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, whose voices fill The Green Collar Economy.
The paperback edition of Jones' book hit the stores in June, shortly before Beck unveiled Kerpen's "watermelon hypothesis." In a funny coincidence of timing, Jones' book joined Beck's Common Sense on new-release displays in bookstores across the country during the early summer of 2009. With their looming battle in mind, the books make for an interesting contrast.
Common Sense features repeated pleas to readers not to engage in violence; The Green Collar Economy features repeated pleas to readers to get involved in their communities and learn about energy policy. Common Sense refers to Beck's political opponents as cockroaches, vermin, and cancers; The Green Collar Economy argues rationally for bipartisan cooperation, broad coalition-building, and public-private partnerships. Common Sense is a jumble of clichés and emotional appeals about "what feels right"; The Green Collar Economy logically lays out an argument in extensive technical and historical detail.
Perhaps the most revealing contrast between the two books is found in their appendices. The Green Collar Economy ends with a fifteen-page compendium of more than one-hundred supplementary resources that include university research centers, think tanks, nonprofit groups, and private companies. Common Sense points readers to the Beck-affiliated Web site of the 9.12 Project and a mere ten suggested titles, no less than four of which are revisionist works of religious pseudo-history that feature the byline of the batshit crazy conspiracy crank Willard Cleon Skousen.
Had Beck ever invited Jones onto his show, the two men might have talked at length about what Jones means by "changing the system" and why that phrase currently sits squarely within mainstream discourse on energy policy.
But Beck is not much of a debater, and almost never invites smart and informed liberals onto his shows. Although he published a book called Arguing with Idiots, he has always been terrified of arguing with those idiots live on the air. It is much easier to play kitten-toy sound bites of Jones' speeches. Probing much deeper than that would have mucked up Beck's portrait of Jones as V. I. Lenin by way of Huey Newton. It risked complicating the watermelon hypothesis and revealing Beck's racially loaded diversionary tactic for what it was. For those who are not taken in by his act, the host was proving what might be called the "jack-o-lantern hypothesis" of conservative antienvironment rhetoric: capable of scaring a child on the outside, empty on the inside.
At the end of August, Beck's campaign against Jones was still in high gear but had little to show. Despite more than a month of the same accusations being repeated, Jones remained in the White House. And so Beck and his allies stepped up their opposition research. On September 1, the Web site DefendGlenn.com circulated a video of Jones referring to congressional Republicans as "assholes" during a lecture at the Berkeley Energy and Resources Collaborative. Jones publicly apologized, bringing wider attention for the first time to Beck's agitation. Yet it was hardly a fatal blow.
In the end, it was neither Beck nor DefendGlenn.com that forced Jones' resignation. On Thursday, September 3, the conservative blog GatewayPundit.com reported that Jones had signed a 2004 petition calling 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." The petition's wording did not claim that the government was responsible for the attacks, but it was vague enough to push Jones onto the political third rail of the 9/11 Truth Movement. The next day, Senator Kit Bond, a Republican from Missouri, called for a hearing on Jones' "fitness" to advise the president.
The hearing never took place. Jones proffered his resignation to the president the next day, Saturday, September 5.
What Beck had failed to do in nearly two months of huffing and puffing, GatewayPundit accomplished in two days with a single-page document. Still, most media reports mistakenly described Jones' resignation as a "victory" for Beck despite the fact that none of Beck's charges ever made waves outside the insular world of conservative media. Only in September did the story break, driven by discoveries that were made independently of Beck's shows. Former Bush speechwriter David Frum stated fact when he told CNN's American Morning on September 7, "[Jones] could have survived, laughed off all of [Beck's] empty accusations. What happened was, GatewayPundit got the goods."
The truth of this didn't stop Beck from taking the credit for Jones' fall. He dismissed talk of victory not because he had little to do with Jones' resignation, he let on, but because he had so much more work to do. Even though no policies had been derailed and no communists had been smoked out of the White House, his ratings spiked, and the taste of blood was fresh in his mouth. He wanted more. On the Monday after Jones' resignation, Beck promised to continue unmasking Obama's many communist czars. "We will continue to demand answers," he promised. "This is not over."
One week later, on September 12, roughly eighty thousand Americans answered Beck's call to gather en masse on the National Mall. They came to protest the president in terms they learned from Beck. Hundreds of signs combined Soviet and Nazi iconography with historically inaccurate references to czars. Among the many signs on display that day, very few mentioned green jobs or the petition that forced Van Jones' resignation. More popular were signs stating flatly what Glenn Beck could not. Among them were several that read: OBAMA'S PLAN = WHITE SLAVERY.