Van Jones
(September 2009)

Here’s the problem. You do something foolish in the passion of the moment, never suspecting that it may become an embarrassment later on. Then, years later, it surfaces, with potentially devastating consequences to your credibility and reputation. What do you do?

The ethical solution, which has the added advantage of being the most effective solution, is to admit you did it, agree that it showed bad judgment, and apologize. The next approach, championed by President Bill Clinton, is to re-define the event, as when Clinton admitted that he had smoked pot but claimed that he “didn’t inhale.” This approach, as Clinton discovered, frequently backfires. The third approach, and amazingly the most popular, is to just deny that you did whatever it was. The risk with this approach is that evidence is prone to surface that proves beyond all question that you are lying your head off. Thus, after Senator Chris Dodd denied that he had ever anticipated huge corporate performance bonuses using the funds in the bail-out bill that bore his name, it was profoundly embarrassing when a reading of the actual bill showed that the bonuses were not only anticipated, but approved.

Now comes Van Jones, already a lightning rod for criticism as President Obama’s “Green Czar” because he was once a communist (yes, he really was) and because YouTube is filled with clips of him saying various incendiary and impolitic things, being questioned about his name’s presence on the original “Truther” petition that suggested that the Bush Administration engineered the World Trade Center’s destruction. This is especially embarrassing, and not just because the contention of the Truthers is unfair, irresponsible and unhinged at best and sinister at worst. It is also a problem because the Democrats and news media have justifiably been condemning and ridiculing the Right’s equally unhinged “Birthers.” The Birthers are those who seek to de-legitimize Obama’s presidency on the theory that he was born in Nigeria, despite the fact that their contention has been thoroughly rejected legally and debunked factually. The Democrats have marked the Birthers as the equivalent of the Truthers on the whack-job scale, and pointed out that no leader of their party ever endorsed the 9-11 conspiracy theories, while several prominent GOP officials have refused to discount the Birthers. In the light of this, Obama having a certifiable “Bush killed his own citizens in a diabolical plot” supporter in the Administration is inconvenient, putting it mildly. It is a fair guess that if Obama’s vetting process was up to snuff (it isn’t, and hasn’t been), Jones’ signature on the petition would have nixed his job prospects.

Jones, fresh off of one official apology for calling all Republicans “assholes” in public, had to say something about his name on the petition, where it sits with those of uncivil and impolitic fanatics like Ed Asner, Jeanine Garafolo, former Georgia rep Cynthia McKinney (who also says the US government intentionally spread AIDS to kill blacks), and Howard Zinn. But Asner and Garafolo are actors, and can be irresponsible in their accusations without career consequences (as long as they are irresponsible in a Hollywood liberal way; impolitic Hollywood conservatives end up parking cars); Zinn is a cult author whose reputation was built on arguing that the United States is evil, and McKinney is irrelevant. Jones, however, holds a national policy position that requires judgment and trust. He has, as Ricky Ricardo would say, “some ‘splainin’ to do.”

Jones’ approach was essentially the Clinton Method. Yes, he signed the petition, but no, he never did and does not believe what it says. He signed the petition, he says, without reading it closely. He signed it, in fact, using his name and title at the time, executive director, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. Without reading it closely. Really?

This explanation sets off almost as many ethics alarms as the action he is trying to explain away. Using his official title on such a petition suggests that Jones was speaking for his organization, a very serious matter. The Center is non-profit; it seeks contributions. Even though Jones founded the Center, it would be an ethical breach for him to tie the group to such an inflammatory public statement without seeking and getting approval from his board, funders and the membership, and outrageous for him to do so casually, without reading the petition thoroughly.

Of course, Jones knew exactly what he was signing. Mike Berger, a spokesman for, the group that created the petition and still stands by it, told the Washington Times that every one of the signers had been verified by their group. He confirmed that his organization’s board members “spoke with each person on the list by phone or through email to individually confirm they had added their name to that list.”

Did Jones really expect that the petitioning group would back up his story to protect him, thus making themselves look sloppy and irresponsible ( the group is irresponsible, of course, but not in this way)? His is a truly incompetent and hopeless lie: to believe it, you have to also conclude that he is completely untrustworthy, using the name of his own organization recklessly and without due diligence, and that the organization that orchestrated the petition was unconscionably careless in 2001 and is lying now.

The truth is always the best route in such situations, but especially so when the best lie available is as inept, transparent and counter-productive as the one resorted to by Van Jones.


Update: Shortly after this was written, Van Jones had to resign, despite the fact that most of the major news media so blatantly ignored the controversy surrounding him that an entirely new ethics controversy arose, involving journalistic integrity. In his resignation statement, Jones blamed his critics rather than his own lack of judgement. “Opponents of reform have mounted a vicious smear campaign against me. They are using lies and distortions to distract and divide,” he said. The problem is, there were no lies or distortions, by definition. All critics had done was to make reasonable assumptions from Jones’ words, videos of him speaking, and a petition that bore his name. It is no “smear” to suggest that a man who states that “white polluters” are intentionally poisoning black neighborhoods, and that only white children shoot up school, has some racial bias issues. It is no lie to say a man was once a Communist when he is heard on tape saying that he became a Communist. It is no distortion to assert that when a man signs a petition giving his title and organization, he is endorsing the words on the petition.

Van Jones’ exit proved that his critics were exactly right: he was not fit to serve in a position of responsibility in the Obama Administration.

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