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 911Truth.org,
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.