Van Jones’ rapid downfall is an educational moment for the wing of the conservative movement that has tried, without much success, to paint environmental activists as anti-capitalist radicals.
Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2009/09/van-jones-tboone.jpgT. Boone Pickens and Van Jones at the National Clean Energy Summit 2.0 in Las Vegas. (Getty Images)
The descent of Van Jones from a powerful job in Barack Obama’s administration to career-sinking political controversy happened at a stunning pace. On Aug. 10, the White House’s ousted special adviser for green jobs appeared at the National Clean Energy Summit 2.0 in Las Vegas, sharing a stage with Republican billionaire-turned wind power evangelist T. Boone Pickens. The next day, The Washington Post ran a warm, brief profile on Jones, calling him “ the business-friendly side of the environmental movement handled Jones, as a preternaturally gifted advocate for an everyone-wins green campaign.
After midnight on Sept. 6, 2009, on one of the slowest news days of the year, Jones buckled under a multi-pronged assault on his record and associations, the most damaging being his 2002 and 2004 flirtations with the so-called “9/11 Truth” movement. He resigned from his post. “Opponents of reform have mounted a vicious smear campaign against me,” Jones said in a statement. “They are using lies and distortions to distract and divide … [but] I cannot in good conscience ask my colleagues to expend precious time and energy defending or explaining my past.”
What Jones might have said, but did not, was that his downfall represented a crucial and possibly educational victory for the wing of the conservative and libertarian movement that has tried, without much success, to paint environmental activists like Jones as anti-capitalist radicals less interested in the health of the planet than in a well-disguised radical agenda.
For years, Jones had been viewed by the conservative movement as a scam artist, a purveyor of what the libertarian economist and occasional Rush Limbaugh radio show guest-host Walter E. Williams once called “watermelon environmentalism.” The green movement, Williams argued, was socialism in disguise: green on the outside, red on the inside. (Williams, like Jones, is African American.) That critique has been repeated by conservative and libertarians for more than a decade, and it has found powerful advocates. In 2007, Czech Republic President Vaclav Klaus claimed that “the biggest threat to freedom, democracy, the market economy and prosperity at the beginning of the 21st century is not communism or its various softer variants,” but “the threat of ambitious environmentalism.” Later that year, Klaus’s arguments were translated and published in a book by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think tank funded, in part, by the energy industry. And Klaus gave the keynote address at the think tank’s 2008 gala dinner. But in recent months, the “watermelon” attack had made it onto Glenn Beck’s Fox News show.
“Do you like watermelon?” Beck asked sarcastically on the June 26 episode of his program.
“I love watermelon,” responded Phil Kerpen, the director of policy for Americans for Prosperity.
“I think this is a watermelon bill,” said Beck.
“I think you’re exactly right,” said Kerpen. “This bill is green on the outside, the thinnest green on the outside. And inside, it’s deep communist red.”
Still, before the Jones controversy, the “watermelon environmentalism” attack had been a relatively hard sell. In March, the conservative-libertarian City Journal ran a piece labeling Jones a “green hustler” and “[Jesse] Jackson version 2.0, eco-upgraded for the Great Warming.” In April, the popular right-wing Website WorldNetDaily ran the first in a series of Jones exposes asking whether a “red” would “help blacks go green.” Attacks on Jones remained obscure enough in May that Meg Whitman, a policy adviser to both Mitt Romney’s and John McCain’s presidential campaigns, gushed to reporters about how she “loved” what Jones was doing.
Not until late July, when Fox’s Glenn Beck started warning his viewers about Jones with some of the same evidence produced by WorldNetDaily, did the long-term campaign against “watermelon environmentalism” go viral. Beck’s reports on Jones leaned heavily on a sympathetic 2005 profile from the East Bay Express, an Oakland, Calif. alternative weekly paper, in which Jones said he became a “communist” after the Rodney King verdict, and detailed his days at the head of a radical chic organization called STORM (Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement). This was a history Jones had been open about for years. But in July, and especially after Color of Change — a civil rights group co-founded by Jones — began pressuring advertisers to drop Beck’s show, Beck and other Fox News personalities ran story after story on how communism was at the root of Jones’s environmentalism. One moment on the Sept. 3 episode of Sean Hannity’s prime time news show, with a small panel, including Fox News host Kimberly Guilfoyle and conservative pundit S.E. Cupp, digging into the story, was typical of the coverage:
SEAN HANNITY: He’s a communist. I mean avowed.
KIMBERLY GUILFOYLE: Yes.
S.E. CUPP: Self-avowed. Yes.
KIMBERLY GUILFOYLE: Self-avowed communist.
Reached on Sunday by TWI, some of the people who’d been in the trenches making the case against “watermelon environmentalism” were not yet sure if the Jones story was a one-time incident, a self-inflicted injury on the green movement, or the kick-off of a wave of new attention on the environmental movement.
“I think the Jones case is a great example of the green outside-red inside phenomenon,” said Matthew Vadum, a senior editor at the conservative Capital Research Center who has appeared on Beck’s Fox News show and wrote more than a dozen** items **about Jones for the American Spectator. “With the exception of the 9/11 trutherism, I don’t think Van Jones’s views are much different from those in the environmentalist movement as a whole. Environmentalism isn’t about saving the planet: It’s about controlling the behavior of people.”
Vadum was not sure about the long-term impact of Jones’s downfall, as some early media coverage of the controversy has honed in on an early 2009 video of Jones calling Republicans who didn’t support climate change legislation “assholes,” which came to light hours before the 9/11 papers. “The mainstream media ignored this throughout and even now is characterizing his departure as based on calling Republicans nasty names, which is but a smidgeon of the whole story.”
Kerpen, who appeared on Beck’s show many times to provide more analysis of the socialism-environmentalism connection, was happy to see Jones go. But he worried that the “watermelon” issue was gaining less traction than the generic issue of “czars,” policy advisers given executive branch jobs without Senate approval.
“It’s more important to follow through on the politics of ‘green jobs’ and use the Van Jones affair to fight that concept and cap-and-trade than to pursue other czars,” said Kerpen. “My primary interest has always been using this to win policy fights.”
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