Eloquence, charisma and candor are a rare combination, especially in the carefully orchestrated realm of politics.
There have been exceptions, of course, going back to Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign: "I am dissatisfied with our society," he told America on Meet the Press. "I suppose I am dissatisfied with my country."
And after that, there's been, well, no one.
Amid the pandering and pontificating that fuels today's 24-hour news cycle, an offhand remark, particularly an honest or unpopular one, can lead to a one-way ticket out of Washington.
For Van Jones, the offending comment came in early 2009, a month before he became Barack Obama's green jobs adviser, back when he was asked at a town hall meeting why Republican members of Congress were able to stonewall legislation even when Democrats held the majority.
"Well, the answer to that is, they're assholes," said Jones. The remark elicited laughter, applause and, seven months later, his resignation from the Obama administration. The video of the event served as the tipping point for a tenure that had already drawn repeat fire from FOX personality Glenn Beck, who remains obsessed with Jones to this day. Last December, some 15 months after Jones stepped down, Beck mentioned him on four shows in succession.
Unsurprisingly, press reports at the time failed to mention the legacy of George W. Bush publicly calling a New York Times reporter a "major league asshole" in 2000, or Dick Cheney blurting "go fuck yourself" at Democrat Patrick Leahy on the Senate floor in 2004. Most also ignored the conclusion of Jones' offending comment:
"And Barack Obama is not an asshole. Now, I will say this: I can be an asshole. And some of us who are not Barack Hussein Obama are going to have to start getting a little bit uppity."
Jones' admiration for those who aggressively pursue their ideals can be traced back to his childhood in Jackson, Tenn., where he had photos of John and Bobby Kennedy pinned to his bedroom bulletin board. (In fact, the foreword to Jones' 2008 New York Times best-seller, The Green Collar Economy, was written by the late senator's son, Robert F. Kennedy Jr.)
While attending law school at Yale University in the early '90s, he continued to become more politically active. Jones was arrested in 1992 while serving as a volunteer legal monitor during the San Francisco protests sparked by the Rodney King verdict. Four years later, he founded the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, whose projects included a Bay Area PoliceWatch hotline that monitored incidents of police brutality.
As the years passed, Jones began to focus on the connections between the social issues he addressed as a community organizer and environmental concerns on a more global level. Today, he serves as senior adviser for Green for All, an advocacy group he founded in 2007. A senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, he's also teaching a political science class at Princeton University.
Through it all, the 42-year-old Jones remains committed to the belief that economic and environmental solutions go hand-in-hand. And as the following interview suggests, he's still as insightful, as outspoken and, when the situation calls for it, as blunt as ever.
Indy: One of your main arguments has been to point out the economic value of environmental technologies. It's a strategy that makes a lot of sense, but it's also a strategy that was used by arts advocates back when the National Endowment for the Arts was first being attacked. I'm wondering, how is this different, in terms of the potential outcome?
Van Jones: Well, energy is core to any economy that's gone beyond burning dung at night for an energy source. So when you start trying to think about how to move from an energy system that has very few workers and an awful lot of pollution to an energy system that has a lot of workers and less pollution — which is what the green economy is — then you have a chance to really help the country, by reducing unemployment and pollution.
Indy: Historically, if you look back to the '60s and '70s, even activists didn't always recognize the commonality between, say, the civil rights movement and feminism. And in the same way, there was a point where environmentalism was thought to be this luxury concern for the well-to-do. How do you go about changing that?
VJ: I think the more we recognize that everything that's good for the environment is a job, the more people will be interested. In other words, solar panels don't put themselves up, wind turbines don't manufacture and deploy themselves, buildings don't retrofit themselves to waste less energy and water. Somebody's got to put on a green hard hat and workboots and go do all that work.
People often talk about, "Oh, these green jobs, you know, they're just a myth." Well, let's compare the green jobs in the energy sector to the grey jobs in the fossil fuel sector. There are about 80,000 people who work in coal mining in America right now. And they're actually America's heroes. I mean, they keep the lights on, they risk their lives and their limbs and their lungs every day to keep powering America the same way we've been doing it for more than a hundred years. Nobody would insult them and say they don't exist.
Well, there are 80,000 — same number — Americans working in the wind energy sector right now today, in the worst economy in two generations, with Congress missing-in-action on climate policy. And the solar industry is responsible for about 46,000 jobs. So we already have more green energy workers in America than we have coal miners. And that's without the Senate having enacted the climate bill that would have really put a rocket underneath all of these clean and green industries.
So I think what's important for us to keep in mind here is that we are gonna have to diversify America's energy portfolio. We can't just keep trying to drill and burn our way out of our problems. We're gonna have to invent and invest our way out.
Indy: Of course, that coal and wind comparison leaves out the oil industry. While I understand that's a multinational industry, how do you see it fitting into the picture?
VJ: Well, you know, the oil industry is the most profitable industry in the history of the world. BP makes $52 million a day, every day, in profit. You can go back to the time of the pharaohs and you will never find any other enterprise making $52 million a day. And that's just one oil company.
And yet they benefit from all these massive subsidies. We put $20 billion on the table every year in pure subsidies and support for the oil companies. And probably somewhere between a third and two-thirds of the Pentagon budget is spent just policing oil markets, to help these private corporations bring their for-profit products to market.
So you know, my view is that it's time to let the oil companies pay their own way. And take the $20 billion America's government gives to them, and start investing that in the technologies of tomorrow. And the president has called for that. I think his budget reflects some of that thinking. And I think it's very wise.
Indy: When you wrote The Green Collar Economy, it was back before your experience with the Obama administration, and you certainly hadn't dealt with Glenn Beck. A year and a half later, I'm wondering what you've taken away from all that.
VJ: You know, first of all, it was the biggest honor of my life to have spent six months working in the White House. Working in the White House is a privilege and not a right, and nobody should leave public service at that level and complain about anything. I'm honored I got a chance to serve for six months, and I learned a ton.
And the main thing I learned is that most of the things that the environmental community is concerned about are true. If you get a chance to actually look at all the reports and all the science, there is no doubt that, from a climate-security point of view, from an energy-independence point of view, and from an economic-opportunity point of view, moving aggressively in a green-energy direction is the smartest thing America can do.
Indy: I can understand your not complaining about the Obama administration. But the people who hounded you out of there after six months, I could see you complaining about that. What do you think was their motivation?
VJ: Uh, you'd have to interview the people who were doing that. That'd be another interview for you. [Laughs.] I try to talk about stuff that I know about. I know it's hard to imagine there's somebody left in America that will actually only talk about stuff they know about, but I'm actually one of those people. I'm not in the pundit class or the blogger class where I just, you know, whatever comes to mind, I think should be out in the public domain. So you'd have to interview the people who were involved in that whole thing, and ask them what they were doing and why.
Indy: I know you had to back away a bit from your comment about Republican congressmen, but at this point would you say that assessment is at least partially true?
VJ: I think we're getting close to the end of this interview. Do you have any worthwhile questions?
Indy: Um, let's see ... So, given your experience, to what degree would you say it's possible to effect change from inside government versus working from outside of it?
VJ: Well, you always have to be working in both arenas. The so-called inside and so-called outside are really a part of the same system called democracy. So you gotta be working on both.
Indy: I recently heard Noam Chomsky talk about those who advance the idea of climate change as a "liberal myth." And he asked, "What do they have to say any more than your barber?" Is there any credibility at all to the anti-climate change idea?
VJ: It's the same level of credibility that there is to the idea that HIV doesn't cause AIDS, or that smoking doesn't cause lung cancer. In other words, you can find that 5 percent of scientists who will tell you that they are not convinced that HIV causes AIDS, they're not convinced that smoking causes lung cancer, so people who smoke and get cancer, there must be some other factor here. And less than 5 percent of all the people who've looked at this science say they're not convinced that humans are causing the planet to heat up.
You know, if you would advise your kids to go ahead and keep smoking, and go ahead and have unprotected sex, then you would advise your country to keep using fossil fuel. It's the same argument. There are some scientists out there who don't agree. But when you're dealing with it in your personal life, I don't think there's anyone who would say 95 percent agreement from scientists is not enough.
Indy: So apart from what we've discussed, are there other areas you'll be talking about when you speak here?
VJ: No, I think basically the speech will be about how we put America back to work and pull America back together. Those are the two big challenges that we have. Obviously we have to do that on the basis of respect for the earth, respect for the environment, and respect for future generations. That's what I'm committed to doing, and I've been paying attention to various aspects of that for a long time.
And look, I greatly appreciate your interest in my work and the story and journey. And like I said, I try to comment on the things that I think are gonna be useful and constructive going forward. And that's why I made the comment that I made. It's very hard to drive a car if you're looking in the rearview mirror the whole time. At some point, you've got to look out the windshield and look forward. And that's really what I'm gonna do.