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“Rebuild the Dream”: Ex-Obama Adviser Van Jones on Life Inside White House, Right-Wing Smear Attack

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Forced out of his job as White House special adviser on green jobs by a right-wing smear campaign, Jones has just become the first former Obama official to release a book. It’s called “Rebuild the Dream,” and its release comes on the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination. Obama appointed Jones as an adviser in 2009, but he resigned his post after he came under an attack spearheaded by then-Fox News host Glenn Beck. He writes about the experience in his new book and describes his unusual history as both a White House insider and an outside agitator for grassroots change. “I'm probably the only person in American life who was a grassroots outsider, who became a White House insider — I was there for six months — and then I became a grassroots outsider again,” Jones says. “What I saw when I was there, and after, is this massive misunderstanding between the insiders in that building, the insiders in D.C., and the outsiders that help to elect those folks, and huge missed opportunities for positive change.” Jones also outlines strategies for the future. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today we are joined by Van Jones for the hour. He has written a new book; it is called Rebuild the Dream. Why this book, Van?

VAN JONES: Well, you know, I’m one of the—I’m probably the only person in American life who was a grassroots outsider, who became a White House insider—I was there for six months—and then I became a grassroots outsider again. I have a 360 view on what was going on in the White House, how the White House works. The White House is this kind of big mysterious place for most people. I understand how it works, what it can do, what it can’t do, how it operates. But also I understand how social movements work. And what I saw when I was there, and after, is this massive misunderstanding between the insiders in that building, insiders in D.C., and the outsiders that help to elect those folks, and huge misopportunities—missed opportunities for positive change. And, you know, after I resigned, I took some time off. I taught at Princeton for a whole year. I was literally 10 feet away from Cornel West’s office, which was an amazing experience. I never heard the word “plutocrat” and “oligarch” so many times, but it was an amazing experience to be able to observe from an academic point of view what was going on.

And what I—I came to the conclusion that it was social movements that had elected this president, and yet the people who had benefited from those social movements at the White House level often didn’t understand how they worked. They really believed that it was polls and pundits and politicians and precincts, and this kind of operational piece was very important, alone almost, and that the movements were sort of these, you know, annoying things out there, the professional left, these, you know, retards who are out there. And that attitude, which is very dismissive, cost, I think, the White House.

But I think also the progressive movements did not understand what the White House could or couldn’t do. I think the progressive movements thought, “Well, look, we have the White House. We have 60 votes in the Senate for the Democrats, Nancy Pelosi probably the best speaker ever. What—get it done,” and not understanding that that’s only about one-third of what you need, having control of the state, allegedly, only one-third of what you need. You also have to have media, like we have here. But Fox has taken that to a completely different level. And you have to have movements, grassroots movements that can change the conversation. And we were, mostly, on the left, trying to navigate and figure out the new reality with the new president. Who monopolized protest activity those first two years? Our job—you know, we’re the kings and queens of protest. No left protest. The Tea Party. The Tea Party takes to the streets. It’s the first time, you know, you have this massive economic crisis, the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression, two wars, an ecological catastrophe going on with the climate, and no significant street presence for the left. The right wing monopolizes street presence, monopolizes the media almost, and you wind up with a checkmate for the forces of progress. I felt this had a story that had to be told from the point of view of someone who had been on both sides, so I wrote the book.

The book is really three books in one. One is the history of our movements, giving ourselves credit for electing this president. Most of these books about the presidency, it’s all about the campaign and nothing about the popular movements that made that campaign, that supercharged that campaign. This book redeems that history. Second part of the book goes into a deep analysis comparing the rhetorical strategy of Obama versus the Tea Party versus Occupy Wall Street, the organizational structures, for people who are, you know, into that kind of thing. And the last part is a bunch of proposals, what we could do to move forward. And I thought I had an obligation, as one of the few people, probably the only person, who has been on both sides of that divide recently, to share my views.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you talked about Fox, so go there—


AMY GOODMAN: —and talk about the lessons learned and what was going on in the White House and outside. The campaign against Van Jones began back in July 2009, when conservative Fox News host Glenn Beck began criticizing him, calling him a “communist-anarchist radical.” Beck also called President Obama a racist during an interview on Fox & Friends.

GLENN BECK: This president, I think, has exposed himself as a guy, over and over and over again, who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture. I don’t know what it is, but you can’t sit in a pew with Jeremiah Wright for 20 years and not hear some of that stuff and not have it wash over.

BRIAN KILMEADE: But listen, you can’t say he doesn’t like white people. David Axelrod’s white. Rahm Emanuel is his chief of staff, are white. This is—I think 70 percent of the people that we see every day are white. Robert Gibbs is white.

GLENN BECK: I’m not—I’m not saying that he doesn’t like white people. I’m saying he has a problem. He has a—this guy is, I believe, a racist. Look at the way—look at the things that he has been surrounded by. His—some of his—

BRIAN KILMEADE: Give us an example, aside from this.

GLENN BECK: Let’s give—let’s give his new—his new green jobs czar. The guy is, again, black liberation theology, a black nationalist, who is also an avowed communist. He comes in, and he puts that guy in. Well, wait a minute. How many people with this kind of philosophy do you need to have in your life before we start to say, “Show me your friends, and I’ll show you your feet—your future.”

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Beck on Fox in 2009. Those comments calling President Obama racist prompted Color of Change, a group that Van Jones helped to found, call on advertisers to stop sponsoring Beck’s TV program. Over 55 companies, including Wal-Mart and Sprint, responded by pulling their ads. Nevertheless, Glenn Beck continued his attacks on Van Jones.

GLENN BECK: So the left is pushing, but I believe Van Jones is beginning—you’re beginning to see the real Van. I want you to listen to this audio and listen to the anger. I believe this is the first audio I have heard that is genuine Van Jones. Listen.

VAN JONES: Well, I’m here to tell you, after a two-year unmitigated smear campaign, not just—


UNIDENTIFIED: Really? Where is the smear?

GLENN BECK: Where is the smear? Identify it.

UNIDENTIFIED: Tell us—show us the lies. We have never heard—we hear this all the time.

GLENN BECK: No, no. One. One.

UNIDENTIFIED: Show us one stinking lie about you, Van.



GLENN BECK: There was one.

UNIDENTIFIED: Well, there was—

GLENN BECK: The NAACP came and said—

UNIDENTIFIED: It was a mistake.

GLENN BECK: Yeah, they said that I said that he was a convicted felon. He is not a convicted felon. He—

UNIDENTIFIED: But we already corrected that.

GLENN BECK: Corrected it. Corrected it immediately, as soon as it was pointed out. He’s not a—he just went to jail. He did not—

UNIDENTIFIED: He was not a felon.

GLENN BECK: He was not a convicted felon.


GLENN BECK: But other than that, there is no smear campaign against him.

UNIDENTIFIED: Absolutely not.

GLENN BECK: He is an unrepentant communist revolutionary, a founding member of STORM, period. That’s what it is. He is a guy who stands for cop killers, period. That’s who he is.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Glenn Beck—you take this on right away in your book—when you were the White House adviser to President Obama.


AMY GOODMAN: Respond to this.

VAN JONES: Well, the—

AMY GOODMAN: And what happened? What happened in the White House?

VAN JONES: Well, the great—well, first of all, the great thing about Glenn Beck, he’s sort of like a Darth Vader meets Mr. Rogers. You know, he makes up his own universe. It just happens to be that people he’s talking about happen to have the names of real people like me or the President or George Soros. You know, all that stuff, you can—he says all these things. He says I’m a felon. He says all type of stuff. All that’s taken care of in the book.

I think the more important thing to deal with is what was happening to our media system at that moment. What you saw going on was a right wing in sheer panic mode. They threw out the rule book. And you had provocateurs like Glenn Beck, Breitbart, Andrew Breitbart, now the late, stepping forward and basically taking a relatively advanced information system and firing into it lies, smears, viruses, for which we had no antibodies. So they bug-zapped me. They bug-zapped ACORN, and knock out the entire Democratic Party “get out the vote” operation with one video. They go after Shirley Sherrod. And for several months, the body politic does not know how to react to this virus. Finally, with Shirley Sherrod, a line gets drawn, and people begin to realize, “Wait a minute, it turns out you can have people on national television saying crazy stuff like that and getting away with it.” And eventually, with the advertising boycott, he gets pushed off the air. But there was a moment when the White House itself was rocked back on its heels, because we had an information system that was very advanced, but a wisdom system that had not yet caught up to what tricksters like Beck and Breitbart could do. And so, that’s the moment that we were in.

And so, you know, being one of the first people to kind of be a test case for this new, more desperate right-wing set of tactics, I did not know how to respond or how to deal with it. I talk about it in the book, the decision making that I went through to make the decision: I should actually resign, get myself out of the way. Obviously, I’m not a politician. I’m not somebody who wants to be in elective office. I was working in the Bay Area, and they asked me to come and help. I was a special adviser. I wasn’t a cabinet member. I was a special adviser. So, my calculation was, listen, I’ve had a very colorful past. I distinguished myself as an activist, as an outstanding left-wing activist in the Bay Area. You’ve got to work hard to distinguish yourself in the Bay as a left-winger. And I did that, with great pride. I was on the left side of Pluto in my twenties. And so, I said, if we’re going to have to litigate that, right on the verge of healthcare, I don’t see how that’s a win-win for me or for the President or anybody else, so I chose to step away.

But I think that the reality is that we are now in a situation where we’ve got to have a much smarter approach to our own messaging, our own media operation. Obviously, Democracy Now! is one of our shining star examples. We’ve got to keep building on that.

AMY GOODMAN: The question—

VAN JONES: And I talk about that in the book, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you, though, about the White House, what many perceived outside as abandoning you, not being there, not standing up. I mean, you were saying, “I’m not the issue, so I am just going to step aside.”

VAN JONES: Yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: But for many, I mean, they saw Shirley Sherrod not originally stood up for. And then you see the difference now. For example, when Rush Limbaugh goes after Sandra Fluke, who was the young woman who was going to testify before Congress about the importance of contraceptives being covered by health insurance, when Planned Parenthood did not back off, when even the White House, when Congress did not back off, it was Rush Limbaugh who became the target himself instead of this young woman, and this young woman became stronger.


AMY GOODMAN: While you’re saying, “Well, I didn’t want to be the issue,” many other people saw you as an example of a very—coming out of movements, and that movements were being abandoned.

VAN JONES: Sure, but you have to remember, this—we’ve learned. I mean, this is two-and-a-half years later. We’re all a lot smarter. We’re all a lot tougher. This was a moment of change, an inflection point in the way the media system was operating. Up until then, you know, the concern that you might get sued for libel, for instance—I mean, he says I’m—not only—he called me a felon, all kind of stuff, which—you know, I know a lot of people who are felons; I just happen not to be one. But, you know, there was a sense that, well, geez, no big corporate media structure would allow libelous—well, it turned out that they made a calculation, apparently, they would rather have the lawsuit, if they could go after the President. That was new. So you have to give movements and you have to give White Houses opportunities to learn and to grow. Nobody in that building asked me to resign. Everybody in the building said, “We’ll fight ’til the last dog barks.” I didn’t think that was the right way to go at that time.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you talk to President Obama at that time?

VAN JONES: I’m not going to talk about those kinds of things. But what I will say is this. I thought, and I think most people in the same situation—I thought, look, I know what they’re trying to do here. The President is about to reset the national conversation on healthcare. We had gone through the whole month of August with the town hall meetings, etc. He’s going to reset this conversation on healthcare. They need a distraction. They’re desperate. They’re going to go through every single position statement I’ve ever made in the history of my colorful left-wing career every day to try to keep us from having a discussion on healthcare. I thought that it was more appropriate for me to step back, take that away from them, and let the President move forward.

Now listen, to the extent that people wanted some other thing to happen, I don’t agree that that was the time and the place to have that fight. I think it was better for us to focus on the healthcare fight at that time. However, moving forward, now that we know more about how this thing works, I do agree that we’ve got to be tougher. I do agree that we’ve got to stick up. But you’re talking about a brand new playbook being created on the spot in real time with healthcare hanging in the balance.

AMY GOODMAN: Van Jones, we just got an email question from Scott C. Alden, who asked, “Would you take the job back if President Obama offered it to you? What would you do if he did?”

VAN JONES: Well, now, in some ways, those are two different questions. If I were—if we could rewind the tape, and it’s back in 2008, when his team asked me to come—again, I didn’t ask to go there; they asked me to come—would I say yes or no, knowing what would happen? Yes, absolutely yes. If it was in the contract that I would work there for six months and then I have a bad two weeks and have to leave, I would sign it in a minute and be happy to do so, because what I learned and what I saw in those six months about how fragile our democracy is, you know, to be there part of history and also get a chance to make the contribution I made, wouldn’t give—trade it for the world.

Would I go back? No, I wouldn’t. And I’ll tell you why. We have, I think, the wrong theory of the presidency still on the left, even two-and-a-half years in, three years in. We still think that the presidency is the site of all the power that we need, and so we have to either cheerlead for the president or criticize the president or be mad at the president or defend the president. LBJ did not lead the civil rights movement. Dr. King, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Bayard Rustin, they and others led the civil rights movement. You have to have two sources of power, not just one. That’s the big lesson for this past three years. Those of us who are kind of post-hope progressives, post-hope Democrats and independents, the big lesson: takes two sources of power. You have to have a head of state that is willing to be moved, but you have to have a grassroots movement to do the moving. The Tea Party showed that in a negative way. Occupy showed that in a positive way. The Keystone 350.org young people showed that in a positive way. If you don’t have a movement in the streets, willing to get arrested, willing to take those chances, you cannot get the best out of even the best president. However, if you have a movement, you can get the best out of a terrible president. Richard Nixon didn’t lead the environmental movement. He hated it. But he signed the Clean Air Act. He signed the Clean Water Act. He created EPA. Why? There was a movement in the streets. So, if somebody said, “Now, would you go back?” No. I think we can—I, personally, my skill set, I can do a lot more as an outsider helping to build that other source of power so we can get the job done.

But let me just say one more thing about this. It goes both ways. You now have people who say, “It doesn’t matter who’s president. I’m not going to vote. I’m post-hope. I don’t care anymore. It’s all about other things.” That’s also wrong. We put a million people in the street, and you helped do it, against the war in Iraq, but you had a president who wouldn’t listen. You’ve got to have a president who will listen and millions of people in the streets. That’s how you get the change done.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Van Jones. He is the first former White House official to write a book about his experiences, but not just his experiences inside the White House. He’s talking about before, as well as now. Van Jones’s book is called Rebuild the Dream. We’ll be back with him in 30 seconds. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report.

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“Two Sources of Power”: Van Jones on Need for Obama Re-election, Building Occupy-Like Mass Movements

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