Van Jones seems an unlikely persona to be the new co-host of the historic return of CNN’s CROSSFIRE, previously the longest running political debate program on television.
Chiefly, the Yale-educated attorney built a career in the leftmost part of our country’s body politic– spending considerable time in northern California– particularly the Bay Area.
According to the show’s description of him, Mr. Jones is an outspoken political commentator with a long track record of activism and deep community involvement who will continue to break down his views on the current political climate while highlighting his unique perspective on CROSSFIRE airing weekdays, 6:30pm Eastern on CNN.
Before his ascension to wide national acclaim, Jones was mining various intellectual fields whether defined by caste or construct; inspiring young urban males and community outliers alike. It is that type of brand-building that avoids tethering to a particular bent or leaning– hopefully that aspect of his thinking will remain intact.
Further, Jones is the founding president of Rebuild the Dream, an organization that promotes innovative policy solutions for the U.S. economy. He is author of two New York Times best-selling books, “The Green Collar Economy” and “Rebuild the Dream.”
Founder of four thriving not-for-profit organizations, Jones is also the recipient of numerous awards, including: the World Economic Forum’s “Young Global Leader” designation; one of Rolling Stone magazine’s “12 Leaders Who Get Things Done” in 2012; one of Time Magazine’s 2009 “100 Most Influential People in The World.”
He has since pivoted into a staunch presidential supporter, a toggle of sorts, amid public discourse, criticism and critical acclaim.
Last week, we spoke by phone–
Sandra Varner/Talk2SV: You have entered a crowded field of TV talk show political analysts. Refreshing is the perspective you bring from a background steeped in ecological and practical approaches to creating green jobs, as an example. Some would call this a progressive agenda and ideology. Is our government moving positively in this direction for job development?
JONES: Well, certainly President Obama needs to be given credit for the $787B that he put into the stimulus package in 2009, $90B of that was for clean and green jobs and technology of some sort or another. Whether it was solar panels or whether it was $5B for smart batteries [so we can stop wasting so much energy], we have in America right now, according to the Department of Labor about 3.1 million green jobs or jobs that are in the clean energy industry and other green industries, so we have a real success story there.
The problem is that we have about a 15 million job hole; even when you have 3 million new jobs, you mainly notice the jobs that are not there rather than the jobs that are there. I’m proud to have been a part of the administration, I’m proud that we fought as well and as hard as we did. Yes, we have to clean up the environment while creating more jobs but I think we have a long way to go.
Talk2SV: Given this re-boot of CNN’s Crossfire, do you see it as an opportunity for one, to keep the discussion of green jobs current as well as many of the other political discussions that should be had by Americans, specifically, to hear from people like yourself and your co-hosts?
JONES: Sure. I’ll talk about green jobs and I’ll talk about the dangers of the dirty energy lobby, big oil, big coal, dirty money causing dirty politics as often as I can. But this show is not just a format for me to push my own agenda. The reason that this Crossfire program is so important is that we need to have a national conversation; we’re going through a lot [as a nation].
- People come home from these wars maybe there’s going to be some new wars; we’ve got to talk about that.
- Kids are graduating from college with massive debt, no job and they don’t know where to turn; we don’t know who to blame, we don’t know how to fix it. We need to talk about that.
- You’ve got one station on television that’s pretty much right wingers beating up on liberals. Most of the time the liberals aren’t even there to defend themselves. You’ve got another station on television where the liberals beat up on the conservatives and the conservatives aren’t there to defend themselves. This is one show where both sides can sit down even steven, two on two, have a real debate, have a real discussion on whatever is the big issue of the day; if it’s Syria, if it’s gun control, if it’s Obama-care, if it’s government shut down, let’s sit down and talk about it.
We’ve tried to set a tone that is serious and substantive but is also engaging and friendly. We have a good time, sometimes we laugh at each other’s jokes, and we’re not just sitting there trying to score points. If we can educate and uplift the audience and our viewers regardless of who wins or loses a particular debate we all win if the debate is good, if it’s done in good spirit, if it’s done with real facts without the cheap shots, the putdowns. We all win those kinds of debates and that’s what we’re trying to do on Crossfire.
Talk2SV: How do you measure the impact of debate? Many say we [Americans] talk about things yet action is slow to follow.
JONES: Well, you know, we live in a complicated society and talking is not enough but you just can’t be reactionary if you don’t talk about it [issues of national concern] first. Television is more about talking than doing. Having a high quality place to talk can lead to high quality action later. I’m going to measure the success of the show, in my own mind, not only by who tunes in, ratings success or that kind of indicator but also who comes on the show.
If we can become a destination site where smart people on both sides really want to come on –see the difference between this Crossfire and most shows– we’re going to talk about one topic for a half an hour. It is not one of those shows with 15 topics in 15 minutes and nobody gets a word in edgewise because everybody is yelling at each other. This show gives 22 minutes of live television: you can really make a full point, you can make a complicated point, you can answer a follow up question, you can be challenged by somebody and listen to their challenge, you can actually respond thoughtfully as opposed to feeling as if there will only be two minutes to respond and I’ve got to cut this guy off so I can get to my point.
I think debate is important and I think talk is important. And, as frustrating as it can be to have talk without action it can be dangerous to have action without talking so I think the talk is important.
Talk2SV: CNN is and has been regaled as a bellwether for news information. Would you define yourself equally when it comes to intelligent politics?
JONES: CNN is a global brand that’s been around for a long time. I’m just a guy with a brand new co-hosting role. I grew up watching CNN with my dad. I grew up watching Crossfire with my dad. I think I was in high school and college when Crossfire really first came on. I feel honored to be a part of an organization like CNN. You can mention CNN anywhere on planet earth and people know exactly what you’re talking about; they have a view of CNN that is a high quality, trustworthy organization. I hope to be a high quality, trustworthy member of the team.
Talk2SV: Seems a portion of your life has come full circle perhaps. Let’s talk about what also may have come from time spent at your father’s knee, lessons in courage and perseverance—courage to take a stand, maintain a stand– when arrows, strong winds and popular opinion can chill the marrow of your bones. You are a poster child for such.
JONES: Well, in some ways that’s true and in some ways it’s not true. Decades ago, people who had ideas like mine were shot; I mean, they shot Dr. King in the face in front of his friends. Malcolm X was shot; Mandela was in prison for 27 years. They shot Fred Hampton and on and on, then they put me on television (lambasted by many following disclosure of perceived controversial views prior to his White House appointment back in 2009), that’s nowhere near what people have gone through in the struggle for justice.
I had a job before I went to the White House, I had a job afterwards. Before I went to the White House I was working to build my own organization, doing successful, raising millions of dollars; we helped create 10,000 jobs for people across the country. I went to the White House for six months; I left there and taught at Princeton (University).
It’s hard for me to feel sorry for myself when I think about what the forbearers went through. We’ve got to get out of this situation where people feel that if somebody puts out a really mean tweet about you, you are now somehow oppressed and somehow are being persecuted. My worse day is better than Dr. King’s best day, any day, and you won’t find me hanging my head about anything I’ve been through as a result of being a part of the struggle for justice.
Talk2SV: You do offer a comparative perspective about the hate speech rallied against you, yet at the end of the day, it appears that vitriolic rhetoric propelled you to be who you are. It takes introspective courage to decipher, understand and appreciate the parallel notes to what Dr. King, Mandela and others went through. Did your dad teach you to be this way?
JONES: My dad taught me by example more than anything else. My dad didn’t mess around. My dad was born in abject poverty, under segregation law in 1944, Memphis, TN. His mother was a housekeeper for white folks and was glad to have that job; his father was present [in the home] but died when my father was only five years old. My dad had to mostly become the man of the house at five years old, trying to help his mother raise his siblings. He would join the military, put himself through college, put his little brother through college, he helped put a cousin through college, put me and my sister through college. He was not one for a bunch of whining and complaining; he had to march and he had to struggle. He had to go through a lot. We were born in a brick house with a yard in the front and a yard in the back; he didn’t have any of that when he was born.
So I think that we [Americans] have a lot of whining and needless drama. I’m glad my father was the man that he was. I don’t think he would have wanted to hear me complain particularly having had a chance to go to Yale Law School, with him having fought for affirmative action; with me having had a chance to work in the White House for the first black President who people fought, marched and died for; with me having had a chance to leave the White House, teach at Princeton, then go to CNN.
I just refuse to accept that I’m going to be defined by what a few mean, dumb people say about me on Fox News; that’s not what I wake up in the morning thinking about. I do wake up thinking about how we’re going to get kids jobs, how we’re going to start closing some of these prisons, bringing some of these kids home, and how we can make the country better and stronger. I hope that’s what most people would want me to be focused on.
Talk2SV: In closing, Crossfire lost its luster with me years ago; I’m not one for unproductive cross talk, people talking over each other and such. Clearly biased in this regard your presence on the show has inspired me to re-up, so to speak, in part due to someone with a Bay Area perspective on a national stage discussing pointed views.
JONES: I appreciate that. I think all four of us, whether it’s Stephanie Cutter, who was such a powerful advocate for President Obama during his re-election in the 2012 cycle or whether it’s Newt Gingrich who is a genius for politics, political strategy and rhetoric, or S.E. Cupp, who is this up and coming conservative commentator and thinker. We all have our different bases of support; we all have our different networks of influence. I hope that the four of us together can bring in an audience of participants and viewers with many different points of view and do a good job in the process.
We will have some shows where people are screaming and yelling so much so I wanted to get up and leave; we’ve had other shows where it’s been so quiet that I wanted to scream and yell (laughter). That’s just the way TV works. I do believe if you stick with us and keep giving us a chance, I think what you’re going to see is one source you can watch and be guaranteed that after a half hour you’re going to be smarter than when you tuned in. You will hear arguments that you have not heard elsewhere on television, rebuttals that are more comprehensive than you’ve heard on television and people laughing, having a good time while we disagree. Disagreeing politically but not being disrespectful personally. That’s what we’re going to try and do on Crossfire.
To your point about regional views, honestly there’s not enough Californians on television, it’s mostly New York and DC. You have Tavis Smiley, Bill Maher, New York and DC progressives…we’re different. In Northern California, we’re three time zones away, closer to Asia, closer to Silicon Valley, closer to Hollywood, closer to Berkeley and Oakland: we’re just a different breed, a different flavor, less concerned about Washington, DC, less concerned about the sub-committee’s sub-committee. We’re more interested in the future and I want to bring that perspective forward.
It’s going to take me a while to find my voice and my footing but I think there’s a lot of wisdom on the west coast that is not yet being heard from on the national stage; I hope to try to fix that.