In the last five years, Van Jones has gone from progressive activist to White House green-job advisor to right-wing punching bag to ascendant TV pundit. In 2009, shortly after joining the Obama administration as an advisor on green jobs, Jones was accused (wrongly, it turned out) of signing a 9/11 "truther" petition. He resigned amidst an ensuing Glenn Beck-stoked scandal and founded Rebuild the Dream, a liberal answer to the Tea Party with a membership of around 500,000. He's also become a frequent talking head on CNN – and last month, he debuted as a co-host of the network's newly re-launched half-hour debate show Crossfire, along with Newt Gingrich, libertarian pundit S.E. Cupp and former Obama communications strategist Stephanie Cutter. We talked to Jones about his new gig, his old boss and his lifelong love of all things Newt.
Considering the way you were treated on cable news during the truther controversy, what appealed to you about getting into this kind of TV punditry?
Well, I don't know if those things are necessarily related. I suppose I definitely learned the power of media during those couple weeks, and the importance of having real debate over real topics as opposed to phony debates over fake topics. But regardless of that, I came of age watching Crossfire with my dad, and my dad was an African-American Southerner who had been a cop in the military. He didn't agree with the liberals or the conservatives on almost anything. He felt like they were out of touch with real life on both sides. It's really impossible to describe that feeling of sitting in that chair and being onscreen with my kids looking at what I was looking at when I was a kid. It's weird how life works out.
Your views tend to be to the left of the president, but you'll often be put in the position of defending him. Is that a challenge?
It's an uncomfortable place to be, often. First of all, the show has Stephanie Cutter, who in her heart is much closer to where the president is. I'm a West Coast progressive, not a D.C. Democrat at all. I have no problem challenging the president, and I have. I've challenged the president on drones, on the NSA and on the Keystone pipeline. On my Twitter feed, half the time I'm being called a traitor to Obama and half the time I'm being called a puppet for Obama.
In 2005, Jon Stewart went on Crossfire and said the show was "hurting America." CNN cancelled it. What did you think of that at the time?
I didn't care a whole lot, because I wasn't focused on cable news at that time. I'd just had a little boy. I was more worried about diapers. But what I will say is that Crossfire went off the air in 2005 and American television got worse. It didn't get better.
How do you get along with Newt Gingrich?
In a strange way, I've been a huge Newt Gingrich fan since he took over Congress. When I first met him, I said, "I am the only person in the United States, including your wife, who's read all your books." I've been debating Newt Gingrich in my mind for 20 years – so getting a chance to debate him on national television every night is a huge honor to me, and we get along great. And I don't care what anybody on the left says, I admire people who get out here and try to make a difference in the country.
On the right, he's seen as a man of "big ideas." What's your favorite of his big ideas?
Newt and I actually agree that the criminal justice system is hopelessly broken and unfair. My favorite idea we want to do, at some point, is some sort of joint initiative on fixing the criminal justice system so it wastes less money and has better outcomes for kids.
Would you trade being on TV to be back in the administration working on policies you care about?
You know, I think I am a better outsider than I am an insider. And I'm so glad that I had the opportunity to spend six months on the inside. I think it gives me a lot more insight into how tough those jobs are in the White House. But I think I'm a better outsider. I wouldn't want anybody to go through what I went through. Look – all those media firestorms, they're kind of like the scandal of the day, but if you're in the middle of those crosshairs, it's a life-changing experience. You're really never quite the same person again, because it's just such a feeling of helplessness. I wouldn't wish it on anybody, not even Glenn Beck.
Speaking of Glenn Beck, you are hosting a TV show right now and he is not. That must be pretty vindicating.
Look, nobody should underestimate Glenn Beck. Even though he's not on TV, Glenn Back made 80 million dollars last year with a media empire that goes from radio to online, and now he's back with some sort of far-flung cable deal. The story of Glenn Beck is just starting. He'll be back too. I have as much respect for Glenn Beck as I have for Newt Gingrich. These guys are for real and I think that it's very easy, whether it be me four years ago or Glenn Beck now, to write people off in American life. You haven't heard the last of either one of us.