Candor and community activism vaulted Van Jones to the White House, but what were once seen as assets became liabilities amid the rough and rapid churn of the 24-hour cable-news cycle.
Jones resigned over the Labor Day weekend as President Obama's special adviser for "green jobs, enterprise and innovation," after reports linked him to efforts several years ago suggesting a U.S. government role in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Jones was not on the job quite six months, and he wasn't exactly a household name. But when he became the story -- if only briefly -- he became a distraction and had to go.
"On the eve of historic fights for health care and clean energy, opponents of reform have mounted a vicious smear campaign against me," Jones said in a statement early Sunday. "They are using lies and distortions to distract and divide.
"I cannot in good conscience ask my colleagues to expend precious time and energy defending or explaining my past," Jones continued. "We need all hands on deck, fighting for the future."
Jones is Obama's first environmental adviser to resign, but conservative adversaries are vowing to dig deeper into the past of other policy "czars" to raise questions about the president's judgment and policies.
In a Twitter posting late last week, Fox News commentator Glenn Beck urged his viewers to "find everything you can on Cass Sunstein, Mark Lloyd and Carol Browner."
Browner, who was U.S. EPA administrator under President Clinton, serves as Obama's special assistant for energy and climate change -- a position dubbed by some as the "climate czar." Lloyd serves as the Federal Communication Commission's chief diversity officer (aka the "diversity czar"), while Sunstein is Obama's nominee to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs within the White House Office of Management and Budget.
'Political environment is rough'
Jones' downfall is remarkable for its swift and personal nature.
The story begins with Beck, who called Obama a "racist" with a "deep-seated hatred for white people" during a "Fox & Friends" program on July 28. Seeking to back up his claim, Beck cited Jones as a "black nationalist who is also an avowed communist."
ColorOfChange.org, a group Jones helped launch in 2005, led an advertising boycott of Beck's show. Major advertisers, including Wal-Mart, Mercedes-Benz and HSBC moved their money elsewhere, but Beck's allies took to the Web.
On Sept. 1, the group DefendGlenn.com began circulating a video of a California speech in which Jones calls Senate Republicans "assholes" for their legislative tactics. The comment -- recorded last February before Jones joined the White House Council on Environmental Quality -- was in response to an audience member who lamented that Democrats were less effective than Republicans in using their majority to pass energy legislation.
Jones' reply: "Well the answer to that is, they're assholes."
He added, "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."
Beck made Jones a frequent target on his show, labeling him a "radical who wants to fundamentally change America." Beck reported that Jones participated during the 1990s in the former Bay Area collective STORM (Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement), which supported Marxist principles and "militant, direct action."
The Jones story reached a tipping point Sept. 3 when the conservative blog "Gateway Pundit" reported that the best-selling author of "The Green Collar Economy" signed a 2004 petition that called for congressional hearings and other investigations into whether the Bush administration allowed the Sept. 11 attacks to occur as a pretext for war in the oil-rich Middle East.
Mainstream media began asking questions of their own.
An Obama administration source told ABC News that Jones did not carefully review the language in the petition before signing it. Jones underscored that the petition "does not reflect my views now or ever."
It was too late.
By Friday afternoon, Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), ranking member on the Environment and Public Works Committee's panel that oversees green jobs, had called for a hearing to probe Jones' "fitness" to serve as a presidential adviser. Like Beck, Bond cited Jones' participation in the STORM collective and the "assholes" comment.
"Unfortunately, this episode is just the latest in a pattern of Mr. Jones' incendiary remarks that only divide Americans ...," Bond wrote. "Earlier this year in a speech in Berkeley, California on energy, Mr. Jones referred to Republicans in crude, scatological words unfit for print."
Less than 48 hours later, White House political adviser David Axelrod was asked on NBC's "Meet the Press" whether Jones was the victim of a smear campaign.
"The political environment is rough, so these things get magnified," Axelrod replied.
On ABC's "This Week," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said that "what Van Jones decided was that the agenda of this president was bigger than any one individual."
"The president thanks Van Jones for his service," Gibbs added.
Beck does not appear eager to move on so quickly.
"I continue to be amazed by the power of everyday Americans to initiate change in our government through honest questioning," Beck wrote on his Web site during the weekend. "And judging by the other radicals in this administration, I expect that questioning to continue for the foreseeable future."
Sunstein, Obama's pick to run OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, received a tepid welcome by some Senate lawmakers.
Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, put a hold on Sunstein's nomination this summer over concerns about his positions on animal welfare and the Second Amendment. Sunstein has suggested in past writings and speeches that animals should be given legal rights against injury or neglect. The Harvard University law professor has also asserted that the Second Amendment may not confer to individuals the right to use guns but may apply only to collective militias organized for common defense.
Chambliss lifted his hold on Sunstein's nomination as "regulatory czar" in July -- three months after his confirmation hearing -- only after Sunstein wrote the Georgia Republican promising he "would not take any steps to promote litigation on behalf of animals," and that "the Second Amendment creates an individual right to possess guns for purposes of both hunting and self-defense" (E&E Daily, July 17).
Browner is perhaps the highest-profile Obama aide drawing fire from conservatives.
In a January episode of his radio show, Beck described Browner as Obama's new "socialist climate czar." In July, House Democrats fended off an appropriations bill amendment from Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) that would have eliminated the salaries of Browner and other CEQ staffers (E&E Daily, July 17).
"We do not need and should not have czars," Broun said on the House floor. "The last time I checked, only pre-Communist Russia had czars, and we are certainly not Russia."
Broun noted that Obama had more than 30 such advisers, many of whom did not require Senate confirmation. The Georgia Republican went on to charge that Browner and other Obama environmental advisers do not factor in the opinions of those who dispute that human actions are causing global climate change.
Joe Romm, an Energy Department undersecretary in the Clinton administration and current fellow with the liberal Center for American Progress, said it is fair to scrutinize White House advisers. But he dismissed Beck's charges that Browner and Jones are socialists as modern-day McCarthyism.
"To be a socialist in Beck's book, all you need to do is understand climate science and clean energy and talk about it," Romm said. "The right wing doesn't need an excuse."
Jerry Taylor, a senior fellow with the libertarian Cato Institute, said scrutiny of Jones' past comments was "standard operating political procedure," not some "right wing conspiracy."
"Political opponents always have and always will seize on politically embarrassing statements and actions to portray the opposition as stupid, crass and/or extreme," Taylor added. "Republicans and Democrats have played this game since time immemorial. Sometimes the resulting outrage is warranted, sometimes it is not."
Past administrations have also had czars. Remember George H.W. Bush's "drug czar" William Bennett or Bill Clinton's "health-care czar" Ira Magaziner? The term may have run its course in modern politics, however (none other than Van Jones eschewed the "czar" label in favor of the folksy "green-jobs handyman" title).
House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence of Indiana, in calling for Jones' resignation last week, urged Obama to suspend further "czar" appointments until Congress has an opportunity to "examine the background and responsibilities of these individuals and to determine the constitutionality of such appointments."
Ron Bonjean, a former chief of staff to the Senate Republican Conference and now a political consultant, warned that Obama has created a "boomerang effect" by naming an unprecedented number of czars and "dodging" the Senate confirmation process.
"By doing so, there could be plenty of past controversial positions taken by these czars that are just waiting to be found and explode like ticking time bombs," Bonjean added.
Obama does not appear to be bowing to critics.
On Monday, Obama appointed Ron Bloom to serve as his senior counselor for manufacturing policy. The media promptly dubbed him "manufacturing czar" (see related story).
Bloom already serves as a senior adviser to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on the administration's Task Force on the Automotive Industry. In his new job, he will work with the departments of Commerce, Labor, Treasury and Energy to develop initiatives to revitalize the domestic manufacturing sector.
Senior reporter Darren Samuelsohn contributed.