Van Jones, School Speech Top List of Distractions for Obama

The White House faces controversy on two fronts ahead of speech on health care.

September 7, 2009, 8:42 AM

Sept. 7, 2009— -- As President Barack Obama prepares to address Congress and the nation this week on his goals for health care overhaul, he's facing fire on several fronts -- the unexpected resignation of his "green jobs" adviser Anthony "Van" Jones and his speech to school children Tuesday that has sparked outrage from the right.

The White House tried to put the Jones controversy behind it as quickly as possible. His resignation was released in the middle of the night, just after midnight, on a holiday weekend. But it hasn't been able to quell questions about the behavior of Obama's special adviser at the Council on Environmental Quality.

"This shows a real weakness in the vetting of lower-level officials," said Mike Allen, chief political correspondent at "They were so interested in filling jobs they did not look into the past statements of people the way they would have for top-level people, and what we saw here, the right, if they focus on a specific person, can do real damage."

"I understand he was pretty good at it, but it came back to haunt him," Allen said on "Good Morning America" today.

Jones, 40, had been hailed by many influential politicians, such as Al Gore, for his efforts to create jobs related to renewable energy, such as wind and solar power. But it was his comments and activities outside his official position that made him fodder for attacks by Republicans, and eventually cost him his job.

In 2004, Jones signed a petition called the "911 Truth Statement, a call for immediate inquiry into evidence that suggests high-level government officials may have deliberately allowed the September 11th attacks to occur." The best-selling author of "The Green Collar Economy" was also caught on tape, now circulating widely on YouTube, making derogatory comments about Republicans.

"You've never seen a Columbine done by a black child," Jones, who's African-American, said in the 2005 video. "Never. They always say, 'We can't believe it happened here. We can't believe these suburban white kids.' It's only them."

The environmental advocate apologized for his remarks, which conservatives labeled racist, and White House officials said he had not properly read the statement on 9/11 before signing it. But with Republicans seizing on the evidence mounting against him, and the president already falling in his approval ratings, Jones' defense was not enough.

"We have told you he's an avowed radical communist, revolutionary," conservative commentator Glenn Beck, who rallied against Jones last week, said on his cable TV program.

White House Distances Itself From Jones

Jones, a Yale law school graduate, whom Time magazine named this year as one of its 100 most influential people, said he was the target of a smear campaign to derail the administration's real message.

"On the eve of historic fights for health care and clean energy, opponents of reform have mounted a vicious smear campaign against me," he said in a written statement announcing his resignation. "They are using lies and distortions to distract and divide. I have been inundated with calls -- from across the political spectrum -- urging me to 'stay and fight.' But I came here to fight for others, not for myself. I cannot in good conscience ask my colleagues to expend precious time and energy defending or explaining my past. We need all hands on deck, fighting for the future."

The White House tried to distance itself from Jones, and said the decision to resign was his alone.

When asked by ABC News' George Stephanopoulos if the president endorsed what Jones said, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said, "He doesn't but he thanks him for his service.

"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 in the first eight months helping to coordinate renewable-energy jobs and lay the foundation for our future economic problem," Gibbs said Sunday on "This Week with George Stephanopoulos."

Obama's other advisers also making the rounds on Sunday talk shows declined to discuss whether they thought Jones was the target of a smear campaign and what the president had to say about the controversy.

"I haven't spoken to the president about this," White House senior adviser David Axelrod said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "As you know, this -- this thing has bubbled up in the last few days and, frankly, my conversations with the president have mostly been about health care, which is where our focus should be right now."

But others outside of the administration defended Jones.

"This guy is a Yale-educated lawyer," Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said on "Fox News Sunday."

"He's a best-selling author about his specialty. I think he was brought down, I think it's too bad. Washington is a tough place that way."

White House's Lesson Plans Spark Controversy

The Jones controversy has been a distraction from what could be a critical week for the president on health care legislation, and it's not what the White House wants to focus on. With his poll numbers falling, the president will take the dramatic step of addressing a joint session of Congress Wednesday to turn around the debate.

"If he is perceived to fail on health care, it is going to raise significant questions about leadership, his leadership and really, when you get down to it, that's what the presidency is about," said political analyst Stuart Rothenberg of The Rothenberg Political Report.

To add to the list of message distractions this week, the president's planned speech to school children Tuesday is also taking some heat and being boycotted by some school districts and parents.

At the center of the debate is the White House's lesson plan, which suggested that students write a letter about how they could "help the president."

"Shouldn't it be a speech in prime time in our homes to all of us? With Parents? Do I need to go to my child's school and embarrass her in front of her friends and watch it with her?" said one parent, Mike Ballou of the Douglas County schools in Colorado.

President George H.W. Bush made a similar call during his presidency, asking schoolchildren to write a letter to him stating how they could help him achieve his goals.

The White House seems befuddled by the push back on the school speech. One official called the debate silly. Today, officials will release a transcript, hoping to prove that the president's speech to the nation's youngsters on the value of studying and going to school is not a political speech.

"What this pointed to is the fact there is a real distrust out in the country of this president," Politico's Allen said. "That it's not a 50-50 country. That it's not an Obama nation and that's what we saw bubbling up this summer with health care as the catalyst."

Allen added that the president will really have to hone his message on health care when he appears before Congress Wednesday.

"Over the next 60 hours, the president has to figure out, 'am I going to be a leader or a legislator, or will I say something clear and convincing or be vague and defensive?'" Allen said. "They're still working this out."

ABC News' Huma Khan contributed to this report.

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