Guest of Honor

Van Jones Enters the Crossfire

Charley Gallay / Getty Images

Van Jones is a prominent progressive activist and former Obama Administration official. Now he’s taking on a new kind of public position: TV host.

This week, CNN re-launches the political roundtable show “Crossfire” after an eight-year hiatus, and Van will be speaking for the left of the political spectrum alongside Stephanie Cutter.  His ideological opponents: Newt Gingrich and S. E. Cupp.


Brendan Francis Newnam: How did you feel about entering the world of cable news?

Van Jones: They aren’t asking me to represent the Republican party, so I’m not too far outside of my domain.

I grew up watching “Crossfire” in my late teens and in college with my Dad. I learned a lot about politics by watching. Because my Dad’s a black guy, he’s a Southerner, he’s an ex-cop in the military – so he doesn’t agree with the liberals or the conservatives, and he’s sitting there yelling at the TV the whole time. I really learned a lot about politics with this show and my dad, so I didn’t have any misgivings at all.

Brendan Francis Newnam: When you were a kid, you were politically aware, as I understand it. In fact, I read that you renamed your Star War figures so that they were Kennedys? Is that true?

Van Jones: True story. Luke Skywalker was JFK, Han Solo was RFK, and Lando Calrissian was MLK. That is a true story.

Brendan Francis Newnam: That is crazy. What were you doing with them in the backyard? Were they lecturing? Having affairs with other action figures?

Van Jones: I was running them for office. I would run JFK for attorney general. I don’t know, I was weird, man. What can I say?

Brendan Francis Newnam: You were a nerdy dude.

Van Jones:  I made Urkel look cool; I was not a cool kid.  But hey, great training for “Crossfire.”

Brendan Francis Newnam: All right, so in all the years that you watched “Crossfire,” did anyone from across the political aisle change your mind? Because I wonder if debate shows do anything more than reinforce people’s pre-existing opinions.

Van Jones: It’s so hard to know. If you are a political junkie, you get so many political influences.

I do think though that timing is everything. I think we are at a point where people are tired of argument just for it’s own sake, and the political dysfunction that is crippling the government. I think people really do want to hear a more authentic dialogue and debate.

What is great about the way that we are doing it now is that there is not going to be a live audience.  There is going to be 30 minutes, no audience, small table, one topic for the whole 30 minutes. That means that you’re gonna be out of your talking points by the first commercial break.  And our hope is that it will actually be a place where both the left and the right can come forward for a more energetic – but also more elevated – conversation.

Brendan Francis Newnam: This is probably as good a time as any to bring up John Stewart’s appearance on “Crossfire,” the old version of the show.

He made an appearance in 2004, a few months before it was cancelled, and he came on the show and he asked the then-hosts Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson to stop making the show.

He said that they were “hurting America” with their “political hackery,” he said “Saying this is a debate show is like saying pro wrestling is a sport.” A few months later CNN cancelled the show.

Brendan Francis Newnam: First of all, what do you think of Stewart’s take on the show, and what if anything makes this new iteration of “Crossfire” different?

Van Jones: Well, that was a famous moment in time in American television, and it has become somewhat iconic.

What I will say is this: After “Crossfire” went off the air, television got worse. It didn’t get better, it got worse.

Tim Russert died and you suddenly end up in a situation where, in my view, there are very few places in American life where both sides have to sit down and have a conversation.  You can look at one cable outlet and hear the right wing beat up on the left wing all day long with very little representation from the left. Or you can look at the other station where it’s the left wing beating up on the right wing all day long with very little representation from the conservatives. There is really no place where you’ve [both] got to eat your Wheaties and show up and survive a serious cross examination, even-steven. I think we need that again now.

Brendan Francis Newnam: But part of his critique wasn’t that people weren’t voicing their opinions — it was that they were basically voicing the talking points of their respective parties.

Do you feel that you are going to add different conversations and add new ones that don’t already exist on other shows and channels?

Van Jones: I think it’s a debate and people can go back and forth.

For instance, something is happening right now in American politics: there’s a liberal-libertarian alliance. A left-right alliance is developing on a number of topics, whether you are talking about the NSA, whether you are talking about should we go into this war with Syria, whether you are talking about marijuana, whether you are talking about marriage equality. You can’t just say, “The left thinks this and the right thinks that.”

There will be times when I will be debating Stephanie Cutter, who is a Democrat. We don’t agree on everything. If you’ve seen me and Newt on TV this week, we can’t find anything to debate because we agree on Syria: stay out.

I just think the show is not going to be as predictable as people might fear.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Okay, well here are two things that are predictable, but not to be feared: they are our two standard questions.

The first question is if we were at a dinner party with you, what question should we not ask you? What question are you, Van Jones, tired of being asked?

Van Jones: I am tired of being asked any question about Glen Beck or the White House. So if anybody doesn’t know, they can Google that.

Brendan Francis Newnam: For those who can’t Google at the moment, you briefly worked at the White House. When you were there, Glen Beck started making hay about the slightly-radical politics of your youth. He also pointed out a speech where you used very strong language to describe Republicans and you ultimately resigned from your position at the White House, because you said that it would distract from the President’s agenda

Van Jones: It’s just boring when people come up to me in airports, public restrooms… I don’t want to have a conversation about it.

Politics is a contact sport, and everybody has good days and bad days in politics – but trying to explain that to my kids at the farmer’s market four years later is kind of boring.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I’m sure no one is going to come up to you now that you are on a major news network expounding on progressive politics.

Van Jones: Exactly.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Our second question is more of a request: tell us something we don’t know, and this can be more about you, or it could be an interesting factoid…

Van Jones: I was a comic book nerd when nobody knew who the X-Men were. Nobody had heard the difference between Marvel comics and DC comics. Now, in my 40s, it’s so crazy to have all these characters and stuff and big mythology be a huge part of American culture.

When I grew up in the rural south on the edge of a small town, there was not a single comic book store.  You’d have to go to a convenience store, and they’d have a round rack, and you’d have to wait for your comic books to come.  You’d have to be a real geek to be into it, and I was a comic book nerd when being into it was not cool.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I’m thinking about your action figures… Were your comic books called “The Economist” and “Newsweek” by any chance? Or were they actual comic books?

Van Jones: They were actual comic books! Especially the X-Men, because you had this group of outsiders who were trying to do well, even though nobody could relate to them… and somehow I could relate to that.