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Called to Serve

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Earlier this year the Obama administration enjoyed a few chuckles after pronouncing Rush Limbaugh the de facto head of the Republican Party. This comment made for good copy and, if it did not come back to haunt them, the proverbial nail in the coffin to a Republican Party reeling from an election defeat that not only reinserted a Democrat into the white house, but also gave Democrats control of both the house and senate. Well that comment is coming back to haunt them and as any baseball fan can attest, you don't win the game in the first inning which is arguably what the Obama administration sought to do by invoking Limbaugh's name among the leadership ranks of its Republican counterparts. Media outlets cite the Obama administration's dwindling poll numbers and well-documented struggles advancing its signature pieces of legislation as foreshadowing an epic collapse, when in fact these events are symptomatic of a president's first year in office. As the post-victory euphoria subsides and the populace becomes increasingly impatient to see promises made during the campaign executed, presidents traditionally take a dip in poll numbers. What is singular to this administration however is that Obama must address two wars, an economic recession, a raging debate on health care and the most expansive media market in history clamoring for access and recognition.

One need only to examine this administration's struggles moving along health care reform to see how the comment about Limbaugh has impeded Obama's domestic policy agenda. Incendiary allegations about purported "death panels" and "killing grandma" that were only a decade ago synonymous with "shock jocks" became daily talking points thereby morphing a referendum on health care to an endless exercise of debunking health scares. As has often been the case during Obama's ascent these last two years health care reform has emerged as another teachable moment on the power of language, and how if wielded negligently it can undermine the common good. Unfortunately while media personalities like Lou Dobbs can traffic in scurrilous allegations regarding whether Obama was born in the United States without any real recourse -- the president and other elected officials (who are actually held accountable by the people who elected them into office) must make amends for any errors regardless of how minor or vague the infraction. The most recent case centers on Van Jones, the president's green jobs "czar" who resigned on Saturday.

Jones's resignation stemmed from the fallout surrounding a discovery that in 2004 he signed a petition for a new inquiry into 9/11 that suggested that Bush administration officials might have been complicit the attack. Signing this petition without giving more thought to the broader ramifications of his name appearing on this document, not to mention its broader intended message was a mistake on Jones' part. Yet, anyone who has witnessed Jones' evolution from his days as a student activist at University of Tennessee at Martin and Yale Law School, to utilizing his law degree working to pursue more just and equitable rights for those in this nations prison system, before eventually becoming one of the more recognizable figures in this nation's environmental justice movement finds the passionate conviction to help this nation fulfill its democratic ideals underlying careers of iconic figures ranging from Thomas Paine to Martin Luther King Jr. to Al Gore.

Absent of historical context conservatives have conveniently neglected to point out that Jones' biography echoes that of his fellow Yale law alum Justice Clarence Thomas, who at one point in time had an affinity for Malcolm X. Thomas as some recall coined the term "high tech lynching" to counter suggestions by liberal senators that he was unqualified to sit on the Supreme Court. Jones' conservative opponents and most media coverage of his unfolding saga have not even bothered to address whether he's qualified for his job, instead opting to focus attention on his penchant for hyperbole when discussing well-documented Bush administration failures in energy policy.

Jones' qualifications matter less because his antagonist is not a singular elected GOP official because were that the case, then the Party of Lincoln would have to answer if Jones' alleged dubious associations before being appointed are significant grounds for his dismissal, then why has the party of Lincoln allowed Democratic Senator Robert Byrd to serve fifty-two years in the senate despite the fact that he was once a member of the Ku Klux Klan. However, comparing any of the organizations of which Jones has been a member to the KKK is to do his work (and that of these organizations) a grave disservice because contrary to what Jones' detractors at Fox news and on conservative radio talk shows would like Americans to believe none of these groups have harmed American citizens in a manner remotely approaching the KKK, nor was it their intent.

The libelous accusations hailed toward Jones' work prior to joining the Obama administration is part of a long-standing tradition of vilifying progressive organizations working on behalf of African Americans dating back to the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the NAACP and later on SNCC. Over the last thirty years GOP officials have used similar tactics to undercut Jimmy Carter's environmental policies (initiatives that most people would now acknowledge were rather prescient) and pilloried challengers of Reagan economic policies with recurring allusions to a nebulous spirit known as the welfare queen. These diversions have had a dual effect of passing as domestic policy in some circles and stalling the efforts of the two previous Democratic administrations to adequately staff a variety of departments. Thus, while a figure like Byrd has been granted half-a-century in office to acquit himself of past misdeeds, legions of Democratic public servants like Jones have been summarily dismissed early in their tenures or not given a chance to serve at all as confirmations for senior officials remained in limbo.

However, Republican representatives either in Congress or the Senate have barely factored into this controversy swirling around Jones because his antagonist is Fox News personality Glenn Beck, who along with the aforementioned Limbaugh and Dobbs has achieved a significant level of notoriety by making outlandish claims about President Obama. Beck has become so flippant with his derogatory accusations that he was recently targeted in an on-line campaign by Color of Change, an online advocacy organization akin to MoveOn co-founded by Jones to mobilize people of color in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Color of Change called for Beck's resignation because of his comments suggesting that President Obama was racist. While not successful in getting Beck fired, it did draw enough attention to persuade a number of prominent advertisers to withdraw their ads from his program. In retaliation for this abrasion on his marketability Beck reinvigorated his campaign to slander Jones that stems back to July of this year.

Without much support from senior Obama officials, Jones tendered his resignation declaring: 'I cannot in good conscience ask my colleagues to expend precious time and energy defending or explaining my past. " Jones joins Tom Daschle and Bill Richardson as other prominent appointees who resigned rather become distractions for this administration. Almost a year into his first term in office a number of departments are still struggling to staff their programs because of Obama's decision to employ the most vigilant vetting campaign in history, one that has disqualified a number of candidates from consideration who otherwise would have been retained by other administrations. While in the long run this infusion of rigorously vetted political appointees may serve this nation well, the only visible marker of this approach that has surfaced thus far is the swift ouster of figures such as Jones.

However, let us be clear that Jones' resignation is not a defeat for the Obama administration, but it's a defeat for anyone who believes in public service. By capitulating to a sophomoric, libelous crusade launched by a talk show host who has yet to display any accountability to this nation's citizens this administration has done a great disservice to those who willingly extend their talents to this country. Therefore if the Obama administration is adamant about recruiting the best and brightest of those who are called to serve, then it deserves to honor the commitments of these women and men by not allowing their careers and the ethical spine of our democracy to be compromised by a self-serving recalcitrant like Beck.

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