11/10/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Van Jones May Be Better Off on the Outside

Imagine for a moment that it's 1977 and that Martin Luther King was still alive and had just been nominated by newly-elected President Jimmy Carter to serve as secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

No doubt King would've brought enormous skills and experience to this endeavor, especially when his civil rights critique expanded to uplifting those burdened by the suffocating conditions of abject poverty.

But a Congress not far removed from Watergate, along with the last soldiers leaving Vietnam, might have had a difficult time confirming King, given his long-standing and outspoken views on the war.

I strongly believe King's stance on the war represented one of his greatest moments. But the intense scrutiny of a confirmation hearing could allow his detractors to take his comments out of context.

More than the statements, the challenge for King would be crossing the divide from social activism to inside-the-Beltway player.

Historically speaking, this is seldom achieved successfully in American politics, with the possible exception of someone who is elected by the voters. Even then, one must recalibrate activist sensibilities if that person is to successfully represent a constituency in Congress.

This brings me to the central problem that plagued Van Jones. Jones, who went from well-known Bay Area activist to national figure with a book on the New York Times best seller list, was the green jobs czar in the Obama administration who was forced to resign last week.

In his attempt to morph from outside agitator to political insider, Jones became the tangible example of the liberal straw man for conservative television commentator Glenn Beck.

Beck's criticisms were based on Jones, five years ago, signing a petition calling for an investigation into whether the Bush administration knowingly allowed the 9/11 terrorist attacks to take place as a pretext to war and that Jones used some unkind, unprintable words toward some Republicans -- words that Jones also used to describe himself and some Democrats.

The transition from outside activist to inside political player is not as easy as it may appear. As an activist, the First Amendment protects Jones, but inside-the-Beltway politics is played by very different rules that do not factor context or nuance. Nor does it necessarily care about free speech.

There is seldom a long-term consequence for a person's role as an activist because you are insulated by those who think as you do. But it is different inside politics. There is no statute of limitations for remarks that violate the groupthink motif, no matter how many years ago something was said.

If a criticism is to be leveled toward Jones, it would be that his ambitions to be an inside player should have caused him to be more strategic in the manner that he supported certain causes. But a close examination of what Jones actually said (a practice seldom employed by one's enemies) proved it wasn't nearly as inflammatory as it was made out to be in sound bites, and Beck's obviously biased analysis.

But the comments were just inflammatory enough to make Jones the low-hanging fruit ripe for Beck's picking. Beck gets something to crow about, and his devotees receive a morsel of red meat at virtually no expense to the Obama administration.

If one examined an organizational chart of the current administration, where does Jones fit? His position, though important to the environmental cause, would be hard to locate.

Ironically, this reality may have as much to do with Jones' demise as anything he said or the hyperbolic actions of Beck.

Of course the Obama administration was going to throw Jones under the bus. With health care, the economy and two wars, a green jobs czar is just not high on the priority list.

Some question the vetting process of the Obama administration. By all indications, based on what Jones actually said, he simply wasn't high enough on the administration pecking order to warrant expending inside political capital to defend him. This was exemplified by the terse comments by the administration immediately following Jones' resignation.

Government, by nature, is not a radical beast and it is not intended to be so. It generally behaves in radical ways only when it has no other choice; and it certainly is not interested in housing those who are viewed as radical, be it justified or not.

Although a casualty, Jones comes out of this incident better known nationally than when he entered. He will be well-positioned to return to his activist roots.

It may be that Beck, in his insatiable quest for relevance, has served the cause of the environmental movement more than he could have imagined by placing Van Jones back where he belongs -- on the outside.

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist and blog-talk radio host. He is the author of Strip Mall Patriotism: Moral Reflections of the Iraq War. E-mail him at or visit his Web site: