How Van Jones Became a Star of the 2016 Campaign

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WASHINGTON — Last Thursday, Van Jones couldn’t even buy a tuna wrap here without a woman in her late 20s walking up to him to ask for a selfie. Two minutes later, the Argentine woman behind the counter gave him a thumbs up.

“It’s like this everywhere,” said Mr. Jones, 48. “I haven’t paid for a cab since the election.”

That is when this CNN commentator, whose fiery political exchanges with supporters of President-elect Donald J. Trump over the last nine months have often gone viral, declared that the Republican nominee’s victory represented a “whitelash” against a black president and a changing electorate, as well as a deeply painful moment for minorities in America.

“You tell your kids, ‘Don’t be a bigot,’” he said on camera. “You tell your kids, ‘Do your homework and be prepared.’ And then you have this outcome, and you have people putting children to bed tonight. And they’re afraid of breakfast. They’re afraid of, how do I explain this to my children?”

Perhaps predictably, these comments garnered swift outrage from some on the right, such as Rush Limbaugh, who said the election had “nothing to do with white people wanting their country back on racial concerns.” But in the liberal enclaves Mr. Jones inhabits, they were treated as something like gospel: a moment of naked honesty in a campaign season filled with distortions.

“I’ve heard people say it was a star-making moment,” said Mr. Jones’s friend Ava DuVernay, the Oscar-nominated filmmaker. She quickly added that she had held him in that regard for quite some time, given his three-decade career in civil rights activism, his best-selling books on progressive issues and the considerable time he has spent on the lecture circuit.

Growing up in Jackson, Tenn., Mr. Jones knew from an early age he would wind up doing a version of what he is doing now. His parents were educators who taught him about the importance of hard work and social justice.

“In their view, excellence was a weapon against bigotry,” said Mr. Jones, who worked on a student newspaper at the University of Tennessee at Martin before going to Yale Law School.

Upon getting his law degree, Mr. Jones said, he moved to the Bay Area, was dumped after “like two weeks” by the woman he had relocated for and began working in criminal justice reform, starting the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, an organization he named after the pioneering activist who mentored Stokely Carmichael and Representative John Lewis of Georgia.

There, said Bryan Stevenson, who as the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative is one of the nation’s most prominent voices on issues of mass incarceration and race, Mr. Jones emerged as an “early architect” of the movement, who got “people all over the country to care about” criminal justice reform.

Right after Mr. Jones won a Reebok Human Rights Award in 1998, he spoke at the University of California, Berkeley, and met a law school student named Jana Carter, who ultimately became his wife. (They have two sons, 12 and 8, and live in Los Angeles. Mr. Jones asked that his children’s names not be published.)

But suing the police and staging protests took their toll. So did defending those who were released from prison but had no real opportunities for rehabilitation or employment. By 2002, Mr. Jones was seriously burned out.

“I went to counseling, meditation groups, did every kind of self-improvement course you could imagine,” Mr. Jones said. “Tony Robbins, Landmark Forum, Hoffman Institute. I was like Frankenstein, experimenting on myself.”

With former Vice President Al Gore’s green movement picking up steam, Mr. Jones soon had an epiphany: Why not try to bring together the fights against pollution and poverty, training nonviolent offenders to work in eco-friendly construction, doing things like installing solar panels. He saw it as an ideal form of manual labor, since it couldn’t be outsourced to other countries.

This became the subject of a best-selling book called “The Green Collar Economy” and led to a post in the Obama administration as an adviser to the president.

The honeymoon was short-lived.

Just six months after Mr. Jones arrived in Washington, the conservative talk-show host Glenn Beck started an investigation into his past and found evidence showing Mr. Jones had flirted with communism in college and had made impolitic comments about Republicans in a videotaped address.

Mr. Beck also charged that Mr. Jones had signed a 2004 petition from 911truth.org, a group that believes the United States government was involved with the attacks on the World Trade Center.

As the Drudge Report began linking to the stories and right-wing radio had a field day, it became clear that he had become a liability to the White House and he resigned.

Another dark period followed (”an emotional black hole,” as Mr. Jones described it), but he was able to rebuild his reputation.

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In July 2010, 911truth.org removed his name from a list of those who support its mission, after reviewing its records and failing to find evidence that Mr. Jones had signed the original petition. Then came a visiting professorship at Princeton University and a friendship with Prince, with whom he played table tennis, discussed black history (and was admonished by to stop swearing). And in 2012, CNN hired Mr. Jones to appear on a new iteration of “Crossfire” with Newt Gingrich, Stephanie Cutter and S. E. Cupp.

“The show did not last, but we loved Van’s voice,” said Jeff Zucker, the network’s president, who kept him on afterward as a commentator.

In March 2015, Mr. Jones went on the air to talk about the 50th anniversary of the march on Selma, Ala., and received a message on Twitter from Ms. DuVernay, the director of the Academy Award-winning film “Selma,” about the civil rights struggle that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1964.

They struck up a correspondence and went to breakfast in downtown Los Angeles, where Ms. DuVernay explained that she was working on a documentary about the criminal justice system for Netflix and wanted him to be a part of it.

He said yes and referred Ms. DuVernay to Mr. Gingrich, who despite being on the opposite side of the aisle, is now his good friend, and talks in the film about the disparity in sentencing guidelines for white users of powder cocaine and black users of crack cocaine.

Today, the movie, “13th,” is a front-runner for the Academy Award for Best Documentary, and Mr. Jones has set up a production company to identify multimedia projects.

Central to his progressive mission is finding common ground with right wingers, even as he disagrees with them on matters big and small.

“He makes the conversation better every time he’s a part of it,” said Anderson Cooper, the CNN anchor. “He’s not an ideologue who’s regurgitating talking points. He’s incredibly thoughtful.”

“There’s a ritual Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots quality to TV news, where everyone is supposed to come bludgeon the other person with their talking points,” Mr. Jones said. “And over the course of the last 18 months, I’ve fallen out of love with that. I think the truth is messy.”

That segues neatly to Mr. Jones’s new web series for CNN, called — what else? — “The Messy Truth.”

It debuted in late October, and the first episodes featured Mr. Jones going to Gettysburg, Pa., where he spoke with empathy and open-mindedness to Trump supporters, who discuss their economic concerns and heartbreak over being branded as racists simply because they support Mr. Trump.

Several thanked Mr. Jones at the end for really listening to them and asked him to pose for pictures. The symbolism of this black man surrounded by a phalanx of star-struck white Trump supporters was hard to miss.

Consequently, Mr. Jones didn’t want people to infer from his election-night comments that he thinks all of President-elect Trump’s supporters are bigots. At the same time, he thought it was essential not to brush aside the role of racism in Mr. Trump’s ascent.

“If you only focus on the toxic crap, you’re not being fair to the Trump voters,” Mr. Jones said. “But if you deny all the toxic crap, you’re not being fair to the rest of Americans.”

There is little denying that Mr. Jones is popular among his colleagues at CNN, particularly after watching him last Thursday evening on a rooftop set overlooking the Capitol for a special taping of “Anderson Cooper 360.”

A cameraman approached during one of the breaks and implored him to run for office. “Please!” Mr. Jones said, “I’m running from office.”

Then, Khizr Khan, the Muslim Gold Star father who spoke out against Mr. Trump at the Democratic National Convention, approached to praise Mr. Jones.

“We need more voices like his,” Mr. Khan said.

Mr. Jones had gotten into a testy interchange the night before with his Evangelical co-panelist Kayleigh McEnany as she all but accused him of race-baiting and he admonished her to stop interrupting him. Yet as they sat side by side near Mr. Cooper, shooting the breeze during commercials, it was clear no harm had been done.

“I think she’s amazing,” Mr. Jones said.

If there was anything disappointing about the evening, it was that Mr. Jones’s other on-camera nemesis — Jeffrey Lord, a staunch Trump defender and former aide to Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp — wasn’t there for one of their ferocious but friendly altercations.

“How can you not like Jeffrey?” Mr. Jones said. “He’s adorable. He’s like a Fraggle.”

Then he paused. “If a Fraggle had a tendency towards terrible revisionist history.”

“Which is exactly how I feel about him,” said Mr. Lord, speaking later by phone. “I think Van’s a terrific person and a great friend. We just disagree on everything, and God bless America.”

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