istory, even recent history, is often conveyed as the successes and failures of larger than life individuals who stride across a local, national or global stage like titans in Hellenistic mythology. From the moment he won the presidency in November 2008, President Obama rose to the ranks of Queen Elizabeth I, Napoleon, Bismarck, Mao and Thatcher; people who are viewed as emblematic of the age in which they lived. In books written by those on the right, President Obama dominates the narrative as a particularly dastardly villain bent on transforming the United States into a godless, Muslim, socialist nation of slaves (The glaring contradictions in that particular portrayal does not stop the president’s detractors from believing, or at least proselytizing, that perspective.) His supporters portray him as a once in a lifetime transformative figure with a mandate from heaven to right the nation, and as goes the United States, so goes the world. Refreshingly, Rebuild the Dream by Van Jones (Nation Books published on April 3, 2012) moves away from individual hero worship and places candidate and President Obama within a larger movement, allowing Jones to convincingly analyze the rise of the progressive left in the first decade of the 21st century. The book also charts the failings of the progressive left following the 2008 election and its potential to change the United States in the near future.
As a community organizer as activist, Jones has developed the ability to talk to multiple audiences in an engaging way, a talent on full display in Rebuild the Dream. His lucid writing style works well, whether he is describing policy prescriptions or relating personal anecdotes. Jones is particularly strong when describing the origins of the progressive and moderate coalition that captured the Democratic nomination and the Presidency for President Obama. Smartly, he locates the beginning of the Obama electorate in the anti-Iraq war movement that Republicans ignored. Similarly, Jones deftly explains the rise and failings of the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movements in objective but engaging language that illuminates American’s shared experiences and hopes across the ideological divides fracturing us. More impressively, he gives a detailed explanation of the “Heart Space/Head Space” framework for understanding how some social movements capture the public imagination and translate the emotional response into political power, while others fail to influence the national discourse, all without his prose becoming overly dense and/or academic.
First, however, he tells his own story. In the 34 page prologue, he succinctly conveys his academic resume (Yale Law School), a brief description of his parents (Southerners born during the age of Jim crow), demonstrates the importance of his late father in shaping the man he has become (his father encouraged him to focus on jobs as a way to cure many of ails plaguing the poor while continuing to hold the political system accountable to all its citizens) and describes his experience working in the White House. His time in the Obama administration was cut short by the right wing media machine that promoted a series of attacks against him, the fatal one being his signing of a petition accusing President George W. Bush of orchestrating the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. The story was not true, but that did not matter. The media of all stripes reported the charges as if they were true, and preferred the taste of manufactured scandal over reporting on more serious issues facing the country still at risk of entering a second depression. Van Jones fell on his sword, even though the White House was willing to defend him to the last, because he did not want the president he had helped to elect to waste precious political capital on clearing his reputation.
Whether his decision to leave the White House happened exactly like he described or not, his decision to minimize his own story, and that of President Obama’s, in Rebuild the Dream, in favor of telling the story of the millions from the right and the left who have participated in mass movement political activism during the last ten years, speaks to a level of generosity and humility not often found in pundits or politician. And though Rebuild the Dream shares the general DNA of works by media personalities looking to cash in on their notoriety and politicians looking to move up the pecking order or define their own legacy, it is too well-reasoned and too well-written (and too full of facts) to be dismissed as just another screaming manifesto or ghost written memoir.