Wild Acorns?

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Conservative activists and talk show hosts, continuing a crusade begun during the presidential campaign, have been calling for their compatriots to dig up dirt on appointees and beneficiaries of Obama administration funding. The result has been an effort by the Democrats to quickly blunt any controversy by terminating links with anyone deemed controversial.

Recently, a low-level White House environmental official named Van Jones was forced to resign after it was revealed that several years ago he had signed a petition suggesting that the Bush administration might have allowed the 9/11 attacks to happen. Little good follow-up reporting was done to offer any context. For example, the thrust of the petition was a series of questions that the signers felt the Bush White House was not answering. Also not mentioned was that the other signers were a group of generally serious if outspoken activists and whistleblowers, including, for example, Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers that changed America’s understanding of the Vietnam War, as well as professors and several former CIA employees.

The latest casualty is the community organizing group ACORN, which aided Obama’s campaign. As described by the New York Times, conservative activists masquerading particularly outlandishly as a prostitute and her pimp, visited ACORN offices with hidden cameras, and got ACORN workers to offer advice on how the two could obtain U.S. funding for operating a brothel—and, one employing underaged immigrant girls, no less.

The Acorn controversy came a week after the resignation of Van Jones, a White House environmental official attacked by conservatives, led by Glenn Beck of Fox News Channel, for once signing a petition suggesting that Bush administration officials might have deliberately permitted the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Even before Mr. Jones stepped down, Mr. Beck had sent a message to supporters on Twitter urging them to “find everything you can” on three other Obama appointees. Conservatives believe that they have hit upon a winning formula for such attacks: mobilizing people to dig up dirt, trumpeting it on talk radio and television, prompting Congress to weigh in and demanding action from the Obama administration.

In response to the Acorn videos, an instant hit on YouTube, the Senate voted 83 to 7 on Monday to prohibit the Department of Housing and Urban Development from giving federal housing money to the organization. The bill’s advocates said the group had received $53 million in such financing since 1994. Last Friday, the Census Bureau dropped Acorn as one of 80,000 national unpaid “partners” helping promote the 2010 census, saying the group’s involvement might “create a negative connotation” and discourage participation in the population count.

Obviously, ACORN has some fairly problematical people working for it (signature fraud by scattered workers in the 2008 campaign confirmed that.) The troubling thing here is that ACORN is a huge organization that seeks to empower and involve low-income people and so of necessity includes a wide range of individuals without standard resumes and track records. What we need to know is how representative the miscreants are of the overall composition of ACORN. We do not know how many times the faux-“pimp and ho” duo visited ACORN offices before it found workers willing and able to fulfill their objectives. There’s little doubt that if you look long enough, you can find some Wal-Mart clerk who will sell a gun and then, in response to encouragement, make some shockingly inappropriate comment about the use of that firearm. The truth is that there are dodgy characters in virtually every large organization in America.

Unfortunately, the Times piece is just a surface look at the controversy. If organized groups are going to have this kind of impact on the government—and all from one partisan position—then we need much more careful scrutiny of the particulars. We also need some balance. The same hosts who are calling for the defunding of groups like ACORN and removal of officials like Jones showed no such concern for the many Bush administration officials shown to be involved with improprieties, including Bush’s own domestic policy adviser, Claude Allen, arrested for an elaborate shoplifting scheme and then quietly shuffled offstage. And of course there was President Bush’s top adviser, Karl Rove, who had a long track record of dubious behavior and dirty tricks prior to coming to the White House—which continued at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue—but whose tenure was never seriously challenged.

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