CNN's Van Jones on Bill Maher, Prince and That On-Air KKK Debate

Van Jones - Getty - H - 2016
Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic

Jones and Lord debated on-air after the KKK backed Donald Trump. According to Jones: "I knew we were on to something. The country is so divided right now that it is shocking to see two people having such a hard and honest conversation."

This is the latest in an ongoing series of one-on-ones with the political pundits who have been at the forefront of the cable-news conversations this election season.

Having sat and chatted with Van Jones once in a CNN green room, I can tell you he’s just like your favorite uncle that you see on occasion, but he doesn’t live close enough to really hang out with. Only difference is, President Obama wouldn’t recognize your uncle and call him for advice. And neither did Prince. So, sorry cool uncle, running into Prince that time doesn’t cut it, you’re no Van Jones. 

There’s more than enough to write about him, but going through his answers to our Pundit series questions will say it all, and better than we could. His way with delivery shows why he’s one of the trusted voices at The Most Trusted Name in News.

Age: 48
Current residence: Los Angeles
Education: B.S. in Communications & Political Science from the University of Tennessee at Martin (UT Martin), 1990. Yale Law School, 1993
Political persuasion: Left of Pluto [Van’s words]
Political experience: Social entrepreneur, founding five successful nonprofits. Special Advisor in the Obama White House. 
Network: CNN
Viral moment: Jones debated Jeffrey Lord on air when the KKK backed Donald Trump. The New York Times called this moment “five minutes or so of the most stunning TV of the year.” According to Jones: "As it was happening, I knew we were on to something. The country is so divided right now that it is shocking to see two people having such a hard and honest conversation."

Which networks do you appear on primarily, and why?
I am a proud member of the CNN team. If you hear of any big news event, anywhere in the world, you tune into CNN  we all do. I think I may be more popular in Nigeria then I am in New York. Why? They’re tuning into CNN.

How do you prep for appearances?

I graze the TV news channels all day. And I try to think about how I would explain any of the nonsense going on to folks in a barber shop or a Laundromat. I jot down those metaphors or jokes. And then I go on, and I just try to stay present. This year my “must have” prep item is my purple paisley tie. It is my salute to my friend Prince, whom I miss every day. 

How are you booked and how is it decided when you go on?
My bosses at CNN work with my team at the Dream Corps to decide when and where to be on set. At first it is a little like dating  knowing which shows want you and which shows you want to be on. I’ve tried my hand in a few different mediums. I co-hosted the debate show, Crossfire, with S.E. Cupp and Newt Gingrich. That was an amazing experience. (S.E. is my favorite person to be on TV with. And Newt and I are still good friends.) 

Are there any shows you can’t or won’t go on?
I have an exclusive contract with CNN. So I can’t go on most non-CNN shows. The only exceptions are Bill Maher and George Stephanopolous. Those were two guys who put me on TV when others wouldn’t. Also, I love doing stuff with Roland Martin, when I can. I really enjoy the Sunday tables like CNN’s State of the Union

What is a common misconception about being a pundit?
People think we all have a crew of people prepping us. Or that someone is whispering in our ear, telling us what to say. Or they think I can dictate what topics gets discussed. The truth is that my prep team is usually my friends texting me or emailing me clever things to say. Also, my friends and followers on social media give me tips and arguments. And deciding what gets covered in any given news cycle is way above my pay grade. 

What are the most valuable appearances for you / which are the spots you really want to do?
Overall, the most thrilling part of the job is being on set for big “game nights.” Shaping the national conversation after a big primary night or a big debate is a pundit’s dream.

Whose show is your favorite show to appear on?
Are you trying to start some fights? Being on any CNN show makes me very, very happy. Of course! I always enjoy being on with Brooke Baldwin, on any topic. Don Lemon let me on to share my grief, the day Prince died. Don consistently has an animated panel, diverse voices, and always lets me get a jab in. The longer and deeper conversations I have had with Jake Tapper on racial issues also really stand out. 

After the election, where would you like to see yourself next?
I want to help bridge the divide between the right and the left. Healthy democracy requires a great battle of ideas to move the country forward. Right now, we have families afraid to sit down and eat Thanksgiving dinner together because they are politically opposed. I love trying to heal some of these rifts, even in just “man on the street” discussions with folks on the other side of things I want to find or create a platform that will let me do that all the time.