WHO THOSE WHO KNEW HIM WHEN THINK HE IS
For insight into his teenage years, O’Keefe suggests I contact Lorraine Cella, a favorite teacher at Westwood High School in northeastern New Jersey. “What’s he doing now?” she responds via e-mail after my initial approach, his name long forgotten (“lots of students and lots of years gone by”). After I direct her to O’Keefe’s Wikipedia entry, her memory of him becomes slightly less unmemorable. “He was quiet in my sophomore honors American literature class, but he was good with words on paper,” she offers. “I have one of his poems in my student collection, Fundamentals of War, which he wrote as part of our war-antiwar poetry unit. And he was outstanding in [the school musical] Crazy for You. I remember thinking I had no idea he had performance talent. He was so introspective in my class. Frankly, I’m stunned to read about his activism.” (His Crazy for You co-star adds, “In high school he couldn’t look at you except when he was onstage. When performing, he was a completely different guy.”) Later, Cella faxes me a copy of Fundamentals of War. In strained verse, O’Keefe is more peacenik poet than budding Young Republican: “And so the armies keep on filing and the bodies keep on piling / To find out who will be the king of this pure destructive force / When the end is coming near, we will thank the lord we’re here / And we’ll cease the stupid fighting that has plagued our race the most.”
WHO O'KEEFE THINKS HE IS
“I want to make society more transparent and ethical,” O’Keefe explains to me during our first proper interview, late last fall. “I hope someday to change the world by exposing unethical behavior.” Originally we planned to gather near his parents’ home in New Jersey, where he lives when he’s not on the road collecting video footage or giving speeches. (It’s not as pathetic as it sounds.) O’Keefe is particularly private about his living situation; he is also reluctant to discuss his family. His standard response: “I had a wonderful upbringing, but my parents didn’t have an impact on me politically.” Ultimately, he provides me with just one other familial tidbit: “My father and grandfather are blue-collar workers who are good with their hands.”
According to O’Keefe’s friends, his dad is an engineer and his mom is a physical therapist. I believe his younger sister, his sole sibling, is an artist. They seem encouraging; his grandmother loaned him the fur coat he wore as part of his ACORN pimp plumage. “He’s an extremely conscientious, hardworking young man, and we’re proud of him,” the elder O’Keefe told The Star-Ledger in September 2009, one of the few times he or O’Keefe’s mother has spoken with the press.
Because misdirection is always foremost on O’Keefe’s mind, our initial meeting comes with specific instructions. After arriving in the general area of the O’Keefe family home, I am to park my car and wait for him to drive me to an undisclosed location in the 1975 Triumph Spitfire roadster he bought in high school. (He has been replacing parts on the cheap ever since; his former assistant assured me it is a death trap—an especially bad thing considering how often he gets lost while driving.) Luckily, his friend’s bachelor party causes the interview to be moved to Atlantic City. There, at the near-empty Red Square Bar inside the Tropicana, O’Keefe espouses political philosophy in filibuster-like volubility over the bluish glow of his laptop, which never leaves his side. (Wires abound; hence my suspicion he may be recording our discussion.) “Unless you’ve provided him with a computer, James isn’t the guy you invite over for a beer and barbecue,” says his friend Ben Wetmore.
A taste of O’Keefe unleashed: “I have nearly infinite faith in the power of free people, making their own decisions on what is best for them and their families, to create a great, lasting and moral society. I also agree with what [British polymath G.K.] Chesterton says—basically that a society should be judged by whether you can buy a house and raise a family. That is something my generation is struggling to do, because big business and big government are working together to prevent us from doing so. [British journalist] Douglas Hyde said those of us who see the danger and step back might really be the ‘progressives,’ possessing a new solution which was really the oldest of all.”
O’Keefe found radical politics at Rutgers University. Although his professors were introducing him to such thinkers as lefty community organizer Saul Alinsky, O’Keefe took a hard right politically, aping Alinsky’s methods toward a different end. (Today he classifies himself as a “progressive radical,” the leader of an antiestablishment, anti–big business, antibureaucratic movement all his own.) His fucked-up freshman year probably also had something to do with his political identity. According to his college blog, Feathers of Steel, now the source of relentless ridicule among liberal bloggers at the Daily Kos: “To my horror, [one of my roommates] said to the all-black RAs that I called everyone on the floor ‘niggers’—a complete lie. It was my word against his. I was led out of the room crying and screaming at him and my situation; no friends, no one to talk to, forced to go in front of a black dean to defend myself and explain I did not call anyone any names.”
By O’Keefe’s junior year, the Leadership Institute had staked him $500—Ben Wetmore, the organization’s director of student publications, hand delivered the check—to start the conservative student newspaper The Centurion. But O’Keefe’s most indelible political statement at Rutgers came via freeze-dried marshmallow horseshoes and toasted oats. At Wetmore’s caustic urging, O’Keefe decided to start a campaign to remove Lucky Charms, the children’s cereal with the cartoon leprechaun mascot, from the dining halls’ breakfast menu. And so, with faux outrage, he and three friends requested a meeting with university administrator Carolyn Knight-Cole to describe the pain the cereal inflicted on O’Keefe and his fellow Irish Americans. “We think that Lucky Charms promotes negative stereotypes of Irish Americans,” O’Keefe explains to Knight-Cole, a hidden camera behind him recording her every move. “And we don’t think it’s acceptable in an academic setting.”
Concerned, Knight-Cole stops her diligent note taking. O’Keefe places a box of Lucky Charms on the table in front of him. Its grinning leprechaun now beams directly at Knight-Cole. “There is what appears to be an Irish American on the front cover, and he’s portrayed as a little green-cladded [sic] gnome, a huckster.” He suppresses a laugh. “As you can see, we’re not all short. We have our differences in height. We’re really proud of our ancestry, but because of our history and what has happened to us, we think this undermines and it’s offensive. It shouldn’t belong here.”
I consider it among his best work. O’Keefe clearly does too. It’s such a part of his identity that he named his sailboat, among his most prized possessions, The Lucky Charm.