WHO THE LEFT THINKS HE IS
Choice bits from Daily Kos posts: “The BigGovernment.com [ACORN] video ‘exposure’ was the biggest bait and switch I’ve ever seen in my life. If instead of young conservative fascist ‘reporters’ it were police detectives conducting these ‘advice’ sessions, it would be the paradigm example of entrapment.” “What I saw when I watched the [ACORN] video was two overprivileged kids in silly costumes using a hidden camera to pick on people who frankly had no idea what was going on.” “[O’Keefe] is a D-bag. He founded a conservative monthly paper at Rutgers using Astroturf seed money. He writes ‘slam poetry’ about 9/11. And, oh yeah, he got kicked out of his freshman dormitory at Rutgers for calling someone the N word. He denies it, of course.” “[O’Keefe’s work] is sophomoric stuff, but what else fires up the 9/12ers, the birthers and the tea baggers?”
WHO THE RIGHT THINKS HE IS
After Rutgers, O’Keefe graduated to headier conservative circles, joining Wetmore at the Leadership Institute. Both O’Keefe and Wetmore made Morton Blackwell, conservative royalty and the institute’s founder and president, uneasy. Wetmore, who possesses a cult leader’s intellectual charisma, is especially divisive—partially loved but more often loathed among my friends. O’Keefe refers to him as a mentor-friend-genius. Others, however, classify Wetmore as dangerous and the Wetmore-O’Keefe dynamic as master-puppet. “Ben finally found someone crazy enough to implement his ideas,” a close O’Keefe friend says. “I don’t think he’s risky enough,” Wetmore counters by phone from New Orleans, where he attends law school. “I’ve seen him as a student, a vagrant and now. He’s gotten to where he’s at by taking risks, not shunning them. James won’t achieve success doing what he does by listening to the chattering class or conventional wisdom. He’ll do so by taking new calculated risks.”
After about a year O’Keefe left the Leadership Institute to charge onward with a takedown of Planned Parenthood, an attack that, depending on whom you believe, sprang from Wetmore’s imagination. His aim: to snare the abortion provider in a racial tempest. (Blackwell felt the sting fell outside the Leadership Institute’s mandate. “We are an educational organization. We are not an activist organization,” he explained to The New York Times. He had only nice things to say about O’Keefe to me.) O’Keefe hit pay dirt when Autumn Kersey, vice president of marketing and development at Planned Parenthood of Idaho, answered one of his phone calls, which, of course, he recorded and later posted to YouTube.
O’KEEFE: Okay, so the abortion—I can give money specifically for a black baby?
KERSEY: Absolutely. If you wanted to designate that your gift be used to help an African American in need, we would certainly make sure that the gift was earmarked for that purpose.
O’KEEFE: Great, because I really faced trouble with affirmative action, and I don’t want my kids to be disadvantaged against black kids. I just had a baby; I want to put it in his name.
KERSEY: Yes, absolutely.
O’KEEFE: So that’s definitely possible?
O’KEEFE: He’s trying to get into colleges, and he’s going to be applying.… He’s faced troubles with affirmative action. You know, we just think that the less black kids out there the better.
KERSEY: Understandable. Excuse my hesitation; this is the first time I’ve had a donor call and make this kind of request. So I’m excited and want to make sure I don’t leave anything out.
The call generated remarkable fallout, inspiring a blowup between Planned Parenthood and African American leaders. Impressed from afar, Hannah Giles, a 20-year-old journalism student at Florida International University, friended O’Keefe on Facebook. Soon after, she sent O’Keefe her own scheme to defrock ACORN, an organization those of us on the right believed to be seriously corrupt. “I came up with the [pimp-prostitute plot] in May 2009, after which I did a lot of research and background investigation,” she writes via e-mail. “Then I called James, knowing he had the experience and ability to make it happen. We met in person the day before we went undercover.”
Almost immediately everyone around me sainted Giles and O’Keefe—a designation further enforced by the media’s initial impulse to investigate the duo’s tactics rather than what they had discovered about ACORN. Breitbart demanded they receive a Pulitzer Prize, and Fox News treated them as the new Woodward and Bernstein. Even Morton Blackwell called to congratulate O’Keefe after Congress zeroed ACORN’s funding. O’Keefe went from creative dweeb to conservative supernova overnight—sent to Earth, in conservative minds at least, to expose how ACORN, Planned Parenthood and The New York Times were leading a vast left-wing conspiracy to control the news, spend us into oblivion and murder unborn babies. I will never forget the gnarly horde of 20-somethings in khakis and blue blazers (a.k.a. Republican groupies) who shadowed O’Keefe’s every move at the 2010 Conservative Political Action Conference.
Yet in the space of two years, his supporters have splintered into true believers (i.e., Wetmore) and the rest of us (i.e., Blackwell, Breitbart and I). Starting with Lucky Charms and ending with ACORN, O’Keefe’s stunts were a perfect bell curve of hits against liberals too lazy to watch their ass. Who knows if they were new acts of journalism, but they hanged sanctimonious leftist organizations with their own hypocrisy. What red-blooded conservative doesn’t like that? I can’t say the same about what came next. O’Keefe risked a prison sentence by misrepresenting himself to Senator Landrieu’s Louisiana office. For what? The best-case scenario was he’d prove she was ignoring voter complaints about Obamacare. I wasn’t alone in saying big fucking deal. (News flash: Elected officials may not listen to their constituents.) If anything, my crowd pulled their punches because MSNBC took such glee in his arrest, making him out to be the next G. Gordon Liddy.
He did use up a lot of goodwill, however. That’s partly why the knives came out on all sides after the CNN sex-boat mess. Plus, no one I know thought the premise—another Wetmore brainstorm—was clever. It was mostly convoluted. Try to follow me: O’Keefe attempted to seduce CNN’s Abbie Boudreau on camera because, O’Keefe and Wetmore thought, the only way such an attractive reporter could get interviews with reluctant sources like him was by using her powers of seduction. A jar of condoms, dildos and strawberries were to be added for comic effect, according to a written plan obtained by CNN. In the end, it proved much easier to frame O’Keefe as a misogynist than as a revolutionary political provocateur.
Therein lies his most deficient character trait—he struggles to separate good ideas from bad ones. “One thing I noticed after I started working with him was that he began asking for and taking my advice almost immediately without knowing who I am or whether I’m trustworthy or have the credibility to lead him the right way,” says another mutual friend. “Fortunately, my motives are pure. But I would find it disconcerting if he trusted everyone else as easily as he trusted me.”