WHO HIS MARKS THINKS HE IS
When I mention the name Sonja Merchant-Jones, the Maryland ACORN co-chair O’Keefe basically put out of business, he draws a blank. “That name sounds familiar. Can you remind me?” When I do, his reaction is minimal. I also have to remind him who Carolyn Knight-Cole, the Rutgers administrator, and Autumn Kersey, the Planned Parenthood representative, are. Such forgetfulness takes a special kind of mind. All three women definitely remember him. Knight-Cole sounds like a grandmother whose grandson has stolen from her; she now has total disdain for someone she was trained to love. Kersey refuses to speak about him at all. For her part, Merchant-Jones seems to hate ACORN more than O’Keefe. “All is fair in love and war,” she tells me. “If the shoe were on the other foot, we would have done the same thing. I don’t have any hard feelings about James. Well done, James O’Keefe. Well done.”
WHO I THINK HE IS
Fair warning, liberals: I am positive O’Keefe can be redeemed. Already a slower, smarter comeback is under way. The newest conservative star, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, blessed a recent O’Keefe production called Teachers Unions Gone Wild, a mashup of drunken antics from New Jersey public schoolteachers. (In it they explain how tenure can protect them even if they blast students with racial slurs.) “If you need an example of how the teachers’ union is out of touch with the people and out of control, watch this video,” Christie implored. “It’s enlightening, and it’s enraging.” Says O’Keefe, “Someone pointed out that [the New Jersey Education Association] was holding a conference, so I organized half a dozen people to attend it. The tapes were a collaborative effort. The people in them have chosen to remain anonymous.”
For his next act, he should untangle himself from the weeds. While admirable, his myopic devotion to the cause clouds his perspective. If O’Keefe were my client, I would hand him a flowchart of the positive people and the parasites in his life. Then I would take away his internet connection until he could come up with a long-term plan. And I don’t mean a new hit list of liberal targets to lampoon. He needs to figure out how to leverage what he’s accomplished into a paying gig that doesn’t rely on the generosity of anonymous wealthy donors with an ax to grind. He can’t run his movement from his parents’ house forever. “So many people assume he’s doing this for fame and fortune,” says a friend. “But he’s as poor as a church mouse. He has yet to figure out how to market himself and make some money on these crazy ventures.” To his credit, before rolling out his latest punkings, against NPR and PBS, he discussed them with PR professionals and gave thought to how to use them as a fund-raising tool.
He won’t tell me how much work he has stashed away, but I’ve heard it’s substantial. My favorite alleged secret work is on a collection of resorts in which a prominent politician reportedly has an ownership stake. The resorts are said to offer a high-end call-girl service. To determine if the rumor is true, O’Keefe and a friend rented a Mercedes and posed as a couple of high rollers on vacation. They must keep what they uncovered in their vault, however, because they acquired the evidence through questionable legal means.
It’s a fine line between maverick political activist and criminal.