On the night of a primary, CNN is known for its comprehensive coverage of who won what, flashy graphics, stalling for time and open speculation about what the heck will happen next. Moments of passionate exchange are, perhaps, less common.
Yet during CNN’s Super Tuesday coverage, such a moment came when former Obama staffer Van Jones took on former Reagan staffer and Donald Trump supporter Jeffrey Lord in a heated debate about race, the Democratic Party and the Ku Klux Klan.
The trouble began when fellow contributor S.E. Cupp, a conservative, accused Trump of “crazy, dog-whistle policy proposals” to curry favor with prejudiced voters.
“Donald Trump has tried to otherize every other candidate in this race,” Cupp said, “… to sort of scare this very small part of the electorate who thinks that all of their problems are the fault of people who don’t look like them.”
Lord disagreed, questioning the purported freethinking of the GOP mainstream.
“I hate to say this about the Republican establishment, but their view of civil rights is to tip the black waiter five bucks at the country club,” Lord said. Trump, meanwhile, is “not going to patronize people.”
Jones wanted in on this.
“Hold on a second,” he said. “… The things that Donald Trump has done — and not just in this race — are horribly offensive.”
Jones was so eager to speak, he tried to stop Lord from interrupting — though Lord hadn’t tried to.
“I want to talk,” Jones said.
“I didn’t say anything yet,” Lord said.
“You breathed,” Jones said.
Though Jones allowed that pundits had not “respected” Trump voters, he said that “there is a dark underside here…. He is whipping up and tapping into and pushing buttons that are very, very frightening to me and frightening to a lot of people.” He added: When Trump, who declined to denounce the KKK in an interview Sunday before doing so on Twitter, is “playing funny with the Klan, that is not cool” — especially given the candidate’s outspoken position on Muslim extremists.
“I know this man, when he gets passionate about terrorism,” Jones said of Trump. “I know how he talks about terrorism. The Klan is a terrorist organization.”
Lord, citing the KKK’s historic connection with the Democratic Party, turned up the temperature. “A leftist terrorist organization,” he said.
Jones started to look a little angry.
“We’re not going to play that game,” Jones said.
Lord: “We are going to understand history.”
Jones: “No, you need to take a serious look at the fact that this man is playing fast and loose…. When you talk about terrorism, he gets passionate. He says, ‘No, this is wrong.’ But when you talk about the Klan, ‘Oh, I don’t know, I don’t know.’”
Jones then pointed out that Lord once compared the Trump-KKK imbroglio to President Obama’s relationship to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright — the president’s one-time pastor who was videotaped saying “God damn America!”
“Reverend Wright is an anti-Semite,” Lord said.
“Reverend Wright never lynched anybody!” Jones said. “… Reverend Wright never put anybody on a post. And you guys play these word games, and it’s wrong to do in America. It is wrong to do!”
“It is wrong to understand that these are not leftists,” Lord said of the KKK. Then, the fireworks really began.
“What difference does it make if you call them leftists?” Jones said. “Call them chipmunks! They kill people. Don’t play games with that!”
Lord: “You’re right! And you don’t hide and say that’s not part of the base of the Democratic Party. They were the military arm, the terrorist arm of the Democratic Party, according to historians. For God’s sake, read your history!”
Jones: “I don’t care how they voted 50 years ago. I care about who they killed.”
Lord: “I care about American history. It counts.”
Jones then appeared to praise Lord, saying that Lord backed Trump when few were willing to and that he “earned the respect of an awful lot of people.” But Lord, Jones said, also needed to be realistic about Trump.
“When you do not acknowledge that he did not answer that question [about the KKK] with the passion he answered with other terrorist organizations, you do yourself a disservice,” Jones said. “You do your candidate a disservice.”
Lord said Trump has denounced the KKK in the past. “He has made this point over and over and over again,” Lord said. “This is a media thing, here. Did he make a mistake? Sure. But he has said this many, many times.”
Jones then criticized Trump’s record of troubling stances with racial undertones, saying the candidate’s attacks on the Central Park Five — five young men wrongly convicted for a 1989 rape in New York — were a “stain.”
But Lord thought talk of race should be put to the side.
“What you’re doing here is dividing people,” Lord said. “We’re all Americans here, Van. You are dividing people. This is what liberals do. You are dividing people by race. This is what liberalism is all about.”
“The Klan divided people by race!” Jones said.
“And they did it to further the progressive agenda!” Lord said. “Hello!” Jones deemed this position “absurd” — and got personal.
“I have a kid,” Jones said. “Seven years old.” Jones said he told his son he shouldn’t watch “the Kardashians,” but watch the news to “learn something.”
“You know what?” Jones said. “Watching all this nonsense in your party, he turns around and says, ‘Dad, you’re a liar.’ … He sees so much vitriol from your party, he brings that into our house. Now we’ve gotta have him watch Nick Jr. He can’t even learn civics because of what is going on in your party — the circus wing in your party.”
Jones then got even more personal.
“I know you,” Jones said to Lord. “I trust you. Tell Donald Trump he needs to, for my children’s sake … if he’s going to lead this country, he needs to be as passionate about what has happened in my community as in anybody else’s.”
Lord, citing the words of President John F. Kennedy, said we instead have to ensure that “race has no place in American life or law.”
“We have to be passionate about making sure … that this country is colorblind,” Lord said. “… That’s what we have to do. And we have lost that totally because the Democratic Party insists on dividing people by race, and it’s wrong. It’s morally wrong.”
In just a few minutes, some of the most troubling questions — and deepest feelings — shaping American politics had been unearthed — and proved radioactive. It was time for a breather.
“Well, I think this is going well,” fellow CNN contributor and former Obama adviser David Axelrod said.