With the evolution of the 24-hour news cycle and the incessant idolization of free speech protections, Americans have become desensitized to the reality that our nation is, and has always been, led and held accountable by imperfect people, filling roles for which the expectations are nothing short of perfection. We unleash the wrath of unbridled criticism and mockery at the slightest disagreement, leaving no room for civility. Petty rivalries and party politics divide masses of people based upon the assumption that those we disagree with must have some improper motive behind their actions. We, as Americans, fail to see the human heart, and our disillusionment with politics has become the perfect justification for throwing sticks and stones at those who serve us, both in elected office and in the area of government accountability.
In a perfect world, James O’Keefe’s work would be hailed on both sides of the aisle as an island of justice and transparency in an otherwise opaque, at best, political system. But with lawsuit after lawsuit, subpoena after subpoena, and hit piece after ever-loving hit piece, reality finds O’Keefe at the center of a slanderous vortex. His name is surrounded by both truth and lies, and he is praised by some and passionately hated by others.
“You know, I really should go to church more,” O’Keefe quipped as we settled in for the first of several talks. His demeanor immediately conveyed the heavy realities of the past five years of his life, from federal charges and defamation suits to probation and search warrants. The types of things one hopes never to experience even once in an entire lifetime, O’Keefe battles regularly. “They’re going to graduate their attacks,” he said, admitting that having his evidence destroyed after being arrested on federal charges was a pretty dismal feeling. “The woman accusing me of sexual harassment,” he added, “that was pretty bad. People twist and they distort how things are.”
O’Keefe appeared in American news cycles after exposing the publicly-funded non-profit group ACORN for advising an undercover O’Keefe, posing as a pimp, on how to quietly traffic underage girls from El Salvador for a new brothel in Maryland. “Ever since I was a kid,” he said, “I’d turn on the TV and the news… it didn’t really capture the reality of our world.”
It was this scary reality that would drive O’Keefe to seek justice, regardless of the unorthodox and thankless methods it took to achieve. “Ultimately, deep inside, there’s a seed inside of you. You’re ultimately motivated by justice. The problem is, when you’re engaged in that struggle, you risk losing your soul. It’s really dirty. It’s a dirty fight.”
In many conservative circles, O’Keefe is a rock star, though he insists that he’s naturally a very introverted person. After his countless appearances on every major news network and a steady stream of speaking requests from coast to coast, one might expect to encounter an arrogant, snide, Bieber-esque personality. If you ever do meet James, though, you won’t find it. I’m always taken aback when I see James walking by himself — no security, no entourage, just him and his assistant — with a gaggle of eager people chasing after him to shake his hand or ask for a picture. It’s not what you’d expect from one of the most polarizing political figures in America.
When asked about whether or not he was motivated by the notoriety and attention, as many of his critics have claimed, he chuckled to himself. “There have been times in my life when I didn’t have a company. I didn’t even have any equipment. All I had was myself, and my Palm Treo, and I still went into the Bureaus and started asking questions.”
And ask questions he did. Soon after ACORN, James went after groups blatantly encouraging healthcare fraud, an Assistant Attorney General who tried to illegally obtain private correspondence, SEIU corruption, and much more.
Despite his thick skin and seemingly defiant nature, O’Keefe admits that he’s well aware of the dangers involved with exposing corruption and fraud. “You have to accept — and this is going to sound fatalistic or crazy — you run the risk of losing your life in this game,” he said. “You have to be willing to say ‘Will you die for your country?’ I will say yes.”
Pausing, he glanced around the room to see if he knew anyone close by. “As long as you have people in your life that understand you, love you, support you no matter what. You’re good. Even if it’s only two people.”
While O’Keefe claims to be a man of faith, he admitted that he often finds the weight of his work pulling himself from being spiritually in tune with God. “You know, there have been times I’ve literally had to kind of let go in a way and say, look, I can’t. There have been moments in my life that I’ve really had to depend on God.”
O’Keefe is not immune to the attacks that have been directed at him and his work. “I think one of the things that upsets me deeply is when they say that I’m misrepresenting people in my work, that I’ve misquoted people, that I’ve edited things. Of course, that’s what they’re going to say, because they know that’s the most damaging thing to say. No one on the left or right wants to support someone who is misquoting someone. That’s just lying.” He became noticeably agitated at the notion that anyone would consider him to be a liar. “With great power comes great responsibility. You have this huge responsibility to the people. When people actually use the trumpet to show the truth, then God will do what he wants to do.”
“People have said ‘you’ve fired this person’ or ‘you shut down ACORN’, and I don’t have that type of power. That power is not mine. It’s not up to me. I don’t have any power. I’m just a guy with a camera,” said O’Keefe. “Speak the truth. Veritas. The truth shall set you free.”
It is this truth that serves as a motivation for James, even in the toughest of times: it is the truth, and only the truth, that will ultimately set — and keep — him, and all of us free.
Zachary Freeman has served as the Editor-in-Chief of TheCollegeConservative.com since 2011. To contact him directly, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
To order James’ book, Breakthrough, click here.