William F. Buckley Jr. wrote over 40 years ago that “conservatives, under the stress of our times, have had to invite all kinds of people into their ranks to help with the job at hand.” Among the diverse types conservatives might find fighting on their side, Buckley cited radicals, noisemakers, and pyrotechnicians.
James O’Keefe does not identify as a conservative, but many conservatives claim him as a fellow traveler. It is easy to understand why. At just 28 years old, O’Keefe is a self-described “radical” whose video stings have helped to bring down some of the conservative movement’s biggest bugbears: top executives at National Public Radio, the community-organizing group ACORN, and careless staffers at Planned Parenthood clinics across the country.
O’Keefe, the founder of Project Veritas, an organization devoted to investigating and exposing “corruption, dishonesty, self-dealing, waste, fraud, and other misconduct,” can now add “author” to his colorful résumé. His book, Breakthrough: Our Guerrilla War to Expose Fraud and Save Democracy, is a combination biography and do-it-yourself guide for the would-be activist. It is organized according to “Veritas Rules” that he has learned through hard knocks.
Those knocks include a few nights in federal prison. The enfant terrible, who looks every bit the Irishman and seems constantly to bear a mischievous smirk, finished a three-year probation sentence last month for what he calls a “bullsh** crime.” In 2010, he was charged with a misdemeanor for entering federal property under false pretenses. At the height of the national fervor over Obamacare, he and two accomplices attempted to enter Louisiana senator Mary Landrieu’s New Orleans office to determine whether she was avoiding calls from angry constituents. (After constituents complained they couldn’t get through, Landrieu said her phone system had been gummed up by an influx of calls.)
The New York Times has dubbed O’Keefe a “guerrilla videographer” and his medium of choice — raw video, usually captured undercover — “a conservative version of ‘Candid Camera.’” For his part, he emphasizes the need to see past ideology to tactics, and he says video footage helps to dissolve ideology to establish a “common framework of understanding,” or, at the very least, an indisputable set of facts.
His tactics seems to be working; they have forced the hand of his opponents more than once. Following the release of his videos showing ACORN workers offering advice to O’Keefe, posing as a pimp, and his friend, posing as a prostitute, on how to evade taxes and smuggle underage women into the country to work in a brothel, the House voted 345–75, and the Senate voted 85–11, to strip ACORN of federal funding. NPR executives, including the network’s then-CEO, took it upon themselves to resign when O’Keefe released a video showing the then-president of the NPR Foundation saying those affiliated with the tea-party movement are “really racist, racist people” and that the network would be better off without federal funding.
“We don’t advocate solutions, we don’t lobby people, and I’ve never called for action,” O’Keefe tells me. “Yet our work has made more of a difference than organizations that do so.” O’Keefe points back to his use of raw video to explain his success as a change maker: “Just show people what is true, and they can make informed decisions about their lives,” he explains.
Radicalized as a college student at Rutgers, where he says he was pushed rightward by an atmosphere of stifling liberalism, O’Keefe has, over the years, relished using rules created by liberals as a weapon against them. “People are rarely swayed by intellectual argument,” he says. He appeals to emotion: outrage, pity, frustration, indignation, and humiliation. Citing the university’s policy against “verbal assault, defamation, and harassment,” the Irish O’Keefe told Rutgers officials he took offense to the leprechaun featured on the Lucky Charms cereal boxes in university cafeterias. The video he shot, showing university officials carefully weighing the merits of his case, became a campus sensation.
O’Keefe is perhaps the only activist on the right who points to Saul Alinsky as a guiding force. “Alinsky has had a huge influence on me,” he says, and indeed, the “Veritas Rules” provided in Breakthrough echo those handed down in Alinsky’s famous manual Rules for Radicals. During our conversation, he more than once cites Alinsky’s fourth rule, “Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules.” Introduced to Alinsky by a college professor, he recounts, he was inspired to issue a public-records request for the salaries of a handful of the university’s Marxist professors. Several, he found, had sizable incomes. “There was nothing they could say when I exposed it,” O’Keefe tells me.