This article appeared in the September 2010 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.
It’s a story Ayn Rand could almost have written herself: The world economy is in shambles. The debt is ballooning. The government is out of control. It falls to one brilliant small-town doctor to save us.
He’ll charge into Washington on a Tea Party steed of populist common sense, lead the crusade to fix the debt and scale government back. And then, his work completed, he’ll lay down his office like Cincinnatus and return to practice medicine.
The hero of this story — or “champion,” to use his own word — is Rand Paul.
Paul, 47, is a practicing Bowling Green ophthalmologist (“I did seven surgeries on Tuesday,” he said in July) who has long lobbied for lower taxes and less government regulation. He looks more like a biology teacher chaperoning the senior prom than a United States senator, his uniform typically consisting of a bulky sport coat, grayish khakis and creased-leather walking shoes. (Not that he has to dress on a teacher’s salary; campaign disclosures show that Paul made $262,000 last year). In place of the typical politician’s practiced blandness, Paul radiates a kind of scrappy authenticity, a truth-talking rebelliousness, a thumb in the face of the establishment.
It’s been a winning image. “They like his sincerity; they like that he’s an outsider,” University of Louisville political science associate professor Laurie Rhodebeck told me by way of describing Paul’s core supporters.
So far, Paul has seemingly avoided getting too hurt by his controversial comments on issues ranging from the BP oil spill (“accidents happen”) to farm subsidies (“the money is gone”) to the Civil Rights Act (he’s taken issue with the government forcing private businesses to integrate).
What really gets Paul going, though, is the federal budget deficit and federal regulation. And for this reason, it would be difficult to imagine electoral circumstances more favorable for electing this man in 2010, despite the controversy. In an April Gallup poll, 78 percent of respondents said the federal deficit was either “extremely important” or “very important,” putting it just behind unemployment and health care as top-of-mind issues.
It’s as if Paul had been waiting for this moment his entire life and last year the world finally caught up with him. His moment has arrived. He just has to hold on to it.
Rand Paul slipped mostly unnoticed into the cherry-paneled boardroom of the Kentucky Farm Bureau headquarters for his July forum with opponent Jack Conway. The KFB board, comprising dozens of farmers from all parts of Kentucky, sat around a large U-shaped table in odd-fitting suits. Not much for glad-handing, Paul went quickly to the head table while Conway worked both sides of the room.
Paul sometimes has a tendency to smirk, which can turn his confidence into what some perceive as cockiness. With his head in his palm, he listened to the KFB president introduce the forum.
Paul delivered his opening statement before Conway, choosing to stand in place (he does not stand very high, about 5-foot-7) rather than go to the podium. “When I was a boy I knew an old man who came from the Ukraine and he fought in the czar’s army,” Paul said. “It wasn’t because he was particularly enamored with the czar, but he was a farmer and he had an acre or two, and they didn’t like the idea that the Bolsheviks were going to take their land and divide it up.”
“I will fight to keep an overzealous government out of your way,” he told the farmers.
Later he said, “The number-one concern I have — and why I ran for office and why I’ve left my home in Bowling Green to travel around the state — is the debt. . . . There’s no greater threat to our country than the debt.”
Paul speaks quickly, seamlessly, and his fluidity is engaging; this kind of extemporaneous speaking is his best medium. “In public addresses, he comes off as a very calm, measured, thoughtful, smart person,” is how Rhodebeck characterized him. “And I think people pick up on that vibe more than the specific things he says.”
As a boy, Randy Paul showed an early interest in politics and the philosophies of governing, his mother told me. (She also said that his wife Kelley shortened his name to “Rand” because, his wife explained, “He was a big boy now.”) Paul was 12 when he first campaigned door-to-door for his father, the libertarian obstetrician Ron Paul, who was running for the U.S. House of Representatives in Texas.
Paul has continued to campaign for his father throughout the congressman’s long career, which includes two runs at the presidency, making speeches as far away as Montana or New Hampshire in 2008. When I asked Carol Paul whether she thought her preteen son would ever follow in her husband’s footsteps and run for political office, she replied, without hesitation, “Absolutely.”
Rand Paul’s campaign headquarters is just a block off Bowling Green’s main square. It’s in the midst of a Norman Rockwell small-town scene. A water tower flaunts its patriotism with an American flag motif, 19th-century homes and storefronts line clean city blocks, and a Greek-style temple overlooks the town from the hilltop campus of Western Kentucky University.
When I first told the Paul campaign that I was profiling their candidate, I asked for time to shadow him for a day and do an hour-long interview. To my great surprise, given his now-infamous Rachel Maddow appearance on articulated his qualms with parts of the Civil Rights Act), a Paul aide expressed interest and said he’d look for dates. Then a month went by with no response despite repeated follow-ups. Finally, I called the aide and told him I’d be down in Bowling Green the next day.
I spent two-and-a-half hours of sitting in a plastic lawn chair in the small lobby of Paul’s campaign office waiting for campaign manager Jesse Benton, the only staffer authorized to speak to me. Benton is an affable 32-year-old with the build of an ex-football player. In 2008 he was the press secretary for Ron Paul’s presidential campaign and still does political work for the congressman.
Benton repeatedly apologized for my wait, and we finally sat down in his spacious, sparse office. Paul was ahead in the polls and Benton was feeling good.
“We’re real comfortable with where we are right now,” he told me. “We’re putting together a coalition of people from all over the political spectrum that are concerned about the debt and realize that our current debt and spending are unsustainable. We need to make some changes now or we’re going to lose a lot, all the great traditions we have in this country.”
Benton said the campaign needed $7 million to communicate this message to Kentucky voters. Ron Paul once made headlines by raising $5 million in a single day, but by the second quarter of 2010 his son’s campaign was only halfway to its goal, with $3.5 million raised and $319,000 cash on hand.
Still, the Ron Paul network has been crucial to the fund-raising success Rand Paul has had. According to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, as of Aug. 11, 69 percent of Rand Paul’s campaign money had come from outside Kentucky, while only 25 percent of Jack Conway’s had.
Benton went so far as to admit that Paul “acknowledges he wouldn’t be here today if he weren’t his father’s son.”
“He wouldn’t be running for U.S. Senate?” I asked.
“I don’t think he would’ve gotten off the ground,” Benton said.
“However, Rand is running as his own man, and there a lot of similarities, but there are also differences.”
“What are some of the differences?” I asked.
“I think that Rand is much more open to a transitional approach to things and a pragmatic way to solve our problems,” he said. Benton had earlier told me that while Ron Paul favored “hardcore” abolishing the Department of Education, his son simply wished to phase it out over several years. But on the debt, he said, the two Pauls agreed completely. “The debt can’t wait; he’s going to filibuster any unbalanced budget,” Benton said of his candidate.
Another point of accord between the Pauls is their opposition to the birthright citizenship clause of the 14th Amendment. (That’s the part that reads, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.”) This clause has, in recent months, been percolating nationwide as a major issue for the conservative base. In July, Paul told the KFB crowd, “There’s never been a Supreme Court case decided on (whether), if you come here illegally, are you under the jurisdiction of our country or under the jurisdiction of a foreign country still?”
“I can understand the sort of technical argument that Rand Paul’s making,” said Stephen Vladeck, who teaches constitutional law and immigration law at American University in Washington, D.C., “but I think it is a technical argument that is entirely devoid from the context in which the 14th Amendment was enacted.” Vladeck explained that in the wake the Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott decision, “the point of the citizenship clause was to ensure that anyone of any background or any lineage born in the United States was entitled to citizenship no matter their particulars.”
Was Paul simply parsing a part of the Constitution he didn’t like? I wanted to ask him. Benton told me they would find some time for an interview at Fancy Farm.
At 8:45 a.m,. I walked into Graves County High School, the site of a GOP breakfast on the morning of the Fancy Farm picnic. A couple of teenagers walked by wearing black T-shirts with “Who is John Galt?” in big white letters — a reference to the hero of Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s paean to selfish virtue amid socialist economic collapse.
One of the people stalking the lobby was Tim Profitt, Rand Paul’s Bourbon County coordinator. “The true change is coming,” he said, applying President Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan to Paul. “The fact that they’ve ignored the Constitution on the federal level so much really bothers me,” he said.
Inside were about 350 people in a cafeteria set up like a patriotic wedding banquet on a very tight budget, with a slew of Republican politicians sitting at the head table. After calling President Obama “wrong on every issue of the day,” Paul told the story about the Ukrainian man who’d fought in the czar’s army. “He was about 14, born in 1900,” Paul said. (The heroic homesteader of the KFB forum had become a child soldier.) Paul called the czar “a monarch and an autocrat,” but said the Ukrainian boy “fought because his family owned two acres of land, they grew their crops, they grew their vegetables and they didn’t understand how come they were supposed to give them to people who didn’t work.”
“They understood property,” the candidate continued. “I’m proud to be an American; I’m proud of our system. And we need to be proud of ourselves. We need to send people on who will be able to stand up and say, ‘You know what, we’re not embarrassed that we own property . . . that we own a farm. That’s what made this country great.’”
After the speeches, Paul and I sat down for our interview. An aide apologized and said we only had time for three questions. I started with one about the 14th Amendment, paraphrasing what Vladeck had told me. “Sounds like he didn’t really tell you anything,” Paul said. “There’s never been a case decided on the issue.”
“The reason I’m asking is…”
“I don’t really want to have a debate,” Paul said. “There’s been no Supreme Court case decided on that; you’re welcome to quote people who contradict me. . . . It’s a fair question, and it is not decided law, and all I’m advocating is that we have a court case that’s decided once and for all.”
I asked him whether his stance could be seen as parsing the language of the Constitution for things he didn’t like.
Paul gave a short laugh. “I think that’s a . . . I think that if you look back at the original intent, it was to allow children of slaves to be citizens — that was the original intent,” he said. He was speaking very quickly now, animated, looking straight at me. His blue eyes gave me a look that reminded me of what children get when they talk back to their parents. He was done with this question.
“Let’s do one more,” he said, glancing away at the aide and sounding fairly annoyed.
I scanned my list of questions and opted for something more open-ended. “Who’s your favorite president?”
“I liked Grover Cleveland,” he said after only half a moment’s pause.
“Because he faced down the special interests that were corrupting government, and he said this is going to be a government of the people, not of the special interests.”
It was a characteristically idiosyncratic answer. The Gilded Age fiscal conservative is best known as the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms. A 2009 C-SPAN survey of presidential scholars ranked Cleveland in the middle of the presidential pack at 21, just beating out Gerald Ford.
“Well, thanks,” Paul said. The aide apologized and told me to call later.
I went up to two people I’d seen Paul chatting with in the lobby — Theresa Padgett, who wore a shirt that read “Barry Soetoro a.k.a. Barack Obama is Shredding the Constitution,” and a gray-bearded Abraham Lincoln look-alike named Gale Delano, who was running for Meade County magistrate. We were joined by Delano’s wife Virginia and an engineer named Donald Frenzl. All four were motivated by a general dissatisfaction with government, which they thought Paul had addressed.
“I think he’s going to stand up and defend our country,” Padgett told me. Delano said he thought Paul would “stop socialism in its tracks.” Frenzl, who fumed about being cited by OSHA for asbestos violations, said he thought we should “get rid of OSHA, get rid of the EPA.” A few moments later, he backed away from those statements, saying that we merely need to check the agencies’ powers. But he maintained that we should “get rid of government intrusion in our industry and in our private lives.”
Padgett brought up immigration. “Our forefathers came over here and they were proud to be Americans,” she said, pointing to her 18-generation American lineage. Frenzl added, “The Mexicans do not want to become Americans; they want us to become Mexicans.” Laughing, Padgett referred to President Obama as “an illegal alien himself.”
None of the four would answer affirmatively that they were “Tea Party people,” though they all expressed sympathy with Tea Party beliefs. Then they were off to Fancy Farm.
Back in July, Jesse Benton told me, “The issues matrix that’s out there right now in this campaign lines up for Rand, home run.” The campaign manager’s biggest concern was whether they’d be able to raise the money they’d need to communicate on those issues.
But there may be another pitfall even more potentially threatening to Paul’s candidacy: the unraveling of his regular-citizen narrative. “Rand’s trying to run as somebody who’s not a typical politician, who’s an outsider, who’s a truth-teller, and all that,” his primary opponent, Trey Grayson, told me in an interview a few weeks before Fancy Farm. “If you could show that he were vulnerable on the truth-telling, or that he’s a flip-flopper, or that he does a lot of things you would describe as political — that would become an Achilles’ heel for him, because I think people would think he’s nothing more than a hypocrite.”
The Democrats at Fancy Farm tried to highlight some uncomfortable “truths” about Paul. Gov. Steve Beshear, for example, who was the first political leader to speak, let loose on Paul, who was sitting a few feet to his left, amid a hail of cheers and boos. “You know, nobody really knew where this guy stood until the primary was over. And then he escaped his handlers about three times. And when he did, he actually told the people of Kentucky where he stood on some issues, and it scared the be-livin’ _____ out of us all!” (That silent space was a pun on this year’s no-swearing policy at Fancy Farm.)
Paul went last. “The U.S. tax co-o-ode,” he intoned, his projection exaggerating already-long vowels, “is sooo large and sooo out of control, like the rest of Washington, that I couldn’t carry it onstage.” Wearing a blue plaid shirt with short sleeves, Paul pointed to supporters hoisting boxes labeled “IRS TAX CODE” and said, “As you can see, the U.S. tax code takes eight people to lift.”
Paul rattled off more than a minute of tax code statistics from a prepared speech, followed by similar stats on federal regulations and words linking his opponent to President Obama, “Obamacare,” Nancy Pelosi, and “cap and trade.”
“It’s not a bad issue for him to talk about, but, you know, there was no warm-up,” is how Al Cross summed up the tax-code speech for me. Cross, a Courier-Journal political columnist and the head of a journalism institute based at the University of Kentucky, has been to more than 20 Fancy Farm picnics. “He just launched immediately into the substantive points he wanted to make. . . . But that is really Rand Paul. You know, he’s not a typical politician; he’s not going to give you a lot of warm-up.”
Cross thought the speech adhered to the most important imperative of Fancy Farm: do no harm. “It’s his race to lose, so he just needs to keep with him the people who were with him,” Cross said. “And the speech didn’t hurt that.”
Potential hurt came a few days later. The Paul camp was hit with a sensational broadside when GQ reported in an Aug. 9 Web exclusive that during his time at Baylor, Paul had participated in a prank in which he and a secret-society brother blindfolded a female classmate, told her to smoke marijuana and took her out to a creek and had her bow down to “Aqua Buddha.” She never saw Paul again.
Paul denied kidnapping the woman or forcing her to use illegal drugs, but nobody in succeeding days denied the prank. The woman, who remained anonymous, later clarified to the Washington Post that she’d gone along with the stunt as a hazing by friends, but she didn’t back away from the events.
The day after the story broke, Paul supporters received an e-mail from the campaign asking for money to combat the “smears.” Benton needed the money to communicate, to protect the narrative. Paul needed the narrative to win the race.
This was his story, his moment. His time had come. He just had to hold on to it.
Photo: John Nation