Commentary Magazine


The Problem with Rand Paul

In his column earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens laid out his case against Rand Paul becoming the GOP’s presidential nominee. It was a powerful indictment and perhaps one worth building on.  

Mr. Stephens highlighted what he believes would be some of the obstacles facing Senator Paul, beginning with his long political association with Jack Hunter, alias the “Southern Avenger,” who among other things wrote an April 13, 2004 column titled “John Wilkes Booth Was Right.”

The “Southern Avenger” said this:

Although Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth’s heart was in the right place, the Southern Avenger does regret that Lincoln’s murder automatically turned him into a martyr. American heroes like Thomas Jefferson and Robert E. Lee have been unfairly attacked in recent years, but Abraham Lincoln is still regarded as a saint. Well, he wasn’t it – far from it. In fact, not only was Abraham Lincoln the worst President, but one of the worst figures in American history… The fact that April 15th is both the anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination and tax day makes perfect sense. We might not even have had a federal income tax if it weren’t for him. And I imagine somewhere in hell Abe Lincoln is probably having the last laugh.

Here is Jack Hunter, writing in his own name, declaring in 2009 that “Hitler was an admirer of the 16th president for all the obvious reasons.” (The adjective “obvious” is such a nice touch.) Later that year, again in a column bearing Hunter’s name, we read this:

In 1999, I already thought Americans were too different: “America is becoming more diverse and multicultural which means the multiplicity of ideas and values will increase. Only states’ rights, the heart of the Confederate cause, can meet this challenge.”

If divorce is considered preferable to a marriage that can’t be fixed, might not divorce also be preferable to a political union that has failed as well? The Jeffersonian, decentralist philosophy and all-American radicalism I embraced fully in my youth makes even more sense today [2009] than in 1999. Whether revisiting states’ rights or going the route of full-blown secession, it would be far more logical to allow the many, very different parts of this country to pursue their own visions than to keep pretending we are all looking through the same lens. And looking back on my own past, I am reminded that any future South worth avenging would do well to revisit its own radical heritage — so that the principles of limited government might rise again.

Chris Haire, Hunter’s former editor at the Charleston City Paper, wrote this

While a member of the City Paper’s stable of freelancers, Jack wrote in support of racially profiling Hispanics, praised white supremacist Sam Francis, blasted the House of Representative’s apology for slavery, claimed that black people should apologize to white people for high crime rates, defended former Atlanta Braves pitcher and racist John Rocker and Charleston County School District board member Nancy Cook after she said some mothers should be sterilized, argued that Islam was an innately dangerous threat to the U.S, professed that he would have voted for a member a British neo-Nazi political party if he could have, considered endorsing former Council of Conservative Citizens member Buddy Witherspoon in his bid to unseat Sen. Lindsey Graham, compared Abraham Lincoln to Adolf Hitler and Ike Turner, and continued to profess the erroneous claim that the primary cause of the Civil War was not the fight over slavery, ignoring the decades of American history leading up to war and South Carolina’s very own Declaration of the Immediate Causes for Secession, which clearly note that protecting slavery was the preeminent motivation of state leaders. 

People are free to judge these columns individually, but there does seem to be a disturbing pattern here, no? Remember this, too: All of this was in the public domain before Hunter joined Senator Paul’s staff. So how exactly does such a thing happen?

Mr. Hunter–who was also the former chairman of the Charleston, South Carolina chapter of the League of the South, a secessionist group–was Senator Paul’s social media director, a person whose foreign-policy views Paul reportedly sought out, and the self-described co-author of Mr. Paul’s 2011 book The Tea Party Goes to Washington. He was also the official blogger for Representative Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign. 

Last summer, after controversy of his writings broke out based on a story by the Washington Free Beacon’s Alana Goodman, Hunter left Senator Paul’s staff. Earlier that year, Hunter wrote, “From 2010 until today, I have constantly been accused of being a propagandist for Rand Paul. It is true. I believe in Sen. Paul 100%. I have been waiting for a political figure of his type to emerge my entire life.” 

Senator Paul, who called Hunter’s writings “stupid”  and distanced himself from them, told The Huffington Post’s Howard Fineman that he had only known “vaguely” about Hunter’s writings. Hunter, Paul said, “is incredibly talented. Look and listen to the actual words and not to the headlines, people.”

Having looked at both, I can say with some confidence that the actual words are worse than the headlines.

The Journal’s Bret Stephens then focuses his column on a YouTube video of Paul in April 2009, warning that the Iraq war was started because of Dick Cheney’s connections to Halliburton. (An additional video of Paul repeatedly invoking his father Ron and criticizing Cheney can be found here.) It tells you quite a lot that Mr. Paul, without a shred of evidence, would accuse the last Republican vice president of leading America to war not because he was wrong but because he was malevolent, wanting to enrich a company for which he had been CEO.

But that’s still not where Senator Paul’s troubles end.

Despite his efforts insisting otherwise, Senator Paul was a critic of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, at least an important part of it. His opposition was not based on racism but rather on an ideological–and in this case, a libertarian–commitment.

“I don’t like the idea of telling private business owners — I abhor racism,” Paul said. “I think it’s a bad business decision to ever exclude anybody from your restaurant. But, at the same time, I do believe in private ownership. But I think there should absolutely be no discrimination in anything that gets any public funding, and that’s most of what I think the Civil Rights Act was about in my mind.”

There’s something else Paul said in this interview that’s worth noting. He said that one of the reasons he admired Martin Luther King Jr. is that he was “a true believer.”

“What I don’t like most about politics is almost none of them are believers,” Paul said. “And [King] was a true believer.”

So, in a very different way, is Rand Paul. He is a deeply committed libertarian–not in the bizarre and offensive way his father is, but in much nicer and neater package. (Some of the people Mr. Paul has surrounded himself with seem to be another matter.)

Rand Paul can come across as agreeable, intelligent, reasonable, with rounded rather than sharp edges. But make no mistake: he’s a “conviction politician” who is intent on reshaping his party and then his country. At the same time, he’s developed something of a talent at not revealing too much about his true views. He knows they are out of step, and in some cases directly at odds, with the views of many Republicans and indeed many Americans. And so these days he picks his targets rather carefully–the NSA, drones, foreign aid, drug legalization.

But one senses that those issues are just above the waterline–and there are others far below it that Paul would just as soon keep that way, at least until he is in a position to advance his agenda. That’s why I’d encourage you to watch the video links above. There you will see a Rand Paul who is more impolitic, more unalloyed, and I think more authentic.

I don’t believe Rand Paul is a bigot. I do think he’s a true believer. And if he runs for the presidency, it’s a fair question for Republicans to ask what it is about Senator Paul’s political beliefs that would inspire the loyalty of people like Jack Hunter. There may be a perfectly good answer to this question. Or not. But we do know this: if Republicans don’t ask it of Senator Paul, a Democratic nominee surely would.

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