Ron Paul isn’t a racist, but he’s shown remarkably poor judgment so far related to his old newsletters containing racially charged language. If you’re going to play in the Big Leagues, you have to play by Big League rules. His response to the newsletter issue so far has been completely Bush League.
If you’ve been hiding under a rock, here’s the issue. Back in the late ’80s and ’90s, Paul published a series of political newsletters as a moneymaking venture. They were written in his name, but he obviously didn’t write them. (I’ve ghost-written hundreds of pieces for clients in the past. It’s perfectly acceptable.) But some of the newsletters have racial language in them that I don’t find acceptable, and it’s hard for me to believe anybody else would.
The newsletters are aimed at a strongly conservative white audience. They paint the world in terms of good Christian white folks vs. the black “thugs” and gays who “hate Euro-American civilization and everything it stands for.” The framing of the issues is repugnant. In a direct mail piece advertising the newsletter, it goes far enough to forecast a “race war.” You just can’t come up with a good enough excuse to justify the content.
I think I understand what happened, at least from a political point of view. The people running the newsletter — which might or might not have actually included Paul — were targeting an audience of the Old Right, trying to build bridges between libertarian economic ideas and what those unreconstructed old-time conservatives already believed. Ever since the ’60s, various people have tried to build some sort of fusion between libertarians and existing groups. I see this as a misguided attempt to do that with the Old Right conservatives it was obviously written to appeal to.
The fact that I understand the political motivation of the newsletters isn’t enough to justify them — and it’s not enough to make reporters and others stop asking questions about them. In part, that’s because the response that Paul has given to the newsletters in the past has been clumsy and shifting. It hasn’t been the sort of response I would have preferred from someone who I see as principled as Paul is. I think it’s been a serious moral and political failing.
Now that Paul has come to be considered a serious presidential candidate in Iowa, it’s natural — and legitimate — for reporters to ask him harder questions and expect him to deal with them. So far, he hasn’t. Earlier this week, he walked out of a CNN interview when a reporter asked about the newsletters and didn’t let the question go when he wouldn’t talk about it. His supporters cheered his walking out, but it made it look as though he wasn’t willing to be up-front about something that’s going to concern a lot of right-thinking people.
Paul’s response to the issue has changed over the years. In 1996, he didn’t disavow them, but said the comments needed to be seen “in context.” (No, context doesn’t help.) Starting in 2001, he said he didn’t write the articles, but he explained that his staff told him not to explain that, because it was “confusing.” A campaign spokesman today says Paul was practicing medicine and didn’t write or approve the content of his newsletter.
I suspect the story from the campaign spokesman today is largely correct, but it doesn’t explain the issue away. It doesn’t explain why he allowed this to go on for years before eventually claiming he didn’t agree with the content. It was a complete moral failure that doesn’t line up with anything else about his public or private life, as far as I can tell. He needs to say exactly that.
If Paul does well in Iowa in about 10 days, this is going to become an even bigger issue. He needs to stop it now. He should have forcefully dealt with it years ago, but since he didn’t he needs to step up and deal with it as soon as possible. He needs to say something like this — as sincerely as he knows how:
“When those newsletters were written in my name, I was busy practicing medicine, so I didn’t actually write them,” he would say in my version of his statement. “Even though I didn’t write the articles and didn’t approve the content, it was still my moral responsibility because they were written in my name. I’m ashamed that I didn’t step up quickly and put a stop to it when I realized what was being said in my name, but I allowed it to continue instead. The things in there were an attempt to build bridges to a very conservative audience that believes many of those things, but I shouldn’t have allowed political considerations to get in the way of doing the right thing. I should have stopped it when I realized what was being said. I didn’t do that. I should have taken full responsibility for it more quickly, and I didn’t do that. The attitudes displayed there go against everything else in my public career and my private life. Being associated with those words is the worst thing that’s happened to me in public life. I want to apologize to my supporters for putting them in the position of having to deal with this issue. I want to apologize to the black people and the gay people who were smeared by some of those words. There’s nothing else I can say about it other than to say it was wrong. I’d like to put it behind me.”
That statement wouldn’t end things, but it would give people more respect for him and it would be a starting point for making the issue die. As it is right now, he’s going to spend every moment that he’s a serious candidate having to evade these questions. It’s time to deal with it.
And here’s the biggest irony in all of this. The biggest appeal that Ron Paul has is that he is the principled candidate. He’s the knight in shining armor who’s spent all these years in Congress doing the right thing and sticking to his principles. The other candidate are shameless liars and opportunists who’d say or do anything to be elected. Every other candidate is responsible for death and coercion in ways that “Dr. No” never will be. It’s ironic that he’s done such a poor job of dealing with this that a very obvious moral difference between Paul and the other serious contenders is getting lost.
Ron Paul isn’t a racist. I don’t see any evidence that he’s a bigot of any sort. I do see evidence that he’s taken some pathetically bad political advice about how to handle this issue. That’s what happens when you spend years as an also-ran and you suddenly find people taking you seriously. You’re not ready for the scrutiny that comes with being an actual contender.
I’ve made it very clear that I don’t believe Paul has a chance in the world of winning, but I’ve also made it clear that I’d be delighted if I were wrong. The inept way that this story has been handled by his political advisors tells me that there’s even more reason to doubt that has has any chance of being taken seriously by the time the convention rolls around.
The whole thing makes me truly sad, because he’s just about the only politician on the national stage who I’ve consistently had respect for over the years. I hope he’ll still step up and handle the issue better right now.
Note: After this article was written, I noticed that Reason magazine had a story offering detailed and balanced coverage Thursday of the newsletter controversy. More more from a publication that’s very sympathetic to Paul’s libertarian positions, take a look here.