With the libertarian Republican's competitive showing in early-state polls has come the inevitable rediscovery of the fact that Ron Paul published and earned money from "Ron Paul"-titled newsletters in the late '80s and early '90s that contained racist remarks, both vile and juvenile, such as calling black people "animals," and saying "we can safely assume that 95 percent of black males in [Washington, D.C.] are semi-criminal or entirely criminal." As The New York Times put it today,
Emerging as a real Republican contender in Iowa, Representative Ron Paul of Texas is receiving new focus for decades-old unbylined columns in his political newsletters that included racist, anti-gay and anti-Israel passages that he has since disavowed.
Here's a fresh response from the candidate:
Asked by CBS News and National Journal if the newsletters are fair game on Tuesday, Paul responded, "I don't know whether fair is the right word."
"I mean, it's politics," he continued. "Nobody talked about it for 20 years until they found out that the message of liberty was making progress. And everybody knows I didn't write them, and it's not my sentiment, so it's sort of politics as usual."
Strictly speaking "nobody talked about it for 20 years" isn't true–it was an issue in his 1996 congressional campaign, an issue in 2001, and an issue in 2008. As is referenced later in the article by Paul campaign chairman Jesse Benton:
Asked if the issue was fair game, Benton responded, "He has answered questions about these newsletters for 20 years, but it is reasonable that he answer them again now."
"We are confident that Americans will look to his vast, consistent and principled record, his life [as] a doctor, faithful husband and family man, and accept his answer," he added.
If I can get the embed code to work, you can watch this contentious interview from today on CNN (or just follow this link), in which Paul says (among other things) "they have to dig these things up that they really can't pin on me, because they've been disavowed," and then, when pressed on the fact that he could just straight up ask the "six or eight people" who worked on the newsletters at the time to reveal who wrote the damned things, he said, after a silence, "Well, possibly, I could, but uh…."
Aside from the new responses from Paul and his campaign, I've seen no reporting so far that advances the story from where it stood 47 months ago. Speaking of which, please scroll down toward the bottom of this post for a semi-complete list of Reason reporting and commentary on the issue from during the 2008 campaign.
Some more recent commentary from the commentariat, starting with the witnesses for the prosecution:
It is Paul's lucrative and decades-long promotion of bigotry and conspiracy theories, for which he has yet to account fully, and his continuing espousal of extremist views, that should make him unwelcome at any respectable forum, not only those hosted by Jewish organizations. […]
In the four years since my article appeared, Paul has gone right on appearing regularly on the radio program of Alex Jones, the most popular conspiracy theorist in America (unless that distinction belongs to Paul himself).
* Ta-Nehisi Coates, in The Atlantic:
Had I spent a decade stewarding an eponymous publication steeped in homophobia and anti-Semitism, I would not expect my friends and colleagues to accept an "I didn't write it" excuse. And I have no (present) designs on the launch codes. It is a peculiar thing when the basic standards of honesty and decency are lowered in direct proportion to the power one seeks to wield.
* Philip Klein, in The D.C. Examiner:
[I]f you're a public figure, it's your responsibility to monitor what is being published under your name. And if your best defense is massive disorganization within a business you ran that had just a few employees, it's a pretty severe indictment of your management abilities as you seek the presidency. And this is where we get to the double standard part.
Rick Perry and Mitt Romney have both attacked each other for what was written in their respective books. If either of those books had included a number of overtly racist statements, their candidacies would be over before they started. If they used the Ron Paul defense – that they didn't write the words themselves, they didn't know what was in the books and don't even know who wrote them, it would only make matters worse. They could kiss their political careers goodbye.
For the defense?
E.D. Kain, The League of Ordinary Gentlemen:
This is silly. I care more about actions than whatever Ron Paul's newsletter once published ages ago. Has Paul espoused any of those views himself? Not that I can tell. Do his preferred policies lead as much killing as the preferred policies of Obama or Romney or any of the other candidates currently swarming about? No, they don't. Do you think the children we blow to shreds with our aerial drones care if Ron Paul's associates published a racist newsletter in the 90?s or do you think they care more about being blown to shreds?
Paul obviously should not have allowed things like that to be published under his name and I completely and utterly condemn that newsletter and those behind it. It's just not as big a deal to me as the aforementioned wars and assassinations under this president.
Andrew Sullivan, The Daily Beast:
I think the papers (and comments almost two decades ago) should definitely be considered, in context, when judging his candidacy, and not because the neocons are determined to smear anyone challenging their catastrophic record. But compared with Rick Perry's open bigotry in his ads, or Bachmann's desire to "cure" gays, or the rhetoric around "illegals" in this campaign, these ugly newsletters are very, very old news. To infer from them that Paul is a big racist is a huge subjective leap I leave to others more clairvoyant than myself.
But ask yourself: you've now heard this guy countless times; he's been in three presidential campaigns; he's not exactly known for self-editing. And nothing like this has ever crossed his lips in public. You have to make a call on character. Compared with the rest on offer, compared with the money-grubbing lobbyist, Gingrich, or the say-anything Romney, or that hate-anyone Bachmann, I've made my call.
Other defenses from Paul Mulshine and Jake Morphonios. To scramble a delightful number of these narratives, here's Ron Paul on Jay Leno saying Michele Bachmann "hates Muslims" and Rick Santorum "hates gays":
And now a list of Reason's essential newsletter coverage and commentary during the last election cycle:
* In May 2007, seven months before James Kirchick's report in The New Republic, New York Sun writer Ryan Sager accused Paul of "anti-Semitism" ("it's not even a close call"), for his newsletter assertion that "the most powerful lobby in Washington of the bad sort is the Israeli government." Then-Reasoner David Weigel got Paul to respond. Part of that response:
I'd have to have you show to me that I wrote it because that doesn't sound like my language, and in campaigns, some things get into newspapers that aren't actually correct. But I wouldn't back away from saying that AIPAC is very influential in our political process. That's a little bit different than saying the Israeli government, but I think that the Israeli position is very influential [….] There were some things in a newsletter that wasn't actually written by me, so sometimes that gets a bit of distortion.
* After the Kirchick story, Weigel got another response from Paul, in which the candidate repudiated the content of the newsletters, said he didn't write them (and didn't have them anymore), and referred to Martin Luther King (who had been criticized in one of his newsletters for commiting "crimes" against "underage girls and boys") as "one of my heroes because he believed in nonviolence and that's a libertarian principle."
* I wrote a blog post soon thereafter fact-checking Paul's contention that "This story is old news and has been rehashed for over a decade" by looking at the paper trail, including his mixed responses to the charges back in 1996 and a more direct mea culpa in 2001.
* Weigel and Julian Sanchez then wrote a long piece for the website interviewing current and former Paul associates about who they thought wrote the newsletters, and placing the episode in its historical context of a "Paleo-Libertarian" fusion project back at the dawn of the '90s.
* Other Reason commentary at the time from (in order) Nick Gillespie, Jesse Walker, Radley Balko, Brian Doherty, David Weigel, Balko again, Kerry Howley, Weigel again, Jacob Sullum, and Doherty again. Plus there were some other links-roundups back during those two weeks.
So why discuss the issue at all? Especially if, like me, you find Paul's candidacy a refreshing injection of limited-government principle into the flabby carcass of a national GOP that has grown careless with power at home and abroad?
There are, I think, a few good reasons. In a narrow campaign sense, if indeed Paul had no idea about the origins and content of "Ron Paul"-branded newsletters […] that certainly speaks badly of the would-be commander in chief's managerial competence. The fact that he actually defended the newsletters in 1996 suggests either that he once believed in their content more than he currently lets on or that he was willing to look in the camera and pretend to endorse ideas he didn't actually believe. […]
By now, the "free minds and free markets" strain in American politics and culture should be secure enough in its own place to withstand and even welcome uncomfortable discussions about its less-than-stellar moments.
And it's clear that, for a short while at least, some of libertarianism's leading lights let their focus on minority group behavior lead them down decidedly illiberal paths. […]
Happily enough, these ancient-sounding race debates play no role in the Ron Paul rEVOLution of 2008. Paul was incorrect to say, as he did on CNN, that "libertarians are incapable of being a racist," but he was right to note that "racism is a collectivist idea." And like other forms of collectivism, it's an idea that has less and less resonance among a younger generation that's growing more and more culturally libertarian. It turns out that spreading a "freedom message" directly is more effective than trying to camouflage it in collective resentment.
All of which I stand by now, only with four more years of evidence that the movement Paul has helped inspire, to say nothing of the broader libertarian/limited government/classical liberal tendency in America, is not animated by this bizarro-world Archie Bunker crap, nor is Paul himself (in my observation). I'd also say that his campaign has had four years to come up with a better answer than "I don't know who wrote those things," and it hasn't. Front-runners get–and richly deserve–scrutiny, including by adversaries.
I don't begrudge anyone's reasons for voting against anyone, especially if you think he's the type of guy to consciously lunge for power by whipping up race hatred against the descendants of former American slaves. I don't think Ron Paul is that type of guy. I don't (and Reason doesn't) do endorsements, and I would have been happy to see a better GOP primary season from Gary Johnson, whose pragmatic, less hyperbolic, and less socially conservative case for libertarianism I have more natural affinity with.
But I'm rooting for Paul to do well in Iowa and New Hampshire and beyond, because his candidacy offers the only sharp course corrective to the pressing national issues of runaway government spending, bailout economics, entitlement time-bombs, foreign policy overreach, civil liberties intrusions, and the Drug War. These are not small issues, for me or for the country, and 99 percent of politicians are terrible on them. Yet that platform (along with fighting the Federal Reserve) is what Ron Paul is actually running on, in stark contrast to the frightening anti-libertarian candidacy of Newt Gingrich, the I-will-cut-everything-but-spending campaign of Mitt Romney, and the incessant foreign policy chest-thumping and quien-es-mas-deporty promises that pass for discourse in the modern GOP.
There is a small but growing number of politicians out there who share Paul's values without this godawful racist baggage, and I sincerely look forward to more of them getting into the ring. But until then–God help me–for one of the first times in memory, I'm eagerly awaiting the next few weeks of American presidential politics. And that is because of, not in spite of, Ron Paul.