The reaction was fierce—a bona fide political shitstorm, seized on by the national and the international press. Paul's Democratic challenger, Jack Conway, accused him of wanting to repeal the Civil Rights Act, and fellow Republicans publicly scolded Paul for both the substance and the style of the remarks. Labeling the interview a "gotcha moment," Sarah Palin, who's supporting Paul, suggested her candidate was learning the hard way what happens when you deal with a "prejudiced" interviewer. (Mostly unnoted was that Paul was hardly in enemy territory, having chosen to announce his candidacy on Rachel Maddow's show back in May 2009.) Even Michael Steele, the GOP chairman, delivered a spanking, calling Paul's ideas "misplaced in these times." Paul's ideology, Steele concluded, "got in the way of reality."
"It might appear that way to someone who doesn't have a philosophy, like Michael Steele," says Philip Blumel of the lobbying group U.S. Term Limits, who's known Paul since the two worked together on the elder Paul's 1988 presidential campaign. "One thing to remember about Rand is he's not done this before. These were the kinds of questions that are interesting in a late-night bull session. The reason why politicians are always so vague and empty is to avoid situations just like this."
Paul backed down, calling the matter "settled when I was 2" and disavowing any wish to tinker with the Civil Rights Act, but the damage was done. Karl Rove, the architect of the "imperial presidency" Paul railed against, reportedly phoned in some advice. Within a few days Paul had ceased doing interviews and had shuffled his campaign team. For many, however, he'd confirmed suspicions that the Tea Party movement, with its virulent anti-Obama rhetoric, had a wide streak of racism running down its center. It harked back to another campaign stumble, little reported outside Kentucky. In December, campaign spokesman and part-time death-metal singer Chris Hightower resigned after a public airing of his MySpace page, which included his "LOL!" posting about some "Afro-Americans" giving him "snarls" for wearing a hoodie adorned with what he jokingly called KKK imagery and a friend's posting, undeleted for almost two years, wishing Hightower "Happy Nigger Day!!!" with a photo of a lynched corpse, for Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
But not everyone was displeased with Paul's Maddow moment. "I thought he was heroic and dead-center on the libertarian position," says Walter Block, a senior fellow with the Ludwig von Mises Institute, a libertarian think tank for which Ron Paul serves as a distinguished counselor. "What he was talking about is upholding the freedom of association. It means that no one should be forced to interact with anyone against their will. If I have a grocery store, I should have the right to keep blacks out, Jews out, anyone I want out. If I only want to admit left-handed redheads into my grocery store, that's my right. Now, I think that's kind of silly, but it's a philosophical point."
"Ever heard of Miguel de Unamuno?" Rand Paul is asking just outside Harlan. Unamuno, he explains, was an early-20th-century Spanish essayist, fiction writer, and poet. We've been talking lit, particularly Paul's fondness for Ayn Rand (for whom he was not in fact named, despite regular reports to the contrary) and Flannery O'Connor.
Unamuno's "San Manuel Bueno, Mártir" is, he says, "a great short story. It's about a priest who doesn't really believe in God but feels he needs to protect his parishioners from this disbelief, that it's too much for them." This calls to mind another favorite story of Paul's, Somerset Maugham's "Rain." "Once again about a conflicted priest," he says. Priests in a crisis of faith, I point out, appears to be a theme with him. Lightly, he says, "I went to a Baptist college. I had to have an outlet."
"He's got a very conservative demeanor and lifestyle," says Blumel, who was a University of Florida undergrad when he met Paul, then 25, in 1988. "Back then we were all considerably wilder than Rand. He was trying to be conservative in his life as well as his politics."