The Rise and Fall of Rand Paul

Rumors of the Tea Party champion's demise have been greatly exaggerated. On the campaign trail with the most controversial politician in America.

Rand Paul and I are trying to remember why Harlan, Kentucky, might be famous. That's where Paul is driving me, on a coiling back road through the low green mountains of the state's southeastern corner, in his big black GMC Yukon festooned with RON PAUL 2008 and RAND PAUL 2010 stickers. Something about Harlan has lodged itself in my brain the way a shard of barbecue gets stuck in one's teeth, and I've asked Paul for help. "I don't know," he says in an elusive accent that's not quite southern and not quite not-southern. The town of Hazard is nearby, he notes: "It's famous for, like, The Dukes of Hazzard."

It's a hazy, bright afternoon in early May, 12 days before the primaries for Kentucky's open U.S. Senate seat and 13 days before Rand Paul, the eventual Republican nominee, will flub his introduction to the nation by taking philosophical potshots at the 1964 Civil Rights Act during an appearance on MSNBC's Rachel Maddow Show—the political equivalent of a belly flop from a 10-story-high diving board. This means it's about 15 days before the Paul campaign—a jumbled casserole of Tea Party activists and Ron Paul Revolution-aries, with a former blogger and first-time campaign manager at its helm—cuts off media access to Paul entirely. Today, however, Paul seems delighted with the press attention, immodestly complaining to a group of voters that while a New York City magazine writer (me) and a Washington Post reporter are trailing him on today's tour, he—as a self-described "outsider" candidate, spurned by mainstream Republicans—can't seem to score coverage from the local media.

He plucks this theme constantly on the campaign trail. "They fear us," he tells audiences, without ever quite identifying "they" or "us." While his primary opponent, Kentucky's secretary of state, Trey Grayson, prefers to canvass the state via private jet, Paul likes to roll the way he's rolling today: kibitzing with a dozen voters at a diner in tiny Burkesville in the morning; brunching with two dozen at Lee's Famous Recipe Chicken in Albany, then lunching with four dozen at a cafeteria in Monticello; and delivering a speech in Harlan, which may or may not be famous for something.

"Maybe for some of the coal battles," a young campaign aide in the back seat suggests.

Paul ignores this. "Maybe the feuding," he offers. He mulls this for a moment and says, "The Hatfields and McCoys were more up toward West Virginia, though."

"I think it was the coal battles," the aide says.

Still ignorant of Harlan's claim to fame (if any), we pull into the coal-mining town of fewer than 2,000 people, a third of whom live below the poverty line. About three dozen of its whiter-haired residents show up to hear Rand Paul speak in a civic-center auditorium.

Paul is 47 years old, with a short, wiry frame and pale, distant eyes, his boyish face nestled under a brown-gray fluff of curly hair; he often wears an analytical expression, and, for a political aspirant, his smile is notably slow to develop, and it's mild and slightly slanted when it does. His dress is casual middle-of-the-road mallwear—pleated Izod khakis, navy Polo button-down, yellow paisley tie—with the exception of his shoes: clunky, bizarro-brown Clarks, size 8, that resemble a mercifully extinct species of bowling shoe. ("Are you going to write about his shoes?" a campaign staffer asks me. "Everyone comments about the shoes. But then everyone made fun of his dad's shoes, too.")

The outlook of the audience members is not what you'd deem undecided. Throughout the day, old men have been coming up to me, on the mistaken assumption that I'm a Paul campaign staffer, to testify, earnestly and emotionally: to explain to me how Rand Paul is different, how he tells it like it is, how he is the last, best hope for a nation staring into the abyss. They're gathered here in Harlan for something like a fix: for a steaming hot cup of Tea Party rhetoric, for jeremiads and denunciations, for a loud broadcast of all the grievances they grumble nightly in front of their television sets. They're here to see Rand Paul lance the national boil.

Funny thing about that: He's not particularly good at speaking, in the conventional sense. He doesn't channel fire and brimstone. Like his father, Ron Paul, the Texas congressman and presidential also-ran, he often veers off on obscure tangents—say, the jurisdictional expansion of the Commerce Clause under FDR, or the fate of the 17 Chinese Uyghurs held at Guantánamo Bay. He's short on folksy charm and poetic flourishes. He speaks, instead, like the physician he's been for 17 years: harried, slightly weary ("Right..." he'll say with a sigh when responding to a question, as if every patient asks the same thing), but with a robust diagnostic certainty, crisply charting the problems and best treatment options.

Rand Paul is an ophthalmologist, so he's not in the business of dispensing terminal diagnoses. "It's a happier practice," he tells me, "than being an oncologist." Reviewing the nation's X-rays, however, he comes to a downright bleak conclusion: a financial cancer. "It takes a long time for a country to consume its wealth," he says. "An individual can go bankrupt in a matter of months, but a country can take a generation or more—and I think it's been going on for a generation or more. There's a day of reckoning coming and it's close. It's much nearer than it's ever been. Nobody can predict things like this exactly, but there's a sense in our country, and a sense in the Tea Party movement, that the day of reckoning is much closer."

The causes of this cancer, according to Paul, are familiar: out-of-control government spending, pork-barrel projects, bloated entitlements. The standard campaign litany, dusted off for every election cycle.

Less familiar, however, is the treatment Dr. Paul is prescribing. The federal government he envisions is a parched, skeletal—even dismembered—one: "A government that works under the enumerated powers of the Constitution," he explains. "A government that balances its budget every year, whose primary function is national defense and the judiciary and the legislative branches, and regulating interstate commerce only so much to keep open borders between the states." That means abolishing departments like Education and gutting ones like Commerce and Energy, disbanding the Federal Reserve, and getting rid of regulatory bodies like the Environmental Protection Agency. (Indeed, the federal code as revised by Rand Paul might yield fewer rules than the game of Yahtzee: "Things that are nonviolent," he said in 2008, "shouldn't be against the law.") That means scrapping agricultural subsidies, bailouts, and other corporate welfare. That means raising the eligibility age on Social Security—if, indeed, we must have Social Security. That means repealing President Obama's health-care plan and establishing high-deductible insurance plans that would force medical providers to compete on price, since patients would be paying much of the bill out-of-pocket. ("It sounds funny, but you need to be paying more for your health care," he says.) And finally, that means yanking troops back from most of the 750-plus military bases the United States maintains around the globe and staying the hell out of places like Iraq.

Rand Paul is a surgeon, but for this hard-case patient, he sees zero use for a scalpel. The proper tool is a chain saw.

• • •

The subject was the 1964 Civil Rights Act, arguably the holiest piece of legislation of the modern era. First on NPR, and then on The Rachel Maddow Show, Paul expanded on a critique of the act that he'd outlined months before for the Louisville Courier-Journal. While deploring racism, he took umbrage at the provision that forced private businesses, like the infamous Woolworth's lunch counter, to desegregate. He illustrated his argument this way: "If you decide that restaurants are publicly owned and not privately owned, then do you say that you should have the right to bring your gun into a restaurant, even though the owner of the restaurant says, 'Well, no, we don't want to have guns in here...because people might drink and start fighting and shoot each other'? Does the owner of the restaurant own his restaurant? Or does the government own his restaurant?" Replace guns with black people and his point becomes clear.

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."

That stodgy tilt is one of many things Rand Paul has inherited from his father. Among the others: his diminutive stature, his path into a medical career, his weakness for conspiracy theories ("It's a real thing," he said in 2008 about a very not-real plan for a "North American Union" that would join the U.S., Mexico, and Canada with a common currency called the Amero), his questionable taste in footwear, the new campaign manager he brought in after his post-primary debacle (Jesse Benton, an aide to Ron Paul during his 2008 presidential campaign; also the elder Paul's grandson-in-law), his fund-raising prowess, his fervent base of supporters, and a truckload of philosophical points. "Ideas are the only things that count," Ron Paul recently told a British reporter, "and politicians are, for the most part, pretty much irrelevant."

The elder Paul's ideas—which have run the gamut from withdrawal from the U.N. and eliminating the federal income tax to ending the War on Drugs and impeaching former president George W. Bush for invading Iraq unconstitutionally—have earned him an odd, lonesome (and, some would argue, irrelevant) spot in the Capitol; nicknamed Dr. No, he often finds himself on the losing end of 434-to-1 votes in congress.

Rand Paul has kept his father on the sidelines during his campaign, for tactical reasons, with the exception of a January rally in Louisville. "I mean, he draws an enormous crowd," the younger Paul says of his father. "But early on I felt like I needed to be my own person and run on my own. I didn't want to be seen as somebody's kid, with my dad at all the events." And while his campaign has endeavored to paint Rand as far less rigid and outré than his father, their views are similar enough that the label "Paulism" fits both generations.

"Will there be 99-to-1 votes in the Senate if Rand wins?" asks Blumel. "I hope so. But Ron runs to further his revolution, whether he wins or not. Rand is definitely more pragmatic. He can take some of these more libertarian ideas and make them palatable for general politics." Block also foresees 99-to-1 votes: "He'll be able to embarrass people and call them hypocrites." Rand Paul in the U.S. Senate might resemble—metaphorically, anyway—the Rand Paul who, as a former competitive swimmer, exercises in the Endless Pool he installed in his house: swimming hard against the machine-made current but never getting anywhere. Then again, once he's one of only 100, that view could be, as George W. Bush would say, a serious misunderestimation.


Harlan County, Kentucky, it turns out, is famous not for the Duke boys, or for the Hatfields and McCoys, as Rand Paul speculated, but for its violent coal battles. Nicknamed Bloody Harlan, and the subject of countless folk ballads (including "Which Side Are You On?") and several books and movies (the Oscar-winning 1976 documentary Harlan County USA and the 2000 film Harlan County War, starring Holly Hunter), the county was the site of some of the most explosive labor battles of the early 20th century. The bloodiest clashes occurred in 1931, when miners, working 12-to-16-hour days without any safety or wage regulations, tried to unionize. Beatings, shootings, bombings, and tear-gas attacks followed, much of the violence perpetrated by the local sheriff's department, which was controlled by the coal companies. Eventually, after four people died in one gun battle, federal troops were brought in to keep the peace. Bloody Harlan has been cited as a major reason for the passage of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which gave the federal government the power to regulate labor contracts and is anathema to everything Rand Paul stands for.

At a coal mine seven miles outside of town, he settles into a meeting room with a mine foreman and his tour guide for the day, a supporter named Tim Rice. The mine is operated by Coalgood Energy, a subsidiary of Massey Energy—the company under fire for the April explosion at its Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, West Virginia, that killed 29 in the deadliest mining disaster since 1970. On the meeting room wall is a quotation from Massey CEO Don Blankenship: "Remain proud and always strive to improve safety."

• • •

"Remember what Rahm Emanuel said," Paul warns the foreman. " 'Every good crisis deserves a big-government solution.' " (The actual quote from Obama's chief of staff was "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.") "We've had a couple accidents in the coal industry, and we just had a big accident in the oil industry," Paul says, referring to the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico. "And they'll use that as an excuse for more rules, more control."

Rules, control—just what Rand Paul abhors most, what chafes him about the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act, the Americans With Disabilities Act, and about environmentalists taking aim at Appalachia's coal industry for a practice known as mountaintop removal. The process involves blasting off the tops of mountains to get at the coal seams inside, then filling stream valleys with the resulting rubble and debris. Scientists and environmentalists say its effects are devastating, that it buries feeder streams, razes ecosystems, leaves toxic sludge pits and decapitated, denuded forests in its wake. "Mountaintop-removal coal mining," Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the chief prosecuting attorney for the eco-watchdog group Riverkeeper, recently wrote, "is the greatest environmental tragedy ever to befall our nation."

Paul believes mountaintop removal just needs a little rebranding. "I think they should name it something better," he says. "The top ends up flatter, but we're not talking about Mount Everest. We're talking about these little knobby hills that are everywhere out here. And I've seen the reclaimed lands. One of them is 800 acres, with a sports complex on it, elk roaming, covered in grass." Most people, he continues, "would say the land is of enhanced value, because now you can build on it."

"Let's let you decide what to do with your land," he says. "Really, it's a private-property issue." This is a gentler, more academic variation on a line he used the evening before, during his speech at the Harlan Center: "If you don't live here, it's none of your business." It's the kind of catchphrase that may serve him well in Kentucky, where he has remained steadily ahead of Jack Conway in polls, even after the Rachel Maddow incident. (The small size of Kentucky's African-American population—just seven percent—may have softened his comments' impact back home.) Barring, or maybe not barring, any further philosophical tangents, Rand Paul seems poised to enter the United States Senate, where he'll bring the ideological zeal inherent in that mantra—"If you don't live here, it's none of your business"—to 99-to-1 votes, as well as 51-to-49 ones.

Yet that battle cry, presumably, is what Harlan County's coal operators shouted when they kept a brutal anti-populist grip on their fiefdoms.

"Is there a certain amount of accidents and unfortunate things that do happen, no matter what the regulations are?" Paul says at the Harlan Center, in response to a question about the Big Branch disaster. "The bottom line is I'm not an expert, so don't give me the power in Washington to be making rules. You live here, and you have to work in the mines. You'd try to make good rules to protect your people here. If you don't, I'm thinking that no one will apply for those jobs. I know that doesn't sound..." Here he stumbles, trying to parse his words properly but only presaging his campaign misstep. "I want to be compassionate," he concludes, "and I'm sorry for what happened, but I wonder: Was it just an accident?"

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