Ron Paul is not just a rare politician. The Texas Republican's combination of principle and plainspokenness, which has helped his presidential campaign break fund-raising records while attracting a strikingly diverse and enthusiastic crowd of supporters, makes him unique in recent U.S. history.
Since 1997, as during his terms in the 1970s and '80s, Paul has been the only member of Congress who has consistently taken seriously his oath to "support and defend the Constitution," earning the sobriquet Dr. No by voting against unconstitutional bills his colleagues were eager to support. More than any politician I can recall, Paul seems to say what he believes and believe what he says. That's why it's so disappointing to see his defensive, evasive responses to questions about racially inflammatory articles in newsletters that were published under his name in the '80s and '90s.
Not everything you may have heard about the newsletters is true. Contrary to what James Kirchick claims in The New Republic, the newsletters did not offer "kind words for the former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke." And although various media outlets have described parts of the newsletters as "anti-Semitic," there's little evidence to back up that description in the passages Kirchick cites.
But the truth is bad enough. In addition to anti-gay comments that pine for the days of the closet, the newsletters include gratuitous swipes at Martin Luther King, discussions of crime that emphasize the perpetrators' skin color, and dark warnings of coming "race riots." None of it is explicitly racist, and some of it could be written off as deliberately provocative political commentary. Taken together, however, these passages clearly cater to the prejudices of angry white guys who hate gay people and fear blacks.
When Paul's opponent in his 1996 congressional campaign pointed to some of this ugly stuff, Paul accused him of taking the quotes "out of context." It was not until a 2001 interview with the Texas Monthly that Paul said his campaign advisers had discouraged him from telling the complete, "confusing" truth about the newsletters: that the most outrageous material had been written by someone else.
That is Paul's defense today, and I'm inclined to believe him. The race-baiting newsletter passages do not sound like anything else Paul has said or written in his public life. People who were familiar with the newsletters' production confirm that they were largely ghostwritten and that Paul often did not review them prior to publication.
Yet, the fact remains that Paul earned money and built his fund-raising list with newsletters that seemed to be aimed at bigots. Given his association with "paleolibertarians" such as Lew Rockwell who sought to construct an anti-statist coalition partly by appealing to racial resentments, he owes his supporters more than accepting "moral responsibility" for inadequately overseeing the newsletters to which he lent his name.
In a CNN interview, Paul alternated between acknowledging the legitimacy of this issue and dismissing it as old news dredged up "for political reasons." I'm sure most of his supporters were not familiar with the content of his newsletters. I've been working at the country's leading libertarian magazine on and off since 1989, and it was news to me.
If I thought Ron Paul might be president in 2009, I'd have to admit that his newsletter negligence raises questions about his judgment and about the people he'd choose to advise him. But since the value of the Paul campaign lies in promoting the libertarian ideals of limited government, individual freedom and tolerance, the real problem is that the newsletters contradict this message.
On CNN, Paul emphasized that "racist libertarian" is an oxymoron since libertarians judge people as individuals. He should follow through on that point by identifying the author(s) of the race-baiting material and repudiating not just the sentiments it represents but the poisonous, self-defeating strategy of building an anti-collectivist movement on group hatred.