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The Talented Senator Paul

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
The movie "The Talented Mr. Ripley" tends to stay with anyone fascinated by how we acquire and maintain and sometimes switch our personal identity, and how slippery it can be. For what columnist has just one identity? There's the public one, and it's always a temptation to pretty it up, make it more respectable, more presentable than the private one -- until he can't be sure which is the real one, if either is.

Anyone who writes for public consumption, or just for the private entertainment of his friends, knows the uneasiness that goes with trying on different faces. Some writers make an art of it, or at least a game. See "Borges and I," a small classic of a short story by the Argentine master.

"It's to that other one, to Borges, that things happen. ... I live, I let myself live so that Borges may write his literature, and this literature justifies me. It poses no great difficulty for me to admit that he has put together some decent passages, yet these passages cannot save me, perhaps because whatsoever is good does not belong to anyone, not even to the other, but to language and tradition. In any case, I am destined to lose all that I am, definitively, and only fleeting moments of myself will be able to live on in the other. Little by little, I continue ceding to him everything, even though I am aware of his perverse tendency to falsify and magnify."

Based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, the movie tells the story of a charming young impostor who is dispatched to retrieve a wayward heir from his luxurious life on the Riviera -- but grows so envious he decides to change places with his victim. Deceit, violence and death follow, but that's not the nub of the story, which is the mutability of the self, the way we can shape-shift, the flexibility of identity -- in others' eyes and even our own.

That uncertainty is only compounded in the case of a presidential candidate who in his ceaseless quest for votes may reflect the tastes and selves of millions -- a candidate like the talented Sen. Rand Paul, senator from Kentucky and riddle without a clear answer. For the senator is not just your average Hollow Man, a Bill Clinton accustomed to telling the American electorate whatever he senses it wants to hear.

No, this Rand Paul is of a whole different order of shifting identities, an almost clinical example of what the late Richard Hofstadter called "The Paranoid Style of American Politics" -- only with him it may not be just a style but the slippery essence of the man.

Rand Paul comes by it honestly enough. You might call it a family tradition, for he's the devoted son of Ron Paul, a kind of cult figure in eccentric American politics. How sum up the father? A money crank with all the associated accouterments, including a touch of closet anti-Semitism and a close association with an unreconstructed Confederate rabble-rouser.

But when Sen. Paul is asked if his politics are just a carbon copy of his father's, he bridles. Just as he bridles when he's asked if they aren't, as if he were being accused of a lack of filial piety.

That's just one of the senator's inconsistencies, though to call them inconsistencies is to commit the Grand Canyon of understatements. They're more like incoherencies.

The senator is usually thought of as a thorough-going isolationist. ("Both parties rush headlong into places they don't understand. ... When we're short of money, when we can't do the things we need to do in our country, we certainly shouldn't be shipping the money overseas.") But the next moment, he's ready to go to war against global terrorism. "The enemy is a barbarous aberration. The enemy is radical Islam. I not only will name the enemy, I will do everything in my power, everything it takes to defend America from these haters of mankind."

One minute Sen. Paul doesn't want to rile a newly aggressive Russia, the next he's eager to confront it.

To sum up, the talented Sen. Paul is talented the way a shiny mirror is, reflecting everything, absorbing nothing. Who is the real Rand Paul, and is there one by now?

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