Grappling With Ron Paul's Racist Newsletters

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The biggest obstacle to his candidacy is making headlines again. If he wants to win anything, he's going to need to confront it.

Did you know about the racist newsletters published in the late 1980s and early 1990s under Ron Paul's name? As the Texas Congressman surges in the GOP primary, the story of the newsletters is garnering headlines, as it did during his 1996 House campaign and his 2008 presidential run. He's always insisted that he didn't write the egregiously offensive material, and long ago repudiated it (though not as soon as he should have). Is this an old story voters will look beyond, like Newt Gingrich's affairs? Or a new story for the vast majority of voters and the plurality of journalists who are less familiar with Paul than the other GOP frontrunners? Is it coming up now "for political reasons"? Or because it's a legitimate subject of inquiry despite having been aired before in the media?

It seems to me that the story's reemergence was inevitable and necessary to fully inform primary voters about their choices. This level of scrutiny is rightly what comes with contending for the presidency.

In any case, the story is once again in the news. 

In The Weekly Standard, Jamie Kirchick has returned to the subject, which he first tackled in a 2008 piece for The New Republic. Jonathan Chait has titled a New York magazine item on the matter "Ron Paul Is a Huge Racist." At The Washington Examiner, Tim Carney complains that if Ron Paul wins Iowa the GOP establishment is going to try to illegitimately tar him as a racist. Jonah Goldberg says at National Review that it's perfectly legitimate to rehash these questions.

Philip Klein agrees.

Who is right?

The question is complicated by facts not in evidence and inherently subjective judgments about politics, race, and the norms that govern how much a candidate's bygone associations matter. My conclusions are conflicted -- more on that shortly -- but this much I can say: a thorough airing of the facts is the best place to begin. (If you've read the major pieces already skip down to the next subhead).

Let's start with Kirchick's piece from 1998:

Paul's newsletters have carried different titles over the years--Ron Paul's Freedom Report, Ron Paul Political Report, The Ron Paul Survival Report--but they generally seem to have been published on a monthly basis since at least 1978. (Paul, an OB-GYN and former U.S. Air Force surgeon, was first elected to Congress in 1976.) During some periods, the newsletters were published by the Foundation for Rational Economics and Education, a nonprofit Paul founded in 1976; at other times, they were published by Ron Paul & Associates, a now-defunct entity in which Paul owned a minority stake, according to his campaign spokesman. The Freedom Report claimed to have over 100,000 readers in 1984. At one point, Ron Paul & Associates also put out a monthly publication called The Ron Paul Investment Letter.

...whoever actually wrote them, the newsletters I saw all had one thing in common: They were published under a banner containing Paul's name, and the articles (except for one special edition of a newsletter that contained the byline of another writer) seem designed to create the impression that they were written by him--and reflected his views. What they reveal are decades worth of obsession with conspiracies, sympathy for the right-wing militia movement, and deeply held bigotry against blacks, Jews, and gays.

In 2008, the libertarian magazine Reason reacted to the Kirchick story by trying to figure out whether Paul in fact wrote the newsletters -- or if he didn't write them, who was directly responsible. Two journalists, Dave Weigel and Julian Sanchez, were assigned to the story.

Here's what they found:

In interviews with reason, a half-dozen longtime libertarian activists--including some still close to Paul--all named the same man as Paul's chief ghostwriter: Ludwig von Mises Institute founder Llewellyn Rockwell, Jr. Financial records from 1985 and 2001 show that Rockwell, Paul's congressional chief of staff from 1978 to 1982, was a vice president of Ron Paul & Associates, the corporation that published the Ron Paul Political Report and the Ron Paul Survival Report. The company was dissolved in 2001. During the period when the most incendiary items appeared--roughly 1989 to 1994--Rockwell and the prominent libertarian theorist Murray Rothbard championed an open strategy of exploiting racial and class resentment to build a coalition with populist "paleoconservatives," producing a flurry of articles and manifestos whose racially charged talking points and vocabulary mirrored the controversial Paul newsletters recently unearthed by The New Republic. To this day Rockwell remains a friend and advisor to Paul--accompanying him to major media appearances; promoting his candidacy on the LewRockwell.com blog; publishing his books; and peddling an array of the avuncular Texas congressman's recent writings and audio recordings.

Rockwell has denied responsibility for the newsletters' contents to The New Republic's Jamie Kirchick. Rockwell twice declined to discuss the matter with reason, maintaining this week that he had "nothing to say." He has characterized discussion of the newsletters as "hysterical smears aimed at political enemies" of The New Republic. Paul himself called the controversy "old news" and "ancient history" when we reached him last week, and he has not responded to further request for comment. But a source close to the Paul presidential campaign told reason that Rockwell authored much of the content of the Political Report and Survival Report. "If Rockwell had any honor he'd come out and I say, 'I wrote this stuff,'" said the source, who asked not to be named because Paul remains friendly with Rockwell and is reluctant to assign responsibility for the letters. "He should have done it 10 years ago."

They go on to report that the publishing operation was lucrative, generating almost $1 million dollars per year, and that "if Paul didn't know who was writing his newsletters, he knew they were a crucial source of income and a successful tool for building his fundraising base for a political comeback." At best, he didn't ask questions about an association that brought him a lot of money.

IS RON PAUL GUILTY OF MORE THAN NEGLIGENCE?

Do I think that Paul wrote the offending newsletters? I do not. Their style and racially bigoted philosophy is so starkly different from anything he has publicly espoused during his long career in public life -- and he is so forthright and uncensored in his pronouncements, even when they depart from mainstream or politically correct opinion -- that I'd wager substantially against his authorship if Las Vegas took such bets. Did I mention how bad some of the newsletters are? It's a level of bigotry that would be exceptionally difficult for a longtime public figure to hide.

For that reason, I cannot agree with Kirchick when he concludes that "Ron Paul is not the plain-speaking antiwar activist his supporters believe they are backing -- but rather a member in good standing of some of the oldest and ugliest traditions in American politics."

On the other hand, it doesn't seem credible that Paul was unaware of who wrote the execrable newsletters, and although almost a million dollars per year in revenue is a substantial incentive to look away from despicable content, having done so was at minimum an act of gross negligence and at worst an act of deep corruption. Indeed, Paul himself has acknowledged that he "bears moral responsibility" for the content.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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