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.

Given its odiousness that is no small thing.

People who traffic in ideas have a responsibility to monitor what goes out under their names. Had someone published such offensive drivel under mine, I'd be furious, and I'd damn well identify and repudiate the author. Why has Paul failed to do so? In the hope that the story would disappear more quickly if he avoided it? Out of misplaced loyalty to a longtime supporter? Out of fear that if he turns on the author of the newsletters he's vulnerable to retaliation, or the revelation that he was in fact complicit in the content? Another reason? It's impossible to know. And for that reason, I can't blame Kirchick for reaching a different, darker conclusion than mine.

He writes:

Paul's campaign wants to depict its candidate as a naïve, absentee overseer, with minimal knowledge of what his underlings were doing on his behalf. This portrayal might be more believable if extremist views had cropped up in the newsletters only sporadically--or if the newsletters had just been published for a short time. But it is difficult to imagine how Paul could allow material consistently saturated in racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and conspiracy-mongering to be printed under his name for so long if he did not share these views.

In that respect, whether or not Paul personally wrote the most offensive passages is almost beside the point. If he disagreed with what was being written under his name, you would think that at some point--over the course of decades--he would have done something about it.

I don't actually think it's obvious that a politician profiting handsomely from a newsletter would go out of his way to scrutinize its content or repudiate material in it with which he disagreed, but who can say for sure? In 2008, Sanchez and Weigel concluded their piece with an admonition that more closely reflects my thinking:

New supporters, many of whom are first encountering libertarian ideas through the Ron Paul Revolution, deserve a far more frank explanation than the campaign has as yet provided of how their candidate's name ended up atop so many ugly words. Ron Paul may not be a racist, but he became complicit in a strategy of pandering to racists--and taking "moral responsibility" for that now means more than just uttering the phrase. It means openly grappling with his own past--acknowledging who said what, and why. Otherwise he risks damaging not only his own reputation, but that of the philosophy to which he has committed his life.

Paul should've taken that advice when it was published. Perhaps he thought, having grappled with the issue in previous congressional campaigns, that he'd already done all he was obligated to do. If so, he was wrong. His inadequate handling of the issue does his supporters a significant, ongoing disservice. My colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it well: "Some pity should be reserved for the young and disgruntled, for those who dimly perceive that something is wrong in this country, for those who are earnestly appalled by the madness of our criminal justice policy, for those who have watched a steady erosion of our civil liberties, and have seen their concerns met with an appalling silence on the national stage. That their champion should be, virtually by default, a man of mixed motives and selective courage, is sad."

HOW SHOULD THIS SHAPE THINKING ABOUT PAUL 2012?

One reason I preferred former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson to Ron Paul in the 2012 primary, beyond his executive experience, is his complete lack of taint from the ugliest strains of "paleolibertarianism." Obviously the bulk of libertarians in America prefer Paul to Johnson, not because they're comfortable with racism, but because Paul is a more effective debater and spokesman, and has been building support for presidential runs for many years. His appeal is precisely his plainspoken message against war, drug prohibition, Wall Street bailouts, and cronyism.

That's why he draws so much of his support from young people.

Since I first learned about the controversial newsletters in 2008, I've listened closely to see if I could hear any racist dog whistles in Paul's speeches. I never have. As far as I can tell, that ugly part of American politics is entirely absent from his presidential campaigns, comparing favorably even to George W. Bush's 2000 campaign against John McCain and Hillary Clinton's 2008 primary bid to gain support from disaffected whites in Appalachia. In the GOP primary, judging by avowed statements made by the candidates, the ugliest sentiments are remarks Rick Santorum and Rick Perry have made about gay people, and that Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, and Michele Bachmann have made about Muslims. The ugly taint of opportunistic, politically convenient prejudice directly implicates those candidates, shaping even their policy preferences.  

For me, the disconnect between the Ron Paul newsletters, which make me sick, and Paul's words and actions in public life, which I often admire, put me in mind of the way I reacted when candidate Barack Obama was found to associate with Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers, both of whom had said execrable things. I couldn't defend any of it. But I could never get exercised about the association in exactly the way that writers like Victor Davis Hanson wanted, because it seemed totally implausible that if Obama was elected he would turn out to secretly share the convictions of the Weather Underground, or hope for God to damn America. It always seemed to me that those relationships were the unsavory product of personal ambition. I don't mean to suggest that the two circumstances are entirely analogous, but I do find it hard to believe that if Paul were elected, he'd turn out to be a secret racist, implement policies that targeted minorities, or drum up support by giving speeches with hateful rhetoric. 

If those ugly impulses didn't emerge after 9/11, when xenophobia was rewarded, or during the ascent to the presidency of Barack Obama, whose victory stoked racial paranoia in so many Americans prone to that disease, when would they emerge in Paul? The post 9/11 decade has been one of attacks on minority groups and pandering to Birthers. In some quarters, Paul is accused of pandering to Truthers. Is there an instance aside from the one at issue when he has pandered to racists?

If a single speech or policy proposal of that sort were unearthed, it would substantially change my attitude -- is there ever just one speech of that sort? -- and its apparent absence in so long, verbose, and Internet-accessible a career strikes me as circumstantial evidence that Paul's wrongdoing is rooted in political opportunism, negligence, and failure to disassociate himself with racists, not racism itself. And certainly not in any desire to implement racist policies if elected president.

But Paul supporters have to face facts: even the most charitable explanation reflects poorly on their candidate, and makes him complicit in some phenomenally ugly bits of political rhetoric.


THE DESIRE FOR A PURE CANDIDATE TO SUPPORT

I've got friends who never vote. It makes them feel dirty, because in their experience all politicians suck. It isn't just that they're flawed people. We all are. It's that they seem especially corrupt, prone to constant lies, always with skeletons that betray the most rank hypocrisy. And even when they explicitly promise something during a campaign they act differently in office.

Sometimes I stay home. I may do so in 2012. As a civil libertarian, there are certain candidates I just can't bring myself to support. Like Rick Perry. And Newt Gingrich. And Barack Obama. I'd feel best about voting for Gary Johnson. I don't agree with him on everything, but neither do I have any moral misgivings about any of his actions or policy stances. 

And Ron Paul? 

Unlike his typical sympathizers, I'd feel conflicted about voting for him. He's a flawed candidate in many ways. How is it -- some of you might ask -- that I'd even consider a vote for a candidate who, at best, negligently lent his name to a racist publication, profited from the deal, and either never bothered to find out who wrote the offending material or lied about being ignorant of it? (To be clear, if I thought he actually wrote the newsletters I certainly would not vote for him.) I'd answer that none of the policies he advocates makes me morally uncomfortable -- unlike his competition. And that he has a long history of doing what he says when elected, and no more.

"How could you vote for someone who..."

Isn't that a thorny formulation? I'm sometimes drawn to it. And yet. We're all choosing among a deeply compromised pool of candidates, at least when the field is narrowed to folks who poll above 5 percent. Put it this way. How can you vote for someone who wages an undeclared drone war that kills scores of Pakistani children? Or someone who righteously insisted that indefinite detention is an illegitimate transgression against our civilizational values, and proceeded to support that very practice once he was elected? How can you vote for someone who has claimed to be deeply convicted about abortion on both sides of the issue, constantly misrepresents his record, and demagogues important matters of foreign policy at every opportunity?  Or someone who suggests a religious minority group should be discriminated against? Or who insists that even given the benefit of hindsight, the Iraq War was a just and prudent one?

And yet many of you, Republicans and Democrats, will do just that -- just as you and I have voted for a long line of past presidents who've deliberately pursued policies of questionable-at-best morality.

In voting for "the lesser of two evils," there is still evil there -- we're just better at ignoring certain kinds in this fallen world. A national security policy that results in the regular deaths of innocent foreigners in order to maybe make us marginally safer from terrorism is one evil we are very good at ignoring.

Prison rape is an evil we're even better at ignoring.

It is a wonderful thing that Americans are usually unable to ignore the evil of outright racism. It hasn't always been so. The change is a triumph. But important as rhetorical issues of race and ethnicity are in America, we're by necessity choosing the lesser of two -- or three or seven -- evils when we pick a candidate. And so it's worth complicating the moral picture with some questions we don't normally consider when we talk about race.

For example: What American policy most hurts people who'd be a minority group in this country? I'd say cluster bombs, missiles and bullets that inadvertently kill them while we try to kill terrorists or convert tribal or sectarian societies into democracies. Or perhaps an even graver harm is done by the subsidies we give to agribusinesses, destroying Third World agricultural markets and opportunity. To think of the damage done over the decades by sugar dumping in Haiti alone! And isn't it uncomfortable to think about how race and nationality is implicated in the priority we assign to folks who suffer from the aforementioned policies? The policies aren't rooted in personal racism, like the lines in racist tracts -- sugar dumping is rooted in an amoral agricultural lobby that wants to enrich itself -- yet it's hard to imagine such policies would persist as uncontroversially if "people like us" were the victims.

In the U.S., the War on Drugs arguably does the most grave damage to poor communities, especially in black and Latino neighborhoods, where the majority of arrests take place, though whites use drugs more often. The greatest threat to an ethnic minority in the United States isn't that doctrinaire libertarians are going to reverse the Civil Rights Act -- it's that Muslim Americans or immigrants are going to be held without trial in the aftermath of a future terrorist attack because we've allowed our and their civil liberties to erode.

Were it 1964, I'd never vote for Paul, precisely because my desire to protect and expand liberty would've placed the highest priority on the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Paul once said in a speech that "the forced integration dictated by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 increased racial tensions while diminishing individual liberty," despite the fact that it clearly enhanced the individual liberty of blacks, the group the state was most implicated in transgressing against.

But it is not 1964. Other injustices better define our times. In 2012, when accused terrorists are held indefinitely without charges or trial, and folks accused of drug possession have their doors broken down by flash-grenade wielding SWAT teams in no-knock raids, Paul would arguably protect the rights of racial, religious or ethnic minority groups better than Obama, regardless of whether Paul is now or ever was a racist, and irrespective of the fact that Obama, as the first black president, has in some ways transformed Americans' thinking on race. (LBJ, who signed the Civil Rights Act, was not know for his personal progressivism on race or women's rights, but he nonetheless backed policies that had powerful consequences for women and minorities).

What I want Paul detractors to confront is that he alone, among viable candidates, favors reforming certain atrocious policies, including policies that explicitly target ethnic and religious minorities. And that, appalling as it is, every candidate in 2012 who has polled above 10 percent is complicit in some heinous policy or action or association. Paul's association with racist newsletters is a serious moral failing, and even so, it doesn't save us from making a fraught moral judgment about whether or not to support his candidacy, even if we're judging by the single metric of protecting racial or ethnic minority groups, because when it comes to America's most racist or racially fraught policies, Paul is arguably on the right side of all of them.

His opponents are often on the wrong side, at least if you're someone who thinks that it's wrong to lock people up without due process or kill them in drone strikes or destabilize their countries by forcing a war on drug cartels even as American consumers ensure the strength of those cartels.

Even Obama, who has spoken so eloquently about the harm done by the drug war and lost civil liberties, is now on the wrong side of those issues, and shows no signs of reversing himself. As bad as the Paul newsletters are -- let me emphasize again that they are awful -- I can't persuade myself that they should carry more weight than war, or civil liberties, unless Paul in fact wrote them, which would mean that he is lying about his core philosophy of individualism, equality, pluralism, and opposition to bigoted laws. In that case, there would be no reason to trust him.

Figuring out what flaws to accept in a candidate is a brutal calculus. I wouldn't begrudge someone who, having pondered the matter, decided that as best as they could tell -- we're all guessing about character judgments -- the racist newsletters are reason enough to refrain from supporting Paul. In some ways, it would be easiest for me to reach that conclusion: to establish as a litmus test that I'll never vote for anyone even remotely associated with what is poisonous drivel.

What I find harder, but compulsory, by my code, is at least comparing candidates all of whom stand for something poisonous, immoral or idiotic. Should I stay home? Does that not make me complicit in a different way? These quandaries are inescapable in a large democracy, especially one that is a global hegemon. My tentative conclusion: among the candidates who could win, Paul is least complicit in needlessly killing innocents abroad; he is least likely to deprive innocent foreigners of their God given rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; he is most committed to civil liberties and drug legalization at home. The contrary policies, which I regard as abhorrent, are easily ignored by most voters, because they are the status quo.

It is easiest to evade the moral implications of policies already in place.

Should Paul continue to perform well in the polls, or even win the Iowa caucuses, national media attention is going to focus intensely on his newsletters as never before, and it won't represent a double-standard: published racism under any candidate's name would rightly attract press attention! Paul ought to stop acting aggrieved. He is not a victim here. Voters ought to do their best to understand the controversy, gauge Paul's character, and render judgment about his likely behavior were he elected to the presidency, relative to his competitors.

The racist newsletters should in fact be part of the calculus.

So should the uncomfortable fact that bygone complicity in racist newsletters doesn't necessarily make Paul the candidate most complicit in human depravity (sad as that is), or tell us whose policies, which candidate, would do the most to square American government with the highest ideals of our polity. Support for Paul is grounded for many in the judgment that he is that candidate. That his policies, the ones he would champion in general election debates and pursue if elected, are the most moral on offer among the GOP contenders. I remain sympathetic to that argument.

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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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