Bob Woodson likes to boast that he has “been screwed by the most famous and most influential people in Washington.” At 79, the sprightly, swaggering community organizer and civil-rights veteran has spent decades in D.C. lobbying on behalf of the urban poor, too often partnering with politicians who pose with him for photo-ops and then ditch his cause the moment the cameras are gone.
Paul Ryan was different—or at least that’s what Woodson thought.
The two men began working closely together after the 2012 presidential election, when Ryan—claiming a spiritual awakening—asked Woodson to advise him on policy issues related to poverty. Woodson favored an immersive approach to the project, and over the next four years he took the congressman on dozens of trips to poor inner-city neighborhoods, introducing him to a wide network of grassroots activists, black ministers, and community leaders—front-line foot soldiers in the War on Poverty. Over time, he became convinced of Ryan’s sincerity, and believed he’d finally found a loyal ally who cared deeply about his agenda. “Paul far exceeded my expectations in terms of being morally consistent and firmly committed,” Woodson said.
Now, that faith is being put to the test. In recent days, Ryan has emerged as the vocal champion of a health-care bill that would reduce access to Medicaid, and, according to the Congressional Budget Office, increase the number of uninsured Americans by 24 million. Critics are pointing to Ryan’s enthusiastic support for the legislation as definitive proof that he never really cared about helping the poor—or that, if he did, he’s long since sacrificed that pursuit at the altar of partisan orthodoxy. (Ryan didn’t help his own case when, in a semi-viral Fox News interview last week, he was asked why the bill seemed to prioritize tax cuts for the wealthy at the expense of lower-income Americans, and he literally shrugged in response.)
When I spoke to Woodson late last week, he admitted he was concerned that the people he’s spent his life serving could end up losing coverage under the GOP’s plan. But he hastened to add that he’s not a health-care policy wonk—and, for now, he’s choosing to put his faith in Ryan. “I’m worried about it … but it’s not an issue that I know a lot about; I’m not very deep in understanding,” Woodson said. “All I can do is trust in Paul Ryan and what I know to be his central principle, and that is to protect the least of these.”
Woodson, a self-described “radical pragmatist” when it comes to politics, is no Randian right-winger. But his communitarian streak and emphasis on a kind of up-by-the-bootstraps self-reliance has long endeared him to conservatives in Washington. (President Trump even considered tapping him to serve as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.) Woodson says he never expected—or wanted—Ryan’s personal interactions with the poor to transform him into a big-government progressive.
Still, as we spoke, Woodson seemed at times like he was straining to give his friend the benefit of the doubt. He told me Ryan did not consult him on the substance of the health-care bill, and that the speaker hadn’t reached out in the days since it was rolled out. Woodson theorized that Ryan might be playing some kind of long game with the legislation that wasn’t readily apparent to outside observers. “I think what Paul is trying to do is some statecraft here,” he told me. “He’s got to keep his caucus together, and I think what he’s doing is … saying, ‘Let’s take your suggestions about what can be changed.’”
Woodson added, “I remember writing a book once, and my final draft did not look anything like what I started with.”
The truth, of course, is that Ryan has set an aggressive timeline for passing the legislation, and he’s made clear he doesn’t want to allow any major changes before it comes up for a vote. Only in the past 48 hours—as party leaders scrambled to salvage the bill—has Ryan indicated that he’s open to substantially tinkering with it.
But to many of of the speaker’s longtime critics, the kind of unswerving faith Woodson demonstrates in the strength of Paul Ryan’s character and the goodness of his intentions is maddening. Only a willful suspension of disbelief, they argue, could lead so many people—be they political reporters, or Washington wonks, or antipoverty crusaders—to continue seeing what they want in Ryan, regardless of the actual policies he tries to enact.
Earlier this week, I phoned Woodson again to see if his thinking had changed at all since we’d last spoken. He told me he was brushing up on health-care policy, and said his nonprofit was working to line up talks and testimonials on the issue from low-income Americans. “What we’re going to be doing is taking a group of people who are suffering from these problems and give them a voice,” he said. “I’m not going to presume to speak for them.”
When I asked him about Ryan he again offered praise, but it was more measured and careful this time. “I know from four years of traveling the country with Paul Ryan that he has the interests of those people he has met at heart,” Woodson told me.
In the increasingly contentious health-care battle now consuming Capitol Hill, Ryan is taking fire from all sides. Democrats say his bill would rip a gaping hole in the social safety net. Conservatives are angrily dismissing it as Obamacare Lite. And the unpredictable president—ostensibly on his team—seems likely to go AWOL at the first sign of trouble.
In this frenzied moment, Woodson is quick to offer his support to Ryan—but unwilling to let him off the hook. “I’m still confident that Paul will see to it that … he gets the best deal for the people that I care about.”