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.)