Imagine, for a moment, the perfect congressman. Though he works in Washington, D.C., a city of shameless opportunism, shifting allegiances, and flannel-mouthed pieties, he is both deeply principled and wholly uncompromised. He does not bend with the political winds. He does not take money from corporate PACs. Lobbyists cannot sway him; to try is a waste of time. He never bargains with his own deeply held beliefs, nor does he cut backroom deals. Because his political views and his personal convictions are in complete harmony, he seldom faces a “tough” vote. And when the politicking for the week is over, he returns to his district to take up his lifelong occupation, which has nothing to do with politics.
This, of course, sounds like unalloyed fantasy; no one who clung so tenaciously—or so naively—to his beliefs would last in Washington. The grizzled old pols who run the place would grind him up and sprinkle him on their pecan-encrusted mahimahi for dinner. But there is such a man. Whether he is perfect or not is a matter for debate, as you will see, but the plain fact is that a congressman named Ron Paul, a 66-year-old Republican who represents Texas’ 14th Congressional District, otherwise fits this description exactly. The phrase “honest politician” is an oxymoron; yet in the sense that Paul never, ever votes against his stated principles—which are libertarian and include the belief that much of our federal government, from the IRS to the Department of Education, and the massive taxes that support it, should be abolished—the phrase describes him.
Wait. There’s more. The same beliefs that cause him to vote against every single appropriations bill in Congress also carry over to his private life. He intends, for example, to refuse his congressional pension. He would not let his children take out federally subsidized education loans. He actually returns money each year from his congressional office—some $50,000 last year. “I have always thought that there are two brands of conservatives: the kind who follow the money and conservatives of principle,” says Ronnie Dugger, who as a longtime liberal and a former editor of the Texas Observer is an unlikely admirer. “Paul is a conservative of principle. He’s held his ground, and he is an honest man.”
He has also violated almost every rule of political survival you can think of, short of committing a felony. Paul’s beliefs run so deep that he will unhesitatingly vote against his constituents’ interests. In a district with 675 miles of coastline, he opposes federally sponsored flood insurance. In an overwhelmingly rural region, he speaks out against farm subsidies. In a district with large numbers of senior citizens and poor people, he is on record opposing “the welfare state.” In almost all cases, he refuses to deliver “pork” to the good folks of his home district. Appeals to party loyalty are useless; he was one of only sixteen Republicans who voted against George W. Bush’s energy plan, one of only four Republicans who voted against the administration-backed version of the patient’s rights bill, and he opposes its education bill. (He did vote for the president’s tax cut, because he supports tax cuts of any kind.)
His contrarian behavior has made him an enormously appealing figure to residents of the 14th District, which extends from the central Texas coast to the suburbs of Austin and San Antonio. Seven times, over four decades and in two different districts, he has been elected, despite fierce opposition. In the past three elections, he was targeted by the national Democratic party and by major unions, which spent lavishly to beat him. Yet he has won by ever-widening margins. As he coasts into the second year of his seventh term, he may now be unbeatable.
He stands at the microphone in the empty, echoing hall, addressing his words to no one. At seven-twenty on a winter night in the United States House of Representatives, Congressman Paul is the only member on the floor. High above him, half a dozen people are scattered across the nosebleed seats of the spectator gallery, along with a couple of yawning security guards. There is a woman in the seat where the Speaker of the House normally sits, shuffling paper and paying no attention. There is a lone stenographer on the floor. Out in the Great American Night, there are no doubt some C- SPAN2 junkies watching and listening—part of Paul’s far-flung network of pro-gun, pro-life, pro-property rights, and anti-government admirers, perhaps—but here in the vast, cavernous gallery, there are only empty seats and silence. Paul is unfazed; he is an habitué of this place in these lonely off-hours. This is his time—the end of the workday, when everyone goes home except those who want to speechify on any subject. In a soft tenor voice that occasionally rises to a higher pitch, he delivers a stem-winding denunciation of the secretive institution he believes is responsible for many of the economic ills of the modern world: the Federal Reserve System.
This is, of course, a distinctly minority view in a city that regards Federal Reserve System board chairman Alan Greenspan as a sort of cross between Houdini and Saint Peter. But it is typical of Paul’s unconventional ideas. If he had his way, there would be no Federal Reserve at all. (He calls Greenspan a “price fixer” and refers to the Fed as the “chief counterfeiter for the world.”) He wants to return the U.S. to the gold standard, get us out of the United Nations, and abolish most forms of federal law enforcement. He has also voted against giving congressional medals to Mother Teresa and Rosa Parks, against giving earthquake relief to India, and against a bill that would have helped prevent child pornography on the Internet. He wants to abolish all federal drug laws and cancel the war on drugs. Like Don Quixote, Paul confronts a vast and transcendent evil that most of his colleagues do not believe exists. They have a name for him: Dr. No. His beliefs are