The Elephant in the Room
Ron Paul's rivals for the Republican presidential nomination say his opposition to the Iraq war makes him a traitor to his party. He says it makes him the only genuine Republican in the race.
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“Caution” was the watchword in the first hour of the second Republican party presidential primary debate, held on the campus of the University of South Carolina in mid-May. The first debate, held a few weeks earlier in California, had already proved that the format—sixty-second responses to questions from panelists, with very little give-and-take between the candidates—tended not to produce a debate per se but a series of recitations of rehashed campaign rhetoric, and the ten men on the stage were doing little to challenge that conclusion. They gave mostly rote answers that were only loosely related to the questions asked by the moderators, whose primary function seemed to be to get the candidates to stop talking when their sixty seconds were up. After a while, it was hard to even distinguish one man from another. The evening was headed toward an unremarkable conclusion when Wendell Goler, a White House correspondent for Fox News, which was broadcasting the debate live, directed a question about the Iraq war to Congressman Ron Paul, the dark-horse candidate from Lake Jackson, in Brazoria County.
Paul, who had gotten to speak only twice up to that point, was standing on the far side of the auditorium stage, almost in the wings, a position entirely in keeping with his relationship to the mainstream of Republican party politics. Six of the past seven presidential elections have featured a Texan on the Republican ticket (a Bush, to be specific), but with all its hopes pinned on Paul, a 71-year-old backbencher in his tenth term in Congress, the state is not likely to go seven for eight. Since entering the race in March, he has been running a quixotic campaign seemingly aimed less at the White House than at challenging his party’s status quo, which, as it turned out, was just what Goler wanted to ask him about.
“Congressman Paul, I believe you are the only man on the stage who opposes the war in Iraq, who would bring the troops home almost immediately, sir,” Goler began. “Are you out of step with your party? Is your party out of step with the rest of the world? If either of those is the case, why are you seeking its nomination?”
In the history of American presidential debates, there have been a number of memorable moments—Al Gore’s sighs, Lloyd Bentsen’s “You’re no Jack Kennedy” put-down of Dan Quayle, Richard Nixon’s profuse sweating and five o’clock shadow. It came as no surprise to followers of Ron Paul’s career that his own memorable moment would come in the form of a provocative observation about American foreign policy.
“The conservative wing of the Republican party always advocated a noninterventionist foreign policy,” he told Goler, citing Senator Robert Taft’s reluctance to enter NATO, the Republican presidents who ended the wars in Korea and Vietnam, and the well-known advice of the founders, who warned against “entangling alliances.” When Goler asked him if he didn’t think the events of September 11 had changed all that, Paul took the critique a little further, suggesting that terrorists had attacked the United States precisely because of our interventions in the Middle East, in particular our periodic bombing of Iraq in the decade following the Gulf War. “We need to look at what we do from the perspective of what would happen if somebody else did it to us,” he said.
The audience, composed almost entirely of partisans of the South Carolina Republican Party (tickets cost $250), had made scarcely a noise all night, after being admonished by the Fox News producers at the outset to keep their emotions in check. Now, however, a fervid murmuring could be heard, spreading from the front row on up to the balcony.
“Are you suggesting we invited the 9/11 attack, sir?” Goler asked.
“I’m suggesting that we listen to the people who attacked us and the reason they did it,” Paul replied. When the bell cut him off a few seconds later, Rudy Giuliani butted in from his lectern on the opposite end of the stage. “That’s an extraordinary statement,” he said angrily. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard that before, and I’ve heard some pretty absurd explanations for September 11.” The former mayor of New York was livid, or doing a good facsimile of livid. Spurred on by the audience’s sudden roar of approval, he demanded that Paul withdraw the offending comment. Goler turned to Paul. “Congressman?”
Paul hesitated. Blood was in the water, and he had about ten seconds to keep the audience, and perhaps the entire Republican party, from turning on him completely. The politically correct response was clear enough. Paul needed to assure everyone that understanding the motive for the attacks did not make them rational, that murdering civilians was never acceptable, and that, if elected, he would hunt down the perpetrators of these attacks and punish them severely. Then, if he had time, he could return to his discussion of the costs and benefits—not to say morality—of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
Instead, he said this: “I believe very sincerely that the CIA is correct when they teach and talk about blowback. When we went into Iran in 1953 and installed the shah, yes, there was blowback. A reaction to that was the taking of our hostages, and that persists. And if we ignore that, we ignore that at our own risk. If we think that we can do what we want around the world and not incite hatred, then we have a problem. They don’t come here to attack us because we’re rich and we’re free. They come and they attack us because we’re over there. I mean, what would we think if other foreign countries were doing that to us?”
The audience erupted a second time, and all nine of Paul’s opponents waved their arms in the air, vying to be recognized for a rebuttal. Against long odds, an actual debate was threatening to break out on the stage in South Carolina. What happened next may have been the most telling moment in the entire campaign season up to that point. Moderator Brit Hume, the wise old man of Fox News, stepped in and ended the discussion, moving the proceedings along to another topic. Hume seemed to sense immediately what became evident in the weeks and months that followed, as the exchange between Paul and Giuliani became the talk of the chattering classes: There is no room in the Republican party for a debate of the type Ron Paul sought to begin in South Carolina, certainly not before the upcoming primary elections—and maybe not ever.
Earlier in the day, I had spent a good deal of time with Paul and his campaign team, interviewing him about, among other things, his views on the war in Iraq, so I knew there was a chance he would say something controversial during the debate. Ever since the Republican washout in the 2006 midterm elections, it has been popular among some Republican elected officials to say that the party has lost its way, citing as evidence the various ethics scandals in Washington, the runaway spending and deficits, and, more recently, the mismanaged war in Iraq. Paul, a retired obstetrician, has been saying all of these things, and much more, for years. He believes that seven years under President George Bush has shrunk the Republican base. “I don’t think they got the foreign policy they voted for,” he told me. “I don’t think they got the fiscal policy they voted for. We’ve added these entitlements, massively expanded the Department of Education, and we have violated personal liberties right and left in this post-9/11 atmosphere.” Paul voted against the Patriot Act and the Homeland Security bill and was one of only six Republicans in the House to vote against authorizing the use of force in Iraq. “I think every intervention overseas means we create more problems for ourselves,” he said. “It doesn’t work. It backfires, and it takes a long time to clean up the mess.”
Paul says things like this all the time, often in evening speeches to an empty House chamber, heard by nobody except watchers of C-SPAN. He subscribes to a radical free-market philosophy under which most of what the federal government does is considered not only unnecessary but harmful. He votes against legislation so often that he is known as Dr. No on Capitol Hill, where the leadership has largely written him off as a hard case. He has never voted for a tax increase. He would abolish the Department of Education, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Homeland Security, among others. He is regularly pilloried by opinion leaders back home for failing to bring back enough pork from Washington. But he keeps getting reelected in his conservative Republican district; he polled 60 percent last November. “After you get a reputation, people will trust you,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘Well, I don’t understand that vote, because that bill really sounded good, but I’ll bet he has a reason.’” Despite his legendary righteousness, there is something childlike about Paul’s manner, an air of boyish excitability reinforced by the slight difficulty he has pronouncing the letter l, which is most noticeable when he says the word “bill.” In 1988 he ran as the presidential candidate for the Libertarian party and became something of a folk hero to small-government conservatives, as well as a wide variety of fringe groups on the right side of the political spectrum.
On the morning of the South Carolina debate, these supporters were a small but visible presence. A group of them had camped out near an RV across the street from the state capitol building, a couple of blocks away from the auditorium where the debate was to be held. The RV, known as the Freedom Wagon, was painted by hand to look like an American flag and hung with Ron Paul banners, one of which read “Ron Paul Revolution,” with the letters e, v, o, and l reversed and printed in red, so that the word “love” jumped out at the reader. It had a decidedly hippie ring to it: the Ron Paul Love Revolution. None of the handful of people hanging around the Freedom Wagon could fairly be called hippies, however. The RV belonged to a petite, gray-haired woman from Asheville, North Carolina, named Linda Hunnicutt, who sat on the steps of the passenger door looking hot and bored. She had on black pants and a black T-shirt that read “Don’t Steal—The Government Hates Competition.”
Hunnicutt and a friend of hers billed themselves as the Granny Warriors. This was the second campaign event they had attended in the RV; they’d had to redo the entire paint job after driving through an ice storm in March. When I asked how she first got involved with Paul, Hunnicutt said she got into a fight with PETA, the animal rights organization.
“See, I own a monkey,” she said, backing up to the story’s beginning. When she heard that PETA was pushing a bill to outlaw ownership of exotic animals, she and a friend traveled to Washington to testify. “Well, we got lost, and we couldn’t find the committee room, and this old man was walking down the hallway. Nice-looking gentleman, you know. And I said, ‘Can you please tell us where this is?’ And he turns around and walks us down the hallway to the committee room, and he says, ‘Here you go, ladies.’” That nice man was Ron Paul, though Hunnicutt didn’t realize it until weeks later, when she saw a clip of him speaking on television. After that she began to follow his career.
I noticed a banner illustrated with lurid coils of barbed wire hanging on the RV. It advertised a documentary film by someone named Aaron Russo called America: From Freedom to Fascism. I asked Hunnicutt who Russo was. “Oh, he’s a jerk,” she said. “Don’t print that. Grannies aren’t supposed to talk that way.” The film, which purports to prove that the national income tax is unconstitutional and has allowed the federal government to turn the nation into a police state, includes a lengthy interview with Paul. Granny Hunnicutt gave me a DVD of the film, along with a grab bag of assorted pamphlets and DVDs, one of which was devoted to conspiracy theories about the September 11 attack. (At least two other people would try to give me a copy of the Russo DVD before the end of the day.)
A shy young man with a crew cut and tattoos covering his forearms wanted to know if Paul was coming by the camp. “Are you guys going to wait for him?” he asked.
“Do you think I’d miss a chance to hug Ron Paul?” Hunnicutt replied.
Paul is not a particularly charismatic man, but his unfailing devotion to principle—a quality even his detractors concede—has given him a certain aura of saintliness among his followers, including his campaign staff. “I trust each and every word that comes out of Ron Paul’s mouth,” his young press person, Jesse Benton, told me, when I met up with Paul and his team on the steps of the auditorium later that afternoon. Neither Jesse nor Paul’s campaign chairman, Kent Snyder, had much actual campaign experience, but they made up for it in loyalty to their candidate. Kent, a bald-headed man in his mid-forties with a long nose and delicate features, formerly worked for a libertarian nonprofit in Washington. Paul had been the subject of his master’s thesis, which cataloged all the House votes in which the congressman was the only member to vote no. (It was a long list.) Kent also worked on Paul’s 1988 presidential campaign, where, he says, he ran into John McCain, who told him, “You’re working for the most honest man in Congress.”
While Paul did phone interviews and conferred with Kent, I sat down to talk about the campaign with Jesse, a 29-year-old native of Philadelphia who was built like a fire hydrant, with bristly black hair, jug ears, and intense dark eyes. I expected him to sit down next to me, but instead he put one leg on the step above me and leaned in, resting his forearm on his leg like a high school football coach addressing a player on the bench. He did not seem to notice that this put his crotch uncomfortably close to my face. Chopping the air with his free hand, Jesse told me he had never met anybody like Paul during his short career in Washington, which he’d spent working for several conservative grassroots groups. When I asked Jesse if he ever worried about the marginal views of some of Paul’s followers, he frowned and stared hard at the concrete steps before answering. After several seconds, I began to worry that he was not going to answer at all, so I floated a popular metaphor in Democratic party circles: the big tent. He nodded reflectively. “I think the tent is big enough for all lovers of liberty,” he began. He thought some more and added, “The only rule is, you don’t step on someone else’s issue.”
On a grassy hill in front of the auditorium, several TV networks had set up small stages covered by white canvas tents, where candidates were doing live interviews with unseen hosts in New York. Paul had a 4:10 hit with Neil Cavuto, the host of a Fox News business report. When we got to Cavuto’s tent, former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson was in front of the camera, explaining in a wooden voice that oil revenues in Iraq should be divided into equal thirds among the national government, local governments, and the people themselves, “just like we do in Alaska.” This, he said, would give the people a stake in their government. As Thompson stepped offstage, he brushed past our group, close enough for us to see that his hair had the strangely coarse texture of hair on a caveman in a museum exhibit and that his eyebrows appeared to have been dyed. “Good luck, Governor,” Jesse said, smiling tightly and nodding. Thompson ignored him. After he was gone, Jesse leaned his head close to mine and said something meant to be rude: “Tommy Thompson was the architect of Medicare Part D, the largest expansion of Medicare since its inception.”
Jesse invited me to come by the hotel later to meet Paul’s wife, Carol, and four of Paul’s granddaughters, who had made the trip with her from Texas. When I arrived, Jesse was in the lobby chatting with Special Agent Ken Bran-ham, a hulking detective with the South Carolina state police who had been assigned to make sure Paul made it to the debate on time. Jesse was telling Branham that Paul was good friends with the governor of South Carolina, Mark Sanford, and Branham, who had a head like a pickle jar and an unflappable poker face, offered to call one of his contacts on the governor’s security team to see if he could arrange a visit to the mansion after the debate. Later, as I headed out to the hotel’s sundeck to meet Carol and the family, I heard Branham making the promised call. His voice was steadily neutral, but it was evident that the person on the other end of the line was more than a little dubious about a visit from Ron Paul.
Carol, a matronly woman with silvery hair and a grandmother’s laugh, has been married to Paul for fifty years. They have five children, three of whom, like Paul, are doctors, and seventeen grandchildren. Carol introduced me to four of them: Laura, Lisa, Vicki, and Valori, all in their late teens or early twenties. They wore smart suits and favored one another, like sorority girls on picture day. Paul’s family has always been involved in his campaigns. A cousin from Pennsylvania wrote a song in 1976 called “The Ballad of Ron Paul,” and new verses have been added over the years. Carol sang a bit for me: “The year is 1980/We’re trying to stay free/Put Ron Paul back in Congress/To fight for lib-er-ty.”
She showed me what she called her “secret weapon,” a combination cookbook and family album, which the Paul campaign has been mailing to constituents for years. Carol began methodically taking me through the family photos, explaining what each son or daughter did for a living, whom they were married to, and how many children they had. When I tried to skip ahead to an essay Carol had authored about Paul’s life, she gently guided me back to the photos. “You haven’t done it all yet, see?” she said.
I asked how the family dealt with the criticism Paul has received for his stance on the war and other issues. “I don’t like it at all. Ron is wonderful with it; he always says that’s just part of their disease. He’s very philosophical about everything. Ron reads all the time. He is so smart. I know that if the American people heard him, they would vote for him without a doubt.
“We get mail from all over the country,” Carol continued. “And they say, ‘Well, my congressman doesn’t speak for me, but you’re my congressman.’ And have you looked on the Internet? Oh, my goodness! He’s won most of the polls on the Internet. And now I’ve got a MySpace, Ron’s got a MySpace.” She looked across the table to the oldest of the granddaughters. “Laura, do you have a MySpace?”
“Facebook,” Laura replied.
“Okay, Facebook,” Carol said. “Laura does Facebook.”
Paul had been sitting nearby on a chaise longue with his eyes partly closed, only half listening to the conversation. As far as I could tell, he hadn’t spent any time that day studying briefing books or preparing sound bites for the debate. When the girls went back to their rooms to get ready for the big night, I talked with their grandfather some more about what it was like to be on the fringes of American politics. Paul is not a conspiracy theorist, though he knows that some of his most ardent followers are. “I say a guy like [Donald] Rumsfeld isn’t deliberately trying to destroy our country, but I think his policies are. I just haven’t bought into the conspiracy that they deliberately do these things because they want us to come crashing down or have an absolute one-world government,” he said. Paul does have some extreme views about the economy, however. He believes the U.S. should go back to the gold standard and, given the opportunity, will steer most interviews he gives toward a discussion of the Austrian school of economics—an outdated form of free-market theory that makes Milton Friedman look like a socialist—and the coming bankruptcy of America.
As we talked, I was struck by how much Paul reminded me of the iconic leftist thinker Noam Chomsky. It isn’t just that Paul’s analysis of foreign policy often echoes Chomsky’s; the two men also habitually refuse to calibrate their arguments to the audience they happen to be speaking to, even when doing so might help them win over a few converts. They both seem to suffer from a certain hardening of the intellectual arteries that comes from a lifetime spent as a true contrarian. I could not get Paul to concede, for example, that the federal government had ever made any beneficial interventions in the marketplace. Paul believes that President Franklin Roosevelt’s attempts to ease the suffering of millions in the thirties only prolonged the Depression. “The bankruptcies needed to happen, to flush the debt out of the system,” he told me. I asked him about LBJ’s effort in the forties to force utility companies to extend power lines out to the sparsely populated Central Texas Hill Country, a development that gradually brought one of the poorest areas in the nation into the twentieth century.
“Yeah, that’s all force, and it’s not good,” Paul said impatiently. Had the government not intervened, Paul speculated in all seriousness, perhaps the people of the Hill Country—dirt farmers and cedar choppers, many of whom could not even afford to buy shoes—would have developed their own alternative-energy sources, like wind and solar power.
I asked him for a plausible scenario under which he might win the nomination. He acknowledged that the primary schedule—especially the massive primary on February 5 in as many as 25 states—did not favor poorly funded campaigns like his. “The bunching together of all the primaries is very antidemocratic,” he said. “It is out to get the people that could build grassroots support, like myself. You know, do well in New Hampshire, do well in the next one, and build some momentum. But you know the one way that might backfire?” he said with a hint of glee. “What if five of them split up the vote and there’s no clear-cut winner? And then the minor states that come later on, maybe they will be up for grabs. And that would put us in a good position, because we can campaign in the small states.”
Of course, Paul would have to do well in the South Carolina debate, and in the debate the next month in New Hampshire, to have any kind of impact at all. He had actually won an MSNBC online poll following the first debate, in California, and though more than one pundit speculated that his followers had somehow spammed the informal poll, he had enjoyed an undeniable bump in interest afterward. (Paul has become something of a Web phenomenon: According to the Washington Post, during the week of June 16 “Ron Paul” was the second most frequently searched term, behind “YouTube,” on the popular Web site Technorati-.com.) Still, the campaign had raised only a small fraction of the funds front-runners Giuliani, McCain, and Mitt Romney had raised, and Paul was barely registering in nationwide polls. He’d been hoping, he told me, that tonight’s debate would change all of that. Paul could never afford to buy the type of airtime he was going to get on Fox News, and while the audience would not be huge, it would be a great deal larger than C-SPAN’s. “It’s really an equalizer for us,” he said. “The other candidates might be able to raise one hundred million dollars, but when they’re up on the stage, money doesn’t help ‘em all that much.”
The moderators threw Paul only one more question after his fateful exchange with Giuliani. For the most part, he was a spectator, a man not only out of step with his party, as Fox’s Wendell Goler had phrased it, but also somehow a man out of time. As the evening wore on and the rhetoric about Iraq and the war on terror became more and more bellicose and shrill, it began to feel less like a debate for the 2008 presidential nomination and more like a discussion that might have taken place in the White House sometime in 2003, before weapons of mass destruction had failed to materialize, before the scandal at Abu Ghraib and the warrantless wiretapping and the indefinite detentions at Guantanamo, before the neocons and their stars Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfo-witz had begun to fade from the Washington sky. Nobody was willing to say the war in Iraq was a mistake, yet nobody offered a convincing strategy for winning, or, for that matter, exiting gracefully. They talked instead about a vague and epic battle for the future of Western civilization. McCain spoke of the violence in Iraq “following us home” if we withdrew too soon. Giuliani, who has earned millions on the lecture circuit since September 11, drew the picture in even starker terms: “We have to remind ourselves that we are facing an enemy that is planning all over this world—and, it turns out, planning inside our country—to come here and kill us. And the worst thing to do in the face of that is to show them weakness.”
By the time Romney, the tall, patrician former governor of Massachusetts, added his thoughts, the complex web of movements and ideologies in the Middle East had been simplified almost to the point of being nonsensical. “Violent, radical jihadists want to replace all the governments of the moderate Islamic states, replace them with a caliphate,” he asserted. “And to do that, they also want to bring down the West, in particular us. And they’ve come together as Shia and Sunni and Hezbollah and Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda with that intent.” Never mind the fact that Shias and Sunnis were at that very moment fighting a civil war in Iraq or that Hamas and Fatah were on the verge of starting their own in Palestine. Nuance, as Paul had already demonstrated earlier in the evening, did not play well on a stage like this one.
In the weeks leading up to the debate, Dick Cheney had been rattling his saber about Iran, and Paul had told me that morning how foolish and arrogant he thought Cheney had been since September 11. On the stage that night in South Carolina, however, Paul’s rivals were betting that the Republican base saw the world more like Cheney did: as a dangerous struggle between the forces of good and evil, in which America’s very survival may be contingent on the selection of a strong commander in chief with the grit and determination to lead us to victory, a leader unburdened by antique notions about the value of diplomacy or adherence to international law. That became abundantly clear late in the evening when Hume asked the candidates to consider a hypothetical scenario involving a coordinated attack on U.S. shopping centers in which hundreds had been killed, with more attacks yet to come. Candidates were asked if, as the commander in chief, they would use “enhanced interrogation techniques” on a captured terrorist who might know details about the next attack. Of the six candidates selected to respond, only McCain (who, unlike the other candidates, had actually been tortured) demurred, pointing out that the scenario Hume had described was actually extremely unlikely. Everyone else was more than willing to play 24.
“I would tell the people who had to do the interrogation to use every method they could think of,” Giuliani said. “It shouldn’t be torture, but every method they can think of—”
“Waterboarding?” Hume interjected.
When Giuliani concurred, he got a spontaneous round of applause, only to be one-upped a short time later by Romney, who said we ought to “double Guantanamo” if that’s what it took to win the war on terror.
For the dozens of reporters waiting in the spin room, which had been set up in a dimly lit backstage area, Paul’s exchange with Giuliani was clearly the defining moment of the debate. Each candidate had a stall with his name on it, and when Paul made it to his, he was immediately accosted by a battery of cameras and microphones. Jesse and Kent, who looked as if they’d just been pulled from a train wreck, stood quietly to either side and slightly behind him. Sweat was dripping down Jesse’s temples, and his jaw was working away behind clenched teeth. Carol and the grandkids stood off to one side. “Is this the end of your campaign?” one reporter asked Paul. “Any interest in apologizing at all to the audience or the American people?”
“I didn’t blame America for 9/11,” Paul replied. “I blame bad policy over fifty years that leads to anti-Americanism. That’s a little bit different than saying, ‘Blame America.’ Don’t put those words in my mouth.
“I needed more than thirty seconds to answer the question,” he continued, “and you can’t do that in a debate like this. Suicide terrorism is motivated by one key issue: not fanatical religion but occupation. So when we have troops on their land, this motivates them to attack us. And to deny that is to be living in denial.”
A reporter asked if we should base American foreign policy on what somebody like Osama bin Laden has to say. “Why don’t you listen to the CIA,” Paul retorted. “They call it blowback. They have warned us about that. Just think, we had been allies with Saddam Hussein, and now we had to go in there and fight him. We used to be allies with Osama bin Laden; we put the shah in power in Iran. There’s always a reaction to our action. And to deny that is foolhardy. And it will bankrupt this country. Our empire will end. And that’s really the challenge here. What’s going to come first: the wisdom to come home and not bully the world or bankruptcy?
“And I suspect on the Internet tomorrow we’ll find out that there’s a lot of people out there who are sick of this war and who will support me more strongly and more numerously than ever before, because I’m on the right side of that issue. It’s a Republican position, it’s a conservative position, it’s a constitutional position. And the country politically is ready for it. I mean, the people want this war ended. They’re sick and tired of this.”
Paul stood his ground for half an hour, until reporters began drifting off to find other candidates. He turned to me, the only one still standing there with a tape recorder, the look on his face still defiant. When he saw it was me, he said, “Hi,” in a grim voice and looked at the ground. He didn’t seem like a man who just wanted to get his name in the papers at any cost. He seemed like a man worried that he’d just come out on the losing side of an argument he could have and should have won.
Suddenly, Special Agent Branham leaned in and made an exaggerated poking motion at Paul and said, “Well, America knows who you are now!” He began laughing heartily. Jesse and Kent smiled, looking at Paul to see if he was laughing, which he was, albeit a little uncertainly. His posture was starting to sag a bit. “How about that?” Branham added, a little more soberly. “I think it’s great.”
“Well, I just wish I’d heard it,” Carol said, complaining about the poor acoustics in the front rows. “Giuliani is so stupid!” she added, as if the exchange had merely confirmed something she’d suspected for a long time. “How anyone could vote for him is beyond me.”
On the other side of the room, Fox News had set up a stage for a special live broadcast of the Hannity & Colmes talk show, one of Fox’s premier brands. One by one, the candidates sat down for brief post-debate interviews.
“What was your reaction to the confrontation between Ron Paul and Mayor Giuliani?” Alan Colmes asked McCain. “Don’t our policies at all have anything to do with why we are disdained by people overseas?”
“I thought Mayor Giuliani’s intercession there was appropriate and, frankly, very, very excellent. I really appreciated it,” McCain said, in his vaguely patronizing, sotto voce style. “Because we should never, never believe that we brought on this conflict. This is an evil force that is trying to destroy everything we stand for and believe in. And this is a transcendent struggle.” Then he added, somewhat incongruously, “That’s why I want to be president of the United States.”
The show’s producer came over and told Paul he would go on at 11:35 for five minutes. “That’s longer than I got onstage,” Paul joked. After the Fox producer moved on, Paul and his team put their heads together for a quick strategy session. Sean Hannity, a younger, brasher version of Bill O’Reilly with a head of thick black hair and TV weatherman good looks, was a well-known fan of Giuliani’s and was one of those who’d suggested that Paul had somehow rigged the online poll following the California debate. (“Sean Hannity is very good at what he does. He’s a neocon attack dog,” Jesse said later.)
“I’m sure they’ll ask me about all that with Giuliani,” Paul said ruefully.
“It was painful, but I think you made your point,” Kent said.
“Well, we can respond that Giuliani is just pandering, using the 9/11 victims for political gain,” Jesse offered.
“Well, I don’t think I’ll do that,” Paul replied.
As we waited in line near the soundstage for Paul’s turn, Special Agent Branham leaned over and mentioned that Paul was winning Fox News’s text-messaging poll of debate viewers, the results of which were scrolling across the bottom of a monitor to the right of the Hannity & Colmes stage. I pointed this out to Kent, who excitedly told Paul. “My understanding is these text polls can’t be manipulated,” Kent told me. A few feet way, I noticed Paul’s granddaughters staring at the monitor, furiously texting away on their cell phones.
The five minutes had become four by the time it was Paul’s turn to go on. He and Colmes chatted amiably as a producer miked him up and sat him down between the two hosts, but Hannity just studied his notes, refusing to make eye contact.
After Colmes gently quizzed Paul on his libertarian principles, Hannity jumped in and began interrogating Paul about his support of a noninterventionist foreign policy. Didn’t we have a moral obligation to intervene in cases like the Gulf War, Hannity asked, especially when Saddam had gassed his own people? “You’d stand by and let that immorality happen?” he demanded.
“We have on numerous occasions,” Paul replied.
“You support that?”
Paul attempted to elucidate, but Hannity kept cutting him off, until finally Colmes came to his aid: “The fact is, the Reagan administration stood by while the Kurds were being gassed; it happened in 1988, and we didn’t do anything about it.”
Paul suddenly found his voice. “What did we do with Pol Pot?” he shouted, throwing his arms up in the air. Colmes was earnestly trying to wrap up the interview, but Hannity ignored him.
“You would stand by and do that. I would not,” he said to Paul. “I think that’s immoral.”
“Well, would you have the courtesy to ask the Congress to declare war?” Paul retorted.
Paul and Hannity were still going at it off camera but not off mike, as Colmes finally succeeded in wrapping up the segment. Paul stood up abruptly when it was over, but the stage director waved him back down until the outro was over and the mikes were dead. Hannity continued to jaw at Paul as the commercial rolled, and Jesse and I leaned over the stage railing trying to listen. “What’s he saying?” Carol asked. “He’s talking about Rwanda and our obligations and blah, blah, blah,” Jesse said, laughing dismissively. “It doesn’t sound like Sean Hannity understands the Constitution very well.”
As Paul stepped down from the stage, Jesse and Kent and Carol folded around him. “Good job,” Jesse said. “You stood your ground.”
Paul didn’t look too sure; he looked mad and shook-up. Then an old man in a cheap suit and loafers came over with a disposable camera in hand and asked Paul for a photo. I wondered how he’d gotten backstage, but Paul gratefully agreed.
Jesse mentioned Paul’s supporters in front of the Capitol. Though it was after midnight, he suspected they were still down there. “You up for going down and meeting some people?” he asked Paul.
“You bet,” Paul said. “Let’s do it.”
About twenty people were still at the camp, clustered around the Granny Warriors’ RV. When they saw Paul, they sent up a cheer. Everyone wanted to pose with him for cell phone photos and get his autograph. Paul seemed instantly recharged by their enthusiasm. “I appreciate what you do,” he kept saying. Somebody played a recording of yet another song written for Paul, this one a kind of blues-rock ballad.
“We’ve got a free T-shirt for you. What size T-shirt does Ron wear?” somebody shouted. Paul was presented with a T-shirt bearing a swastika over an image of a national ID card, an idea that is proposed from time to time in Congress and which many libertarians find Orwellian. Underneath were the words “May I See Your Papers, Please?” Paul shook his head when he saw it. “Isn’t it sad?” he said. A middle-aged man who called himself Steve the Sign Guy sidled up to Paul. “I have to do my thing,” he said, gently elbowing everyone aside as a friend videotaped him. When he got next to Paul, he shouted, “Nine-eleven was an inside job!” Everyone laughed, including Paul, who gladly played along.
“But the government did an investigation,” Paul said in mock protest.
“I bet Ghoul-iani did the investigation!” the Sign Guy yelled.
The two Granny Warriors asked for a photo. “My wife is a granny,” Paul said. “Can she get in here?”
As I worked my way out of the throng, a woman grabbed me by the arm. “He’s talking to one of our service members,” she said, pulling me back toward Paul. It was the tattooed young man I had seen at the RV that afternoon; he had waited all day to talk to Paul. The crowd grew quiet as the young man told his story. He had done 27 months in Iraq over the past three years, he said. His wife had served too, and she had been seriously wounded by an IED. “I’ve had a lot of friends that died over there, so something has to change,” he said.
Paul asked if things were getting better or worse in Iraq.
“It’s getting worse,” the young man said. “In the States you can only see so much, but in Iraq—these Iraqi soldiers we’re supposed to train, their heart isn’t in it.”
The militias, on the other hand, were getting bolder, he said. “Let’s talk about [Muqtada al-] Sadr. That guy—we know he’s responsible for killing Americans. We’ve got it in intel briefs. But his people are rolling through the checkpoints, and we can’t touch ‘em.”
He sounded exasperated and tired. “I ain’t tryin’ to toot my horn, but I got two Bronze Stars, so I got plenty of credibility,” he said. “But I don’t know. I can’t find an appropriate outlet, you know?”
“It’ll come, it’ll come,” Paul said reassuringly. “If you’re available to tell the truth, someone will listen to you.”