“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