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As He Considers A Run For President, Rand Paul Tries to Rebrand Himself


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Republican Rand Paul, the junior senator from Kentucky, appears to be testing the waters for a presidential run. If he does run, Paul could be hobbled by past associations and statements, especially on race and foreign policy, writes my guest Ryan Lizza, the Washington correspondent for The New Yorker. Lizza profiles Rand Paul in the current edition of The New Yorker in an article titled "The Revenge Of Rand Paul."

If Rand Paul runs for president, it's also likely that the views of his father, former Congressman Ron Paul, will work against him with many voters. Ron Paul ran for president as the nominee of the Libertarian Party in 1988 and as an isolationist Republican in 2008 and 2012. Lizza writes about how Ron Paul influenced Rand Paul's politics and how Rand is now trying to re-brand himself to appeal to more mainstream voters. Rand also has to win over party leaders, who considered his father an extremist.

Ryan Lizza, welcome to FRESH AIR. Is this profile of Rand Paul a sign that you think he's a serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination?

RYAN LIZZA: I do. Although I have to say, over the course of reporting this over the summer, he may have gone from being a more-serious contender to a less-serious contender, or at least that's what, you know, some of the voices in the piece said. Just to give you one example, the piece opens with a quote from one of the most important Republicans in the country - the chairman of the Texas Republican Party. You know, that's the biggest Republican state party around. He's known the Paul family for decades, and he starts the piece by saying, this summer, that Rand Paul is 1 of the 3 most-likely Republicans to win the nomination. And we can get to the reasons why, but by the end of the piece, this same person - his name is Steve Munisteri - when I called him last week to make sure that he was still on board with that quote, he said, well, I no longer believe that anymore because of the debate over foreign policy and sort of how it had boxed Rand Paul in.

So, you know, we're so far out from 2016, and there are a lot of issues coming at these candidates. And the one issue where Rand Paul, I think, thought he had a great advantage - foreign policy - I think he thought the Republican Party was moving and still thinks that the Republican Party is moving more towards him on that issue. And, you know, there are some question marks about that now that we can get into.

GROSS: So - well, let's - since you brought up foreign policy and foreign intervention, let's go there for a second. You know, with the war against ISIS now....

LIZZA: Yeah.

GROSS: ...He's shifted his views on that. So what did Rand Paul initially say about dealing with ISIS, and what is he saying now?

LIZZA: Yeah, and it's complicated, and I can't - I think it's confused - his position on what to do about ISIS, I think, has been confusing. And maybe he hasn't shifted as much as we all thought, but it sounds like he's shifted. So let me try and take you through it.

When I was interviewing him over the summer, he was going on, at length, about why the United States should never be involved in the Syrian Civil War and stating all of the contradictions of the war - we're against Assad. We're also against ISIS, which is Assad's enemy, talking about the failures of the Iraqi army, and how could you send American GIs back to Iraq to defend territory that the Iraqis can't defend? You know, making a fairly good case against intervening in, you know, a pretty chaotic place - not all that different, frankly, than what Barack Obama has been saying for the last few years.

Now, that was sort of - that was in July. What happened in the subsequent weeks of course was that ISIS became - the brutality of ISIS became an international story. The beheadings dominated the news. And there was a real movement among conservatives to do something about it. And this platform that Rand Paul has sort of succeeded on for quite a while now, which is we shouldn't be meddling in the Middle East, it's creating blowback. It's bad policy. That was really taking root in the Republican Party. I mean, when I was interviewing him, he was citing polls about Republicans who were anti-intervention in Syria. ISIS really changed all that, among conservatives especially. And Rand Paul responded to that change by coming out with a statement saying that he now believed that the United States should destroy ISIS militarily. Now, if you think what follows from a statement like that, that's a pretty serious statement. That means all-out war against ISIS. And that's the point where me and others thought, wow, this is a huge shift in policy. If you're really for destroying ISIS militarily, you are for a serious intervention in Iraq and Syria.

Now, when it came down to it, that's - there was not as much follow-through. There was no plan from Rand Paul to go over there and destroy ISIS militarily. And in fact he voted against the legislation to arm the moderates - the so-called moderate opposition to Assad, who are also fighting ISIS. So that statement and that sort of series of being against intervention in Iraq and Syria, but then suddenly saying we need to destroy ISIS, but then suddenly leading the opposition against the legislation to arm the moderates, that confused a lot of people. But in some ways, he really did end up back where he started, which was against intervention.

GROSS: It's been interesting to follow John McCain's reaction to Rand Paul. And McCain told you while you were reporting for this piece that if Rand Paul is the Republican nominee for president in 2016, McCain would support him. And he said to you, quote, "I've seen him grow, and I've seen him mature. And I've seen him become more centrist. I know that if he were president or a nominee, I could influence him, particularly some of his views and positions on national security. He trusts me, particularly on the military side of things, so I could easily work with him. It wouldn't be a problem."

LIZZA: Yeah.

GROSS: Then...

LIZZA: This blew me away, Terry.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah, because - well, it's so odd because Rand Paul is so isolationist in his views, at least historically he's been...

LIZZA: Yeah.

GROSS: ...And McCain is usually one of the first people to say, go in there militarily.

LIZZA: Yeah, and they have been....

GROSS: In several countries, in several scenarios, he's been leading the charge on that.

LIZZA: And as Rand Paul - alluding to McCain but not using his name - early in the piece told me, you know, he said, these people have been wrong. If we had listened to people like McCain, we'd be in 15 wars right now. So they have been absolutely at odds over foreign policy since Rand Paul's 2010 election. They have - one of John McCain's closest advisers, not that long ago, he wrote that if it were Rand Paul against Hillary Clinton 2016, then responsible Republicans would have to vote for Hillary Clinton. And this is coming from Mark Salter, who is John McCain's best friend. So a lot of people thought maybe he was channeling the senator.

Earlier this year, McCain was asked by another reporter if Rand Paul were the nominee, would he support him, and John McCain would not answer the question. So when I asked him the same question and McCain said what you just quoted, I was sort of shocked 'cause he came out - he fully said, if he's the nominee, he's my guy. Now, just to, you know, complicate - just to get at how complicated this relationship is, after I asked McCain that and after he gave me this half-hour long interview saying very favorable things about Rand Paul and talking about how Rand Paul had started wooing the conservative foreign policy establishment in the Republican Party, and he had started seeing things John McCain's way on a couple of issues, including aid to Israel, well, low and behold, they're in the middle of the ISIS debate, and Rand Paul tells a reporter that - he alludes to a widely discredited conspiracy on the Internet that said that John McCain had actually gone over to the Middle East and met with ISIS and had his picture taken. This did not sit very well with Senator McCain, and he went on TV and did a bunch of interviews blasting Senator Paul. So of course, as this piece is closing, I'm watching all this, and I've got all these favorable quotes from John McCain in the piece. I call Senator McCain up again. I said, Senator, you know, we had this long talk. You and Rand Paul seemed to be on the same page on a lot of these issues, suddenly, and ISIS really seems to have changed that. And by the way, you know, his comments about you meeting with ISIS, and as I say the piece, Senator McCain was in a much less generous mood during that interview and, you know, had some much more critical things to say and pointed out that, though Rand Paul had said he wanted to destroy ISIS militarily, it was just empty rhetoric.

And so that - this - it's like for Rand Paul, it's like two steps forward, one step back. You know, his whole project now is to try and convince the Republican establishment that he is not - that his policy views are not the same as his father's. And you know - but he's trying to do that at the same time he doesn't want to lose his father's very hard-core base of support. And that's, you know - it's very tricky. He's got a lot of balls in the air that he's trying to juggle.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ryan Lizza, who's the Washington correspondent for The New Yorker magazine, and he has a new profile of Rand Paul called "The Revenge of Rand Paul."

So, you know, one of the themes of your article is that Rand Paul is trying to mainstream his father's Libertarian views and moderate some of his own views. Last weekend Rand Paul spoke at the Values Voters Summit. The president of the Values Voters Summit is Tony Perkins, who is the head of the Family Research Council and the Family Research Council's mission is to advance public policy and culture from a Christian worldview. And Rand Paul made his entrance on stage as a fetal ultrasound played for the audience. He said that liberty, virtue and God were intertwined. He said, I will take a stand for life. He quoted from Corinthians, where there is the spirit of the Lord, there is liberty. And he endorses a personhood amendment that would grant a fertilized egg full rights of an individual that would make abortions, IUDs and in the morning-after pill illegal.

And I'm wondering if those views are traditionally considered compatible with Libertarian views.

LIZZA: It does turn out though, that among Libertarians there's the same debate over abortion that, you know, is in the rest of the political conversation. There are what might be described as left Libertarians, who believe, you know, in abortion rights - and obviously from an antigovernment position - but they are also right Libertarians who will make the argument that you know, the protection of the state should start with (unintelligible) against abortion.

Ron Paul was always pro-life. He's an obstetrician and gynecologist and when he was practicing in Texas he refused to do abortions. And so Rand Paul grew up with his - you know, really studying at his father's knee and adopted the same position. But there are a lot of social conservatives that have been very skeptical of both Ron and Rand Paul because they do - they have a much more state's rights mentality and they believe that these issues should be - including abortion - should be directed at the state level, or regulated at the state level. And you know, the other thing is the Libertarians are viewed skeptically among a lot of social conservatives because a lot of social conservatives equate liberty with license and on some of these social issues, Rand Paul doesn't see eye to eye with the social conservatives. I think the point that you mentioned, Terry, that he endorsed this personhood amendment, was one way that Rand Paul was trying to tell social conservatives, hey, you may think I'm this hardcore Libertarian who believes, you know, people should be free to do whatever they want and I have very lax views about drug laws. But, on this issue of abortion, I'm with you.

I think it's created a whole other problem for him because this personhood amendment is just not something that is - in a general election, it's going to be a very difficult issue. I mean, we're talking about birth control, we're talking about IUDs and the morning-after pill; very common birth control methods that would be banned if the personhood amendment was the law of the land, right? This would make a fertilized egg the equivalent of a human being and I don't think Rand Paul has really thought through how big a deal that would be.

In fact, his former medical partner, a guy named John Downing who's in Kentucky and has known Rand Paul decades, he went on the record with me, telling me that he has for a long time now tried to talk Rand Paul out of taking this personhood amendment. And he went on at length, saying that this is just going to kill him if he's the nominee, especially among female voters. It's another area where Rand is - he's trying to do so many things. He's trying to persuade social conservatives that he's with them and so he moves into this personhood amendment and then it creates all kinds of problems with other voters. And so on each of these issues - social conservatives, the foreign policy community - you know, by the end of reporting on this I just started to think, maybe his project is a little bit too difficult. He's got too many constituencies that he's trying to appease.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're talking about Rand Paul with my guest Ryan Lizza, who is the Washington correspondent for the New Yorker and has profiled Rand Paul in a new New Yorker article titled "The Revenge Of Rand Paul." It seems like one of the groups he's trying to appeal to is the Christian-right, which has a lot of overlap with the Values voters?

LIZZA: Yeah.

GROSS: So I'm wondering what his own religious upbringing is and how that comes into play in his political worldview. If a lot of his political worldview is based on, you know, Christian values that have been, you know, fundamental to him, or is this some - is this a kind of political maneuver to...

LIZZA: You know, yeah...

GROSS: ...To appeal to a certain group?

LIZZA: That's a really good question because I do think people think, you know, people have a view of Libertarians as, you know - as maybe not - or Libertarian as maybe not being compatible with the views of social conservatives. He actually grew up in a pretty traditional family. Every Wednesday were - there were church activities. They grew up in a town called Lake Jackson in South Texas, not far from Houston and not far from the Gulf Coast. And Lake Jackson, you know, was really a town of churches. So he grew up in the church, he was in the Boy Scouts and the Boy Scouts met at the church. He went off to Baylor University in Waco, Texas. And it was at Baylor where he became a bit of a campus rebel. And we can talk about it, he joined some organizations - or joined one organization that whose sort of, you know, role at the school was to kind of poke fun at the school's religiosity. And he would get into debates with fundamentalist Christians there. He was a biology student at Baylor. Although it's a Baptist school, it was not sort of - at that point, the National Baptist Convention had not - was not as fundamentalist as it is now. And Baylor taught evolution, they taught a very, you know, solid scientific curriculum. But when Rand Paul was there, there was a sort of growing fundamentalist movement. And there was criticism of Baylor for teaching evolution, believe it or not. But he was on the non-fundamentalist side of those debates. His best friend in college told me that one of the things they used to do was every Sunday, he and his best friend would go to a different church and they did this both just to sort of open their mind about what other people's spirituality was like, but they also did it because they felt like a lot of the students at the school were too narrow-minded. And he- and Rand Paul's best friend told me that they would engage fundamentalist Christians in debates. And one of the debates he remembers Rand having was over students who thought that doctors who performed abortions should receive the death penalty.

GROSS: You've said that when it comes to economics, that Rand Paul is as far to the right as you can get. What are some of his positions on that? I know one of them is not giving financial foreign aid to other countries, with the exception...

LIZZA: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Perhaps, of Israel.

LIZZA: Well, this is one where he's shifted, right? This is - and, you know, this is economic and a foreign policy position. In his 2011 budget, if you look at that when he first got to the Senate, he tried - he put together this budget that would balance in five years. And it would cut, you know, cut the Department of Commerce. It would get rid of several departments, including Commerce and Education and HUD. And on foreign policy, it would've ended all foreign aid, including the $3 billion a year we give to Israel. More recently, he said OK, well, I was wrong about that. I would actually keep about $5 billion in foreign aid, including most of what we give to Israel, so that's a pretty significant shift.

GROSS: And do you think his support for Israel is politically motivated?

LIZZA: Yes (laughter). I mean, maybe it's not. Maybe, you know, John McCain, the way he put it to me was he took a trip to Israel a year ago or so...

GROSS: That Rand Paul took a trip to Israel.

LIZZA: Yeah, that Rand Paul - John McCain said - who pointed out this same shift in view - said, you know, Rand went to Israel and he came back a little bit different. And maybe - so maybe it's genuine. Maybe he's rethought it and decided he was wrong. I will say he was asked about this recently when he took a trip to Iowa, and he basically just said that he never supported cutting aid to Israel and he wouldn't explain - not only would he not explain his change of position but he denied that he did change a position, which I think is a whole different problem for him is when he's moved on an issue, he has a real hard time admitting it.

GROSS: Supporting financial - support for Israel is a politically productive position for him to have because the Christian-right supports that, and of course...

LIZZA: Absolutely.

GROSS: ...Jewish voters, you know, many - probably most Jewish voters support that, so...

LIZZA: Yeah, so it's - exactly. So, you know, politically, in a Republican primary, there's a lot of - there's a lot of pressure to be pro-Israel and, you know, not to cut the $3 billion a year we give to them. I pushed him on this because I was interviewing him during the most dramatic phase of the Israeli offensive in Gaza when some of the most pro-Israel voices in the American press were saying - were criticizing Israel saying and saying they were going too far. And I asked Rand, I said, you know, do you agree with some of those voices? Do you agree that Israel - their operation in Gaza has gone too far, that the tactics are wrong? And he - he would not criticize Israel. And he would not - he told me it's not his job to. And I asked him, I said don't we have any responsible - don't we have any responsibility to point out when we disagree with Israeli policy - when we disagree with Israeli policy - considering how much foreign aid we're giving them? You know, because that is his view with Egypt. If we're giving money to Egypt, we should be able to massage or shape Egyptian policy. And he wouldn't answer. He just said I think I've answered the question.

GROSS: Ryan Lizza will be back in the second half of the show. His profile of Rand Paul is in the current issue of the New Yorker. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Ryan Lizza, the Washington correspondent for The New Yorker. In the current issue, he profiles Rand Paul, Republican Senator from Kentucky, who appears to be positioning himself to run for president. Lizza writes about how Paul is trying to rebrand himself as more mainstream, distancing himself from his own and his father's own associations and statements. His father, Ron Paul, is a former congressman who ran for president as the nominee of the Libertarian Party in 1988 and as a Republican in the presidential primaries of 2008 and 2012. Lizza's article is titled, "The Revenge Of Rand Paul."

Let's look at another issue in which he's trying to maybe distance himself from his own past and from his father's past and that's the issue of civil rights...

LIZZA: Yeah.

GROSS: ...And other issues of particular interest to African-Americans. So tell us some of the things you think he might be trying to distance himself from in his own past.

LIZZA: Well, look, he grew up in this world of pretty hardcore libertarianism, and as you probably remember, there was a time in this country where the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was controversial. And conservatives didn't believe the government had a role in addressing discrimination and especially in addressing discrimination in the private sector. Barry Goldwater was against the '64 Civil Rights Act. Ronald Reagan was against the '64 Civil Rights Act. I think it's safe to say that there are really not any mainstream, modern Republicans who voice opposition to that anymore.

But Ron Paul, Rand Paul's father, was always against it, wrote about it. He was quite consistently against it, and Rand Paul adopted the same view. And the view was that whatever you think about the evils of discrimination, that the government, the federal government, does not - should not have a role in policing discrimination and especially in the private sector, right? That's the Libertarian - that's the sort of longtime-Libertarian view that both Ron Paul and Rand Paul consistently endorsed. And, you know, if you go back - I went back through Rand's writings, and you see him endorse this view both in college at Baylor in the '80s and then more recently in 2002 in an op-ed he wrote for his local newspaper in Bowling Green, Kentucky and then probably most famously in 2010, when he was interviewed by Kentucky Newspaper's editorial board. He expressed the view that the core of the Civil Rights Act of '64, you know, he opposed it. This became a major issue for him after he won his primary. It's continued to dog him. So this year he really has tried to get...

GROSS: So just to back up a second. He's basically - what he was basically saying is that businesses have a right to not serve certain people, and if they want to discriminate, no matter how terrible discrimination is, they have the right to do that. The government shouldn't tell them who they have to serve in a restaurant or who they have to sell to.

LIZZA: Exactly right, and, you know, his argument would be that those businesses will eventually fail in the marketplace because nobody would want to go to a business that endorses segregation. Now, as a lot of people will point out, the sort of core of the issue of segregation, that African-Americans couldn't go sit at the lunch counter and so the idea that the market was sort of working in that area, I think has been discredited by history. But, you know, Rand - long past a lot of other people on the right held on to this position and articulated it in 2010, and it caused a firestorm because it's not - it's not possible in modern American politics to be against the cornerstone legislation that ended segregation.

So to his credit, I think one of the things he's done over the last year is he has really tried to have a dialogue with African-Americans. And I think he's tried to think through, you know what, I'm a Libertarian; there's a lot of criminal justice issues that are important to the African-American community; maybe I can repair my relationship with the African-American community by finding some of the issues that we both believe in, you know. We, I mean, Rand Paul (laughter). And he did - he's done something very interesting. He's actually - more than any Republican candidate out there, he has put together a series of reforms that really speak to a lot of the key issues that African-American leaders are talking about when it comes the problems in the criminal justice system.

GROSS: Yeah, tell us about the criminal package that he sponsored in the Senate.

LIZZA: Yeah, so he would restore voting rights for nonviolent felons. This is a huge issue because, you know, people with - in most states people with felonies can't vote, and it creates, you know, that's a big problem. No Republican is yet endorsed that position, although many Democrats have. He would get rid the sentencing disparity for crack and powdered cocaine, you know, which has a huge racial component of course. And he would - he would get rid of the mandatory-minimum sentencing laws. And he's actually talked about letting people out of prison who've been sentenced under some of these laws.

And what I think is interesting about it is, you know, every election cycle, we read about Republican outreach to the African-American community. And the Republicans' share of the black vote has been, you know, going down and down every cycle. Nothing has worked for the Republican Party, and Rand's actually done his homework. He went and talked to African-American leaders and sort of tried to understand, you know, what the proper way of approaching that community was and was very honest about the fact that he didn't have a lot of familiarity in that community. And what he learned - one of the people who influenced him was a very important African-American leader in Louisville named Reverend Kevin Cosby. And what Cosby told him was, look, the problem with both Democrats and Republicans nowadays is they want to view America as this post-racial society, and so they don't want to actually talk about issues that are important specifically to black voters. They just want to talk about issues that are important to Americans in general and, you know, that both Republicans and Democrats will say, well, if you follow our agenda, it will, you know - it will help white Americans, non-white Americans, everyone. And Cosby said that's now how - that's not the way it should be. And he said you need to go to the African-American community and address issues that they specifically care about and acknowledge that racism exists in America and that it needs to be dealt with. And so he's really taken that approach to heart.

And, for instance, after the images on television in the wake of the Ferguson protests with the over-militarized police, Rand Paul wrote an op-ed saying this is a racial issue - right? - that black and brown people are more - are more affected by this than white people and that - I don't know if this is going to work. I don't know if African-Americans are going to suddenly be in for Rand Paul. There's a lot of issues there. But it's interesting to watch him sort of try and figure out what the right way to address that community is and do it in a way that no other Republican is doing.

GROSS: After Ferguson, didn't he talk about the demilitarizing the police?

LIZZA: He did, and this is where, you know - this is not - the other thing I should point out of course what he did more recently - as he's very forthrightly said, he supports the 1964 Civil Rights Act. So he's finished with his sort of, you know, dorm-room, Libertarian view (laughter).

GROSS: But did he explain why he changed his mind on that?

LIZZA: No, he didn't, and I think that's a real weakness that he has, is he just - not only did he not explain it, he basically refuses to admit it. One of - he's a little bit thinned-skinned, I will say, from spending time with him. And he really does not - he has a hard time acknowledging that he was wrong. And he has a hard time acknowledging that he's changed his position.

GROSS: Could you tell us what else was in his criminal justice package?

LIZZA: So one of the big issues that he's trying to address is that besides, you know, the fact that nonviolent felons are losing voting rights, if you have a felony on your record forever, it makes employment really, really difficult. And this is a big problem in the African-American community. And he does have a plan to expunge nonviolent felonies after a certain period of time, and he's, you know - his argument about that is all about employment and the difficult - you know, voting is one thing, but landing a job, if you have a felony on your record and can't ever have it expunged, there's always that question on the employment application, have you ever had a felony - do you have a felony on your record? And he would do something to address it.

Now, on all these issues there are Democratic proposals that frankly go further, right? So it's not like Rand Paul has invented this whole agenda, but I think it's interesting and notable that he hasn't been able to get a single Republican co-sponsor for any of these ideas. Republicans just won't touch it yet because restoring - you know, restoring rights or doing anything for former felons is just not - is not popular in the Republican Party. And in that sense, there's no doubt, Terry, that this agenda is driven for - by political reasons and by the criticism he took over his views on the Civil Rights Act. I think we'd be naive if we didn't mention that.

At the same time this is what makes him interesting politically is that his Libertarian views, you know - this is not something that is outside of his comfort zone in terms of his ideology, right? He believes in less power for the state. He believes that the criminal justice system and the war on drugs has gone too far. So in that sense, this marriage of some of the ideas on the agenda of the African-American community and Rand Paul's Libertarianism, they sort of match up here.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ryan Lizza, the Washington correspondent for The New Yorker. He profiles Rand Paul in the current edition. Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Rand Paul worked for several of his father's campaigns, starting, I think, in 1984 when Rand took a semester...

LIZZA: Before that.

GROSS: ...Before that? OK.

LIZZA: He started - the first campaign he ever worked for was 1974 when he was 11 years old and he knocked on doors for his father.

GROSS: Oh, OK. I guess I wasn't counting that (laughter).

LIZZA: Yeah.

GROSS: No and then in '84 he takes a semester off from college to work for his father's campaign.

LIZZA: Yeah.

GROSS: You say at one point, like, Rand Paul started to repackage his father's feud, to try make them sound more mainstream conservative. What did Rand Paul do to try to repackage his father's Libertarian views - views that many people would describe as extreme - and try to make them sound more mainstream?

LIZZA: Yeah, they had this relationship where the dad you know, he was the id. He was the ideological id, but the son was a little bit more of the political strategist. Not that he disagreed with his father, but he tried to figure out ways to help him win elections. And so you know, when they returned - in '84 they just got completely wiped out it. There wasn't even a close race and that's when Ron Paul temporarily retired from politics. But in '96, when Rand was older and helped his father return to the House of Representatives, you know, if you look through some of the ads that they ran - I went back into the archives and looked at some of the newspaper ads and how they presented Ron Paul - they would argue that Ron Paul had changed, that he had mellowed, that he would be more cooperative when got to Congress because in his first stint in Congress in the '70s and '80s he was known for you know, not really playing ball with his colleagues in the Republican party. And they ran ads that just generally painted him as a more generic Republican, you know? A Republican who's going to lower your taxes and get the economy going again. It was much - you know, they sanded off some of the rough edges in that campaign and that was the one where Rand really took a leadership role in.

GROSS: But it was in that campaign that Ron's opponent, Charles Morris, got a hold of some of the newsletters, some of Ron Paul's newsletters, that had quotes in them like, we're constantly told that it is evil to be afraid of black men but it is hardly irrational; black men commit murders, rapes, robberies, muggings and burglaries all out of proportion to their number and you quote that in your article. And you also quote one of the Ron Paul newsletters as saying that most black males in Washington, D.C. were quote, "semi-criminal to entirely criminal," unquote and quote, "only about 5 percent of blacks have sensible political opinions," unquote.

And you say, at the time Ron Paul didn't dispute that he wrote these articles...

LIZZA: He did not.

GROSS: ...But years later, he said that they were ghostwritten.

LIZZA: That was news to me because I remember when this controversy erupted months later, in the 2012 campaign, but when you go back and look at the Texas newspapers that covered the '96 campaign, when - I think people don't remember this, but the racist newsletters that Ron Paul wrote was a huge issue in his '96 campaign. And during that campaign, he did not deny that he wrote them and the newspapers at the time reported just straight-up that he did write them and it went undisputed by Ron Paul. Now, many years later, he said, well, they weren't - you know, yes I sold them, but I didn't write them.

Frankly, to me it's not really much of a distinction.

GROSS: So what does that say about Rand, Ron Paul's son, who is working on his father's campaigns? One would assume he's read those newsletters and didn't do anything to back away from those racist statements, didn't do anything at the time to try to moderate those racist statements?

LIZZA: I think this is where you get into the question of how much does the son have to pay for the sins of the father?

GROSS: But, let me just interrupt here - the son worked for the father on that campaign.

LIZZA: Exactly - and helped him win it.

GROSS: Yeah and was theoretically supporting his father's views.

LIZZA: Absolutely and I think will - if he runs, that will be an issue for him, you know? And a legitimate issue - what did you know about your father's newsletters? You worked on that campaign. You said you helped win it. He's boasted about him helping his dad win that campaign. It's a small family. The family's very close. Were you reading your dad's newsletters, right?

Those are all questions, you know, I didn't explore every avenue of that, but there's no doubt that this issue of race that has sort of haunted the Paul family now for many, many years is one that's going to play a huge role if he runs for president.

GROSS: You've talked a little bit about how Rand Paul is courting different constituencies in the Republican Party and maybe trying to court some Democratic African-Americans, as well.

What about his father's followers? What is he doing to get their vote?

LIZZA: Well, this is the sort of jam he's in. I think he believes that he doesn't need to do anything to get their vote because a lot of his father's followers are not Republicans. They are people who wouldn't be involved in the Republican Party, if not for Ron Paul and they might not vote for some Republican candidates in a general election.

And so you know, Rand's - he's a little bit of a box because he can't lose the enthusiasm and frankly, the fundraising base that his father built. This is a very small but intensely committed subgroup in American politics that was able to raise $35 million for Ron Paul. And they were able to fund Rand Paul's Senate campaign in Kentucky and as he told me, he never would've won that Kentucky seat if it weren't for his dad's fundraising network. And so you know, he's in a tricky place because every time he makes a move to satisfy the John McCain wing of the party, it will anger someone in the - it will anger one of his more Libertarian-leaning constituents.

GROSS: Is there anything that you found particularly surprising or particularly enlightening when you were reporting this piece on Rand Paul?

LIZZA: One thing that stood out to me is - this is really a piece about a father and son who share so much in common and the reason that the son got to where he is in life is because of his father. He wouldn't be a United States Senator without his father and he told me as much.

And now for him to take the next step to get where he wants to go next, his father is basically what's standing in the way and his father's history and associations. And you know, that's an awfully tough predicament be in for a politician. I mean, one of the things I was really surprised to learn - you know who the best man at Rand Paul's wedding was?


LIZZA: It was his dad, it was Ron Paul. And so you know, he obviously has a deep affection and relationship with his dad and yet, it's his dad. It's his dad and his dad's sort of peculiar mix of associations and outrageous statements that are going to haunt him when he runs for president.

GROSS: Thank you so much. I always enjoy talking with you. I really appreciate you doing this.

LIZZA: Likewise, it was a pleasure.

GROSS: Ryan Lizza's profile of Rand Paul is in the current issue of The New Yorker. Lizza is the magazine's Washington correspondent.

Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker reviews Blake Mills' new album "Heigh Ho."

This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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