Rand Paul’s rewriting of his own remarks on the Civil Rights Act
"It's a mischaracterization of my position. I've never been against the Civil Rights Act, ever, and I continue to be for the Civil Rights Act as well as the Voting Rights Act. There was a long, one interview that had a long, extended conversation about the ramifications beyond race, and I have been concerned about the ramifications of certain portions of the Civil Rights Act beyond race, as they are now being applied to smoking, menus, listing calories and things on menus, and guns. And so I do question some of the ramifications and the extensions but I never questioned the Civil Rights Act and never came out in opposition to the Civil Rights Act or ever introduced anything to alter the Civil Rights Act."
— Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), during a speech at Howard University, April 10, 2013
There’s an old rule in politics: If it’s too complicated to explain, you are probably in trouble.
Paul, a potential GOP candidate for the 2016 presidential election, gave an interesting speech on Wednesday to historically black Howard University, but his remarks were overshadowed by his attempt to explain the controversy over his 2010 comments on the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“I have never wavered in my support for civil rights and the Civil Rights Act,” he said in his speech. “The dispute, if there is one, has always been about how much of the remedy should come under federal or state or private purview.”
But then Paul expanded on his remarks in the question-and-answer period, saying in response to a tough question that he had been concerned really only about the “ramifications and extensions” of the Civil Rights Act. We sought an explanation from Paul’s staff but did not get a response. So let’s go to the video tape!
The Civil Rights Act was pushed by President Lyndon Johnson but likely would not have become law without the shrewd legislative gamesmanship of then-Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois. Dirksen figured out a way to bring along wavering Republicans, in order to break a lengthy filibuster led by Southern Democrats, by carefully tweaking a House bill to reduce federal intervention in local matters — but not enough to force a rewriting of the whole bill in the House.
As an interesting history by the Dirksen Center notes: “The substitute gave higher priority to voluntary compliance than the House bill. It encouraged more private, rather than official, legal initiatives.” Indeed, thanks to Dirksen’s leadership, a larger percentage of Republican senators than Democrats supported the Civil Rights Act — 82 percent (27 in favor and 6 opposed) versus 69 percent (46 in favor and 21 opposed).
The problem for Paul started when the Louisville Courier-Journal placed on its Web site an April 17, 2010, interview between Paul and the paper’s editorial board. Presumably that is the extended interview that Paul referenced. We have embedded the relevant section below and have highlighted the key sections.
PAUL: I like the Civil Rights Act in the sense that it ended discrimination in all public domains, and I’m all in favor of that.
PAUL: You had to ask me the "but." I don't like the idea of telling private business owners — I abhor racism. I think it’s a bad business decision to exclude anybody from your restaurant — but, at the same time, I do believe in private ownership. But I absolutely think there should be no discrimination in anything that gets any public funding, and that’s most of what I think the Civil Rights Act was about in my mind.
INTERVIEWER: But under your philosophy, it would be okay for Dr. King not to be served at the counter at Woolworth’s?
PAUL: I would not go to that Woolworths, and I would stand up in my community and say that it is abhorrent, um, but, the hard part — and this is the hard part about believing in freedom — is, if you believe in the First Amendment, for example — you have to, for example, most good defenders of the First Amendment will believe in abhorrent groups standing up and saying awful things and uh, we're here at the bastion of newspaperdom, I'm sure you believe in the First Amendment so you understand that people can say bad things.It’s the same way with other behaviors. In a free society, we will tolerate boorish people, who have abhorrent behavior, but if we're civilized people, we publicly criticize that, and don't belong to those groups, or don't associate with those people.
As the Courier-Journal noted in a long article of Paul’s history of controversial statements, the “criticism mirrored the views of his father [Rep. Ron Paul], who stood up on the House floor when it celebrated the 40th anniversary of the act in 2004 and denounced it as ‘a massive violation of the rights of private property and contract, which are the bedrocks of free society.’”
Indeed, Rand Paul, in a 2002 letter to the Bowling Green Daily News, made a similar point about the U.S. Fair Housing Act, saying it "ignores the distinction between private and public property." He added: “Decisions concerning private property and associations should in a free society be unhindered. As a consequence, some associations will discriminate.”
In other words, Paul’s problem with the Civil Rights Act appears to be with the delicate balance that Dirksen had struck in order to bring along the votes of other Republicans — not “ramifications and extensions.”
Indeed, we could find no reference to “ramifications and extensions” in the interview — or in other high-profile interviews that Paul had at the time to explain the Courier Journal remarks.
To be fair to Paul, we have included lengthy excerpts from the interviews.
Here’s what Paul told National Public Radio on May 19, 2010:
ROBERT SIEGEL: You've said that business should have the right to refuse service to anyone, and that the Americans with Disabilities Act, the ADA, was an overreach by the federal government. Would you say the same by extension of the 1964 Civil Rights Act?
Dr. PAUL: What I've always said is that I'm opposed to institutional racism, and I would've, had I've been alive at the time, I think, had the courage to march with Martin Luther King to overturn institutional racism, and I see no place in our society for institutional racism.
SIEGEL: But are you saying that had you been around at the time, you would have hoped that you would have marched with Martin Luther King but voted with Barry Goldwater against the 1964 Civil Rights Act?
Dr. PAUL: Well, actually, I think it's confusing on a lot of cases with what actually was in the civil rights case because, see, a lot of the things that actually were in the bill, I'm in favor of. I'm in favor of everything with regards to ending institutional racism. So I think there's a lot to be desired in the civil rights. And to tell you the truth, I haven't really read all through it because it was passed 40 years ago and hadn't been a real pressing issue in the campaign, on whether we're going to vote for the Civil Rights Act.
SIEGEL: But it's been one of the major developments in American history in the course of your life. I mean, do you think the '64 Civil Rights Act or the ADA for that matter were just overreaches and that business shouldn't be bothered by people with a basis in law to sue them for redress?
Dr. PAUL: Right. I think a lot of things could be handled locally. For example, I think that we should try to do everything we can to allow for people with disabilities and handicaps. You know, we do it in our office with wheelchair ramps and things like that. I think if you have a two-story office and you hire someone who's handicapped, it might be reasonable to let him have an office on the first floor rather than the government saying you have to have a $100,000 elevator. And I think when you get to solutions like that, the more local the better, and the more common sense the decisions are, rather than having a federal government make those decisions.
Then here’s what Paul said on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show on May 20, in which he suggested he would have wanted to modify one section of the Civil Rights Act, one dealing with “private institutions.” However, his logic is a bit confusing because he appears to be referring to Title 2 — “public accommodations engaged in interstate commerce” — (such as hotels and restaurants) — but there is also Title 7, which prohibits discrimination in businesses of a certain size.
MADDOW: Do you think that a private business has the right to say we don't serve black people?
PAUL: I'm not in favor of any discrimination of any form. I would never belong to any club that excluded anybody for race. We still do have private clubs in America that can discriminate based on race. But I think what's important about this debate is not written into any specific "gotcha" on this, but asking the question: what about freedom of speech? Should we limit speech from people we find abhorrent? Should we limit racists from speaking? I don't want to be associated with those people, but I also don't want to limit their speech in any way in the sense that we tolerate boorish and uncivilized behavior because that's one of the things freedom requires is that we allow people to be boorish and uncivilized, but that doesn't mean we approve of it. I think the problem with this debate is by getting muddled down into it, the implication is somehow that I would approve of any racism or discrimination, and I don't in any form or fashion. ...
There are ten different titles to the Civil Rights Act and nine of ten deal with public institutions and one that deals with private institutions and had I been around I would have tried to modify that. …When you support nine of ten things in a good piece of legislation do you vote for it or against it and sometimes those are difficult situations. …I do defend and believe that the government should not be involved with institutional racism or discrimination or segregation in schools, busing, all those things. But had I been there, there would have been some discussion over one of the titles of the civil rights and I think that's a valid point, and still a valid discussion, because the thing is, if we want to harbor in on private businesses and their policies, then you have to have the discussion about: do you want to abridge the First Amendment as well? …I really think that discrimination and racism is a horrible thing. And I don't want any form of it in our government, in our public sphere.
Finally, on CNN on May 22, Paul said there was “a need for federal intervention” and declared he would have voted for the law. He also appeared to reverse himself on whether private enterprise could discriminate. But there was still no mention of “ramifications and “extensions.”
WOLF BLITZER: I want it give you a chance to explain because there's a lot of confusion right now about precisely where you stand. I'll ask you a simple question. If you had been a member of the Senate or the House back in 1964, would you have voted yea or nay for the civil rights act?
PAUL: Yes. I would have voted yes.
BLITZER: You support that — because the argument was made that you support the Civil Rights Act in terms of federal — in terms of government responsibilities, there should be no racism or segregation, but if there's a private club, or a restaurant where they don't want to serve African-Americans — as abhorrent as that is, you think — you suggested, correct me if I'm wrong — they would have a right to do that?
PAUL: Well, what I did suggest is that it was a stain on the history of the South and our country that we desegregated in 1840 in Boston. William Lloyd Garrison was up there with Frederick Douglas being thrown off trains and going through what happened in the 1960s in 1840 in Boston. So it is a stain on our history and something that I am sad for and something that if I had been alive at the time would hope that I would have been there marching with Martin Luther King.
One of our biggest county coordinators was there with Martin Luther King, attended the rallies in D.C. and considers himself to be a civil rights activist. And he takes it as a personal insult that people will say that our movement doesn't believe in civil rights.
BLITZER: But I just want to be precise on this.
PAUL: I think it is politically motivated —
BLITZER: Doctor Paul, I want to be precise. Did Woolworth, the department store, have a right at their lunch counters to segregate blacks and whites?
PAUL: I think that there was an overriding problem in the south so big that it did require federal intervention in the '60s and it stemmed from things that I said. It had been going on really 120 years too long. And the Southern states weren't correcting it. And I think there was a need for federal intervention.
BLITZER: All right so you've clarified, you would have voted yes in favor of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Paul’s logic is sometimes hard to follow in these interviews, but as far as we can tell he never makes a case that “ramifications and extensions” in the Civil Rights Act affected laws concerning smoking, guns and calorie listing in menus.
Even that claim is a bit confusing.
Former Solicitor General Walter Dellinger said he was puzzled by Paul’s reference to menus and guns in the Howard University speech, since he did not believe there was a direct application.
“What he could mean, however, is that by adopting a principle that Congress can legislate to prohibit racial discrimination in matters affecting commerce, future Congresses might use that principle to enact future legislation regulating calorie listings in restaurants affecting commerce,” he said. “To equate such matters with the regime of Southern racial apartheid that had a huge impact on national commerce (and on the country's moral position) is to equal matters fully different and to suggest that he did not understand the magnitude of what was at stake in the civil rights movement.”
The Pinocchio Test
Paul is rewriting history here. We don’t see anywhere in these interviews “an extended conversation about the ramifications beyond race,” at least in the way that Paul describes it at Howard University.
Indeed, Paul claims he “never wavered” on the Civil Right Act but in the MSNBC interview he mused openly about possibly wanting to change one provision if he had been a senator. Ironically, the issue that troubled Paul was what Senate Republicans at the time had modified in order to deal with the very concerns that Paul raises almost five decades later.
We were tempted to give this Four Pinocchios but some of his language at Howard appears to be a product of fuzzy thinking. Still, Paul does earn Three Pinocchios for trying to recast and essentially erase what he said in 2010. It would be better to own up to his mistake — if he now thinks it was one — rather than sugarcoat it.
Check out our candidate Pinocchio Tracker