Rand Paul acknowledges stumbles at Howard: ‘It is harder for me’

Rand Paul at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast on April 17. (The Christian Science Monitor) Rand Paul at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast on April 17. (The Christian Science Monitor)

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) argued Wednesday that his visit to Howard University last week was wrongly portrayed in the liberal media.

"I thought my reception at Howard was much better than my reception from the left-wing media," he told reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast.

Many of what Paul called "left-wing" outlets highlighted a couple of missteps and Paul's less-than-accurate recounting of his history with the Civil Rights Act.

Paul said it was his first visit to a historically black college and he has learned from the experience. The senator added that he plans to continue to reach out to the African American community.

Paul acknowledged that he did stumble a couple of times at Howard -- in asking the audience whether they knew that the NAACP was founded by Republicans and in botching the name of Edward Brooke, the first black senator elected since Reconstruction.

It turned out that the audience knew the NAACP's history, something Paul said he didn't know would be the case. "This is my first time to go to a historically black college," Paul said. "In retrospect, it sounds like it is a dumb question but it's like, Republicans haven't been going  to Howard for 20 years." Most Americans, he noted, probably would not know that fact. "I learned something, that everybody there knows," he said. "I was told that in no uncertain terms."

As for calling Brooke "Edwin," Paul said it was in the middle of a long question and answer session: "I'm human, I forgot his name. I knew his name, but I forgot it."

Republicans have to continue to talk about their "rich history" with African Americans, he said, even if it's difficult. "I got a lot of grief for even having the audacity to mention it," he said.

"We need to talk about it," he said. "It is harder for me, I'm not African American, to go to Howard and talk about it. It would be easier for an African American Republican maybe to talk about it because then it seems less like me trying to preach to people about history but it's all of our history. There were whites involved too in abolition."

Paul explained why he did not talk about the use of race as a wedge issue to appeal to white Southerners from the 1960s onward, which he said "cemented" an African American move to the Democratic Party that began in the 1930s. (It's true that FDR broke what had been a Republican monopoly on black votes; civil rights legislation under Truman and Johnson also instigated major shifts.)

"The Southern strategy I didn't mention, but I didn't really go there to mention the things that don't make us look so good in the Republican Party," Paul said. "Some of the tactics through the years" have been justly criticized, he said. What's more important to him, he said, was that in the current day there's "a perception that Republicans don't like people of color," and "it's not true."

Rachel Weiner covers local politics for The Washington Post.

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Rachel Weiner · April 17, 2013