Ron Paul’s slight stature and high-pitched passions set him apart at debates

December 14, 2011

If you’re sick of the status quo, Ron Paul offers some relief. The obstetrician-turned-politician is not like all those other square-shouldered rectangles standing stiffly during debates. The folksy provocateur doesn’t share their views — and he doesn’t share their mannerisms.

At 76, slightly built and ever-so-subtly stooped, the Texas congressman does not look “presidential” in the traditional sense. He doesn’t have the chesty, big-dog bearing of Mitt Romney, Rick Perry or Newt Gingrich. But unlike his younger, more staid competitors, Paul has energy to burn. He outpaces the field in passion.

Get him talking about the Occupy Wall Street movement and he does not restrain his sympathy for the protesters and his derision for the bank bailouts — he unleashes a mix of annoyance-distress-dismay in a torrent, banging on his lectern for emphasis, his voice rising higher and higher in pitch.

“Who got stuck? The middle class got stuck!” he cried out in a CNN debate. He tossed his hands up in frustration, poked his head forward on its slender neck. His target was the government, but he directed his words to the audience, where a bloc of supporters was cheering him on.

“If you had to give money out, you should have given it to the people who were losing their mortgages,” Paul railed, one hand pumping like a piston in the air, “not to the banks.”

Those excitable hands once caught babies, thousands of them by the candidate’s count. Whether that accounts for his common touch or not, what’s interesting is the way Paul expresses empathy, or some degree of feeling for the average person, in so many of his debate responses. It’s what gives him a more intimate style than any of his competitors, a sense of authentic connection to his public.

Perhaps his homespun sense of humor is also a vestige of his bedside manner. “I don’t want to offend the governor, because he might raise my taxes some more,” Paul cracked with a laugh in one debate, capping off his criticism of Perry’s leadership in his home state.

While the other candidates endeavor to appear composed, Paul doesn’t hide his feelings. For him, emotion is a badge of authenticity. The urgency, the targeted but gently delivered gibes that tumble out with ease — it all speaks to the solidity of his beliefs. There’s no question about depth of commitment with him.

So why, with his long-held views and an enthusiastic base of support, does Paul get so little attention? It’s not only his anti-establishment message. Part of his acceptance issue is the way he presents himself. As much as he is a refreshing departure from the mold, he also comes across as a gadfly.

Consider if Paul had the heftier, more serious bearing of a Romney or a Gingrich. Would he be so easy to dismiss? In the Darwinian world of public perception, it’s easy to discount what you hear from someone who looks a little smaller, and perhaps a little weaker. Especially when his voice tends to spiral into the upper registers.

But if it’s likely he’ll remain the outsider, that seems to be okay with Paul. After one debate, the TV cameras drew back on all of the candidates exchanging greetings. All of them, that is, except for Paul. As his competitors shook hands, he quietly gathered up his papers, tucked them under an arm and ambled off the set without a word to anyone, independent down to his last move.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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