By Krissah Thompson and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 21, 2010; A01
Two days after becoming the newest symbol of "tea party" politics, Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul of Kentucky thrust himself, his party and the movement into an uncomfortable conversation about the federal government's role in prohibiting racial discrimination and about a period of history that most politicians consider beyond debate.
Paul, who beat an establishment-backed candidate in Tuesday's GOP primary, appeared on MSNBC's "Rachel Maddow Show" and, in a long exchange with the liberal host, repeated his belief in a limited government that should not force private businesses to abide by civil rights law.
His statements created an overnight controversy, with Paul, an ophthalmologist and political novice, thrown on the defensive as party leaders sought to distance themselves from their new nominee's views until he began to pull back from his remarks. By midday, Paul issued a statement saying he abhors discrimination, backs the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and would not support its repeal.
"Let me be clear: I support the Civil Rights Act because I overwhelmingly agree with the intent of the legislation, which was to stop discrimination in the public sphere and halt the abhorrent practice of segregation and Jim Crow laws," he said.
Later Thursday, in an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer, he went further. Asked specifically whether facilities should have had the right to segregate their lunch counters, as was common in the South, he said, according to the CNN transcript, "I think that there was an overriding problem in the South so big that it did require federal intervention in the '60s. And it stems from things that I said, you know, 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."
That appeared to reverse the position he took Wednesday night, when Maddow asked him, "Do you think that a private business has the right to say 'we don't serve black people'?"
"I'm not in favor of any discrimination of any form," he responded. "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."
Throughout the day, Paul accused political opponents of manufacturing the controversy, telling conservative radio talk show host Laura Ingraham that the "loony left" was attempting to discredit his candidacy.
But Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway, the Democratic Senate nominee, told The Washington Post's David Weigel that Paul's statements on MSNBC made it clear that the Republican "rejected the fundamental provision of the Civil Rights Act, and to me that's a rejection of the progress we've made over the last half-century."
Democrats also pointed to a 2002 letter Paul had written to a Kentucky newspaper arguing that private individuals and businesses should have the right to discriminate, even if it is abhorrent.
Republican Party leaders stepped gingerly around the controversy. "I heard something to that effect when I got off the plane and have not really focused on what exactly was said, except to the extent that I understand that he has clarified his voice on that," Michael S. Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said in Florida, according to the St. Petersburg Times. He went on to state the party's support for major civil rights legislation.
Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), issued a statement that said, "Among Senator McConnell's most vivid memories and most formative events in his career was watching his boss Sen. John Sherman Cooper help pull together the votes to break the filibuster and pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He has always considered the law a monumental achievement for the country and is glad to hear Dr. Paul supports it as well."
Late in the afternoon, Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, issued a statement attacking the Democrats. "It is apparent that the Democrats are trying to twist Rand Paul's words and create an issue that does not exist because they are rightfully worried that he is leading Jack Conway," the statement said.
Whether Paul's statements will hurt the tea party movement is another question. In the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, six in 10 opponents of the movement said they think racial bias against President Obama has a great deal or a good amount to do with its appeal. Tea party supporters disagree, saying the movement is fueled by concerns about the size and scope of federal spending and the deficit, although many activists have argued that the government is infringing too much on individual liberties.