Rand Paul and racial echoes

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 21, 2010; 11:52 AM

On one point, at least, I have to give Rand Paul credit.

When I saw him on O'Reilly Wednesday night, I figured, okay, here's another conservative who's only going to do Fox and narrowcast to the base.

But the Senate candidate from Kentucky, who had already talked to National Public Radio, popped up an hour later with Rachel Maddow. And he endured a 20-minute grilling on his view of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, with the MSNBC host being both aggressive and unfailingly civil.

Unfortunately for the "tea party" champion, he opposed the guts of a 46-year-old statute that has been settled law in this country for a long time. Paul dug himself a hole and kept digging.

The issue was front and center because Paul had earlier told the Louisville Courier-Journal that "I don't like the idea of telling private business owners" what to do.

He kept telling Maddow he was not in favor of discrimination. He would have marched with Martin Luther King Jr. He supported the law's ban on bias in public institutions. "Am I a bad person? Do I believe in awful things? No," Paul said.

But he would not, despite repeated prodding, say the government should legally bar private institutions from discrimination.

"I'm all in favor of and that was desegregating the schools, desegregating public transportation, use public roads and public monopolies, desegregating public water fountains," he said.

"How about desegregating lunch counters?" Maddow said.

"Well, what it gets into is, is that then if you decide that restaurants are publicly owned and not privately owned, then do you say that you should have the right to bring your gun into a restaurant, even though the owner of the restaurant says, well, no, we don't want to have guns in here."

He just would not say it, even with the '60s-era reference to lunch counters. And now the Republican nominee, who beat Mitch McConnell's candidate in a landslide, is going to have to spend a long time defending that position. I don't think it's fair to suggest this is the tea party position, but I do think it's fair to ask whether Ron Paul's son, in 2010, has problems with the landmark civil rights law of our generation. I'm sure that's a debate the Democratic candidate, Jack Conway, would love to have.

The thing about protest candidates is that you can rip Washington and the political establishment all you want, but eventually you have to say what you're for.

By Thursday, Paul had turned on Maddow, telling Laura Ingraham that his decision to appear "was a poor political decision and probably won't be happening anytime in the near future. Because, yeah, they can play things and want to say, 'Oh you believed in beating up people that were trying to sit in restaurants in the 1960s.' And that is such a ridiculous notion and something that no rational person is in favor of. She went on and on about that. . . . Seems to have unleashed some of the loony left on me."

Joe Scarborough, the former GOP congressman, issued this warning on his MSNBC show: "Rand Paul has until the end of the day to retract those statements and to say he was wrong there and to say he was wrong when he spoke to the editorial board in Louisville or else he's going to have a blood bath and I don't think he'll recover."

The Paul camp put out a damage-control statement: "I unequivocally state that I will not support any efforts to repeal the Civil Rights Act of 1964." (Huh? Was anyone talking about repealing it?) And he's still talking about the law's intent being "to stop discrimination in the public sphere." Plus, "we are sure to hear more wild, dishonest smears during this campaign."

But Maddow, NPR and the Courier-Journal didn't smear anyone. They asked questions.

And by the way, it was back on April 25 that a Courier-Journal editorial said that Paul "holds an unacceptable view of civil rights, saying that while the federal government can enforce integration of government jobs and facilities, private business people should be able to decide whether they want to serve black people, or gays, or any other minority group." So how come, with the millions of words lavished on this race, the national press barely mentioned this?

Andrew Sullivan says he can see Paul's point -- but only up to a point:

"This is why so many feel contempt for Rand Paul. But it's one reason I am glad he will be more integrated into the American conversation. I don't agree with Paul on the Civil Rights Act because I believe that the legacy of slavery and segregation made a drastic and historic redress morally vital for this country's coherence, integrity and unity.

"But was the Act in many respects an infringement of freedom? Of course it was. To bar private business owners from discriminating in employment would have been an unthinkable power for the federal government for much of American history. Now it's accepted as inevitable for almost everyone who can claim to be treated unjustly for an aspect of their identity irrelevant to a job. What I believe was a necessary act to redress a uniquely American historic evil became a baseline for every minority group with a claim to grievance."

Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates examines the implications of Paul's stance:

"But what about redlining? Does Paul know anything about blockbusting? Does he think banks should be able to have a policy of not lending to black businesses? Does he think real-estate agents should be able to discriminate? Does he think private homeowner groups should be able to band together and keep out blacks? Jews? Gays? Latinos?

"I think there's this sense that it's OK to be ignorant about the Civil Rights Act because it's a 'black issue.' I'm not a lawyer, but my sense is that for a senator to be ignorant of the Civil Rights Act, is not simply to be ignorant of a 'black issue,' but to be ignorant of one of the most important pieces of legislation ever passed."

At the American Conservative, Thomas Woods Jr. says Rand Paul is being slimed:

"Of course, someone might have objected to that Act on the grounds that it would of course lead to affirmative action, since racially proportionate hiring is the only practical way to prove one has not been 'discriminating'. . . .

"As the Left sees it, none of these reasonable concerns can be the 'real reason' for opposition to the 1964 Act. The real motivation is (what else?) a sinister and arbitrary desire to oppress blacks and other minorities for no good reason. The Left's opponents are always and everywhere wicked and twisted people, who spend their time wondering how they can cause gratuitous harm to black people they have never met."

But this is not about someone else characterizing his views. It's Paul's own words -- and he had a lot of time to respond to Maddow -- that are at issue. Salon's Joan Walsh looks at Paul's attempts at deflection:

"He called the issue of desegregating lunch counters 'obscure,' and implied the First Amendment gave business owners the right to be racist.

"You've got to watch the whole interview. At the end, Paul seemed to understand that he's going to be explaining his benighted civil rights views for a long, long time -- but he seemed to blame Maddow. 'You bring up something that is really not an issue . . . a red herring; it's a political ploy . . . and that's the way it will be used,' he complained at the end of the interview. Whether the Civil Rights Act should have applied to private businesses -- 'not really an issue,' says Tea Party hero Rand Paul."

At Politics Daily, Walter Shapiro accuses the press of black-and-white coverage:

"Voter rage is the reigning cliché emerging from Tea Party favorite Rand Paul's lopsided victory over establishment candidate Trey Grayson in the Kentucky GOP Senate primary. . . .

"Forgive me from deviating from press-pack orthodoxy, but after covering the Kentucky Senate race, I just do not see things in those monochromatic terms. Paul's campaign speeches avoid the overheated denunciations of Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi that are a staple of Republican rhetoric and lack the exaggerated comparisons to Hugo Chavez's Venezuela that are part of Glenn Beck's chalkboard shtick.

"An eye surgeon in civilian life, Rand Paul is trying to peddle authenticity along with his dire warnings about federal spending and the national debt. . . .

"An occupational hazard of on-the-road political reporting is noticing only what you expect to see. (Many TV pundits solve this problem by limiting their campaign travels to the few steps between the green room and the set). After hearing the venom during Tea Party protests in Washington, I was braced to walk a mile through the bile among the crowd at Rand Paul rallies. The problem is -- and maybe I was looking the wrong way or interviewing the wrong people -- I failed to pick up any comments harsher than the weather commentary on Fox News."

Viet flashback

As long as we're rehashing the LBJ-era civil rights law, how about the war? Richard Blumenthal has yet to apologize for lying to Connecticut voters about having served in Vietnam, although the NYT demonstrated quite clearly that he did. Here's another example, from the Stamford Advocate, of the state attorney general at a 2008 Veterans Day parade:

"I wore the uniform in Vietnam and many came back and to all kinds of disrespect. Whatever we think of war, we owe the men and women of the armed forces our unconditional support."

Does that sound like "misspeaking" to you?

But Jack Shafer offers a little sympathy in Slate:

"In avoiding the potentially deadly draft for the safety of the reserves, Blumenthal did pretty much what President George W. Bush, Vice President Dan Quayle, and many other well-connected young men of every political persuasion did. I was a draft-eligible student when the second draft lottery was held in 1970, and had I not drawn a high number I'm sure I would have tried to do as Bush, Quayle, and Blumenthal did, except I probably would have failed. I had no powerful and connected friends. My other choices to avoid the shooting war would have been the Navy and the Air Force, but I'm grateful that fate didn't force my hand.

"Although Blumenthal worked the system well, he didn't pitch a perfect draft-avoidance game. Among the deferments he never collected were the ones dispensed to married men with children. Vice President Dick Cheney's last-ditch effort to stay out of the military required him to put a bun in Lynne's oven, as Slate's Timothy Noah reported in 2004. Blumenthal appears to never to have sought an exemption because he was a conscientious objector, because he had some medical complication, or because he claimed to be homosexual, as many did.

"Yes, Richard Blumenthal ducked the draft, but don't judge him too harshly for his circumventions. At least he didn't duck it for two and a half years with a religious deferment as Mitt Romney did as a Mormon missionary in France."

War on Wall Street

For all the ink spilled over Tuesday's handful of primaries, this may have a bigger impact on the fall elections, not to mention the economy:

"The Senate on Thursday approved the most sweeping rewrite of financial rules since the Great Depression, a milestone in President Obama's drive to expand government oversight and safeguard against another crisis like the Wall Street meltdown of 2008.

"The 59-39 vote was mostly along party lines: Four Republicans joined all but two Democrats in supporting the legislation," the L.A. Times reports.

"The House in December passed its version of the bill, which is in some respects more industry-friendly than the Senate's -- a reflection, in part, of the intensification of anti-Wall Street sentiment in the last six months."

If it survives the dreaded House-Senate conference, I'd wager the Dems will remind voters that Republicans were against going after the likes of Goldman Sachs.

Losing the message

Remember when Obama was the change candidate, vowing to shake up George Bush's Washington?

Today he's the prime target of the latest change movement, as Politico points out:

"Barack Obama's political calling card and the fuel that propelled his never-waste-a-crisis agenda -- but change is boomeranging big time on the president in a turbulent and unpredictable 2010.

"For the first time since he emerged as a national political figure six years ago, Obama finds himself on the wrong side of the change equation -- the status quo side -- with challengers in both parties running against him, his policies or his handpicked candidates. . . .

"If the results of Tuesday's night's grab bag of Senate and House elections prove anything, it's that Obama didn't copyright the anti-Washington change message. At a time of nearly 10 percent unemployment, anxiety about the economy, two wars and fury about bailouts and Beltway pay to play, the message of change is bigger than any one cause, one party or even Obama himself."

True. But when do the voters get tired of candidates vowing change and not much changing?

That was then, this is now

Remember Vito Fossella? Or was that too many congressional scandals ago to make a lasting impression?

The Staten Island Advance reports: "In a bombshell announcement, the Staten Island Republican Party executive committee endorsed former GOP Rep. Vito Fossella to run against Rep. Michael McMahon (D-Staten Island/Brooklyn) this fall. . . .

"Fossella abandoned his 2008 re-election bid after a DUI arrest led to revelations that he had fathered a child during an extramarital affair."

Well, he would fit right in on Capitol Hill these days.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company