NEW YORK – As Rand Paul runs for president, wife Kelley Paul has a new role: helping soften the public image of her husband, an ophthalmologist who can be alternately prickly and blunt.
Her prescription for the doctor: the policy is great -- just add in some of the personal. She urged him to share a story on the trail about performing cataract surgery on a couple in Guatemala; after the operations, they could see one another clearly for the first time in years.
“He told me that and I started welling up, and so did he -- and I was like, you need to share a little bit about who you are from the heart. So that’s probably not his natural thing to put things like that in speeches,” she said.
Kelley, a writer and former marketing manager, has edited her husband’s speeches since he ran for Senate in 2010. Shortly after he was elected, she was asked to give speeches around Kentucky. She didn’t want to talk about politics or policy. So she focused on the story of her grandmother, an Irish immigrant who was a live-in maid for the family that owned Saks Fifth Avenue.
“I wanted to write a speech that kind of embodied and talked about what this country means to people and I thought of her immediately, because she was an immigrant,” Kelley Paul said.
That speech became a book, “True and Constant Friends,” which tells the stories of the mothers, grandmothers and women in the lives of Kelley Paul and six of her close friends from Rhodes College.
“I realized this book is the whole American dream story,” she said. “If you take seven women and you go back you get this incredibly rich, diverse group of mothers and grandmothers that really made us who we are.”
With her husband’s post-announcement blitz of the country over, Kelley herself will hit the road this week, hitting book signing events in New Jersey and Kentucky, along with the early voting states of New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Kelley Paul said she will “eventually” go on the trail herself -- but she's already been playing a vital campaign role. In a video intro that played at Rand Paul's launch event, she spoke of him as a caring father who coached their three sons in sports and recounted the first time they met, at an oyster roast in Atlanta: she thought he looked 18. A voracious reader, she said she was first drawn to her husband of 25 years after he talked about his favorite book, the Brothers Karamazov.
Rand Paul often tells audiences that Kelley didn’t think he’d win his race for Senate. Kelley Paul says now she didn’t think her husband would ever run for Senate so soon; the couple had said they wanted to wait until they were 50 to run for office. Rand was 47 on Election Day 2010.
“There was sort of a constellation of events that happened,” she said, from Rand giving speeches for his father Ron’s presidential campaign to the rise of the Tea Party. Rand, she said, had just started his own solo medical practice.
“We loved our life and there was some of this -- 'Really? We’re gonna try this?'” she said -- adding that she knew in her gut he was going to win.
So what does she think of his odds this time, on a much larger stage?
“I don’t know. I can’t make any predictions on this next level, but I would just say that I’m embracing it,” she said.
Kelley’s signoff was always an implicit must-have for a Rand Paul 2016 campaign. In a 2013 interview with Vogue, Kelley said that running for president brought with it character assassination. Getting to the point where she said yes to a run was a process, she said, and there wasn’t one moment where she made the decision.
“I didn’t want to let fear of what could happen be a decision maker,” she said. “Sometimes when you put yourself out there and you want to make a difference you do open yourself up to criticism. But do I want that to define us? Do I want that to limit you know what we could possibly do.”
Her husband was criticized in his first week as a presidential candidate, most notably for being snappish with reporters, including “Today” co-host Savannah Guthrie -- a moment reminiscent of an interview when he shushed a female reporter in February. Kelley Paul said allegations that her husband has a problem with professional women are unfair.
“You can say and make an argument that maybe he’s snappish or abrupt. That’s fine. But don’t say that he’s abrupt because someone’s a woman. Because to me that’s not the truth of who he is,” she said, noting that his surgical partner at his practice and when he now does pro bono work are both women.
When deciding to give her approval to a presidential campaign, Kelley Paul said she drew from the bravery of her grandmother, who left a fiancé in Ireland and boarded a ship alone at age 19 to come to America.
“I’m not comparing this level of bravery to that, but I think sometimes in life you get these opportunities, things come your way, and you have a choice to make,” she said. “And you know in a marriage sometimes too you’re in a partnership, in a relationship, you want to support each other, and [I] want to support Rand.”
The couple splits their time between Washington, where their youngest son goes to high school, and Kentucky, where they have their home – where she “feels the most cocooned.” Kelley Paul’s father was in the Air Force and the family lived all around the country and did a stint in Turkey before settling in Kentucky. Her parents live nearby and she and Rand have two sons in college in the state.
Their home in Bowling Green is where the senator likes to ride his bike and the couple throws parties where they grill. The couple also likes to take long walks; after arriving back in Washington she and Rand took a long walk around the Mall Sunday. Friends are taking care of the house, turning on the water when the weather got cold so the pipes didn’t freeze. A boy who lives next door is watering Rand’s plants.
“Rand loves to grow plants,” she said. They have an array of potted plants and he once unsuccessfully tried to grow a sequoia tree. “He likes to work in the yard. He’s a big outdoor person. He likes to putter and mow the lawn and do all that stuff.”
While she is fully committed to a run, Kelley Paul still can find politics polarizing.
“What I don’t like about politics, is the idea that somehow you want to question someone’s motives or think that they don’t want what’s best for people. That’s the thing that probably bothers me the most. It’s certainly going to be part of it,” she said.
When she does come onto the campaign trail she expects to reprise a version of the message she gave in Louisville; she said she is more comfortable talking about things with a more “universal theme” than politics or policy.
But don’t expect her on the stump any time soon.
“Someone was just asking if I was going on the road next week and I was like, this is a marathon and I’m going to pace myself,” she said.