Bob Woodson hardly remembers the first time he met Paul Ryan. It was in the early 1990s, he recalls, and it was through their mutual friend, Jack Kemp. Beyond that, he draws a blank. But Woodson’s fuzzy memory is beside the point, and at 76 years old, he’s more than forgiven. What’s important is that the meeting, wherever it was, left an impression on Ryan. More than two decades later, and unbeknownst to most of the political establishment, Woodson has become Ryan’s mentor.
They make an unlikely pair. Ryan is a youthful congressman who grew up in Janesville, a leafy Wisconsin suburb. Woodson is a soft-spoken community organizer who grew up in an all-black neighborhood in south Philadelphia. But behind the scenes, Ryan’s allies say they’re surprisingly close, and over the past year, they’ve taken several unheralded trips together to meet with the poor in places such as Milwaukee and Cleveland.
“He doesn’t always let you reporters know what he’s up to,” Woodson tells me with a chuckle. “He often says that he can’t stand it when he thinks he’s becoming a distraction. So we’ve been quiet about what he’s been doing. But this outreach, this listening, it’s a big part of his life right now. It seems like we’re always meeting with people, or planning something.”
Their most recent excursion was to Martindale-Brightwood, a hardscrabble area of northeast Indianapolis. They traveled alone — no entourage, no cameras — to Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church. On a warm summer morning, a small group of black men spoke candidly with Woodson and Ryan about their issues, from the economic to the spiritual. They ended up spending hours at the church, discussing the importance of faith and family. “I felt like I was watching another Jack Kemp,” Woodson says.
Woodson would know. He got to know Kemp, the late New York congressman, in the early 1980s, when Kemp was a rising force in Reagan-era Washington, D.C. Kemp sought out Woodson, the founder of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, for advice on how to engage with communities that had long been hostile to Republicans. He was eager, Woodson remembers, to enrich his message — to do more than preach about supply-side economics. He wanted to work directly with the poor.
Eventually, Woodson worked with Kemp, who called himself a “bleeding-heart conservative,” to craft legislation to give more control to public-housing residents. He took Kemp to his group’s sites across the country and introduced the congressman to pastors and minority leaders. When Kemp was tapped by President George H. W. Bush to serve as housing secretary, Woodson was his confidant. “He wasn’t afraid to go into the projects,” Woodson says. “He’d roll up his sleeves.”
After last year’s presidential election, Ryan, who had worked as Kemp’s speechwriter after he graduated from college, privately told his aides that he wanted to revive the GOP’s Kemp wing. Instead of getting bogged down with fiscal politics, he was looking to return the Republican conversation to themes of inclusion and growth. But he needed a hand. He immediately thought of Woodson, who had briefly worked with Ryan last year, when Ryan was Mitt Romney’s running mate.
Woodson had informally helped Ryan prepare for a major speech on poverty last October. Before Ryan gave the address, they had huddled backstage, sharing notes and Kemp stories. For Ryan, it was one of the campaign’s better moments, since he could toss away his talking points and tout the issues that had interested him ever since his time with Kemp.
A few weeks after the election, after the Secret Service had left Ryan’s side, Woodson and Ryan got together again. One important early dinner came at Charlie Palmer’s steakhouse on Capitol Hill. Woodson brought some of his group’s members along, including some former convicts. He was, in a sense, testing whether Ryan’s talk of bringing back Kemp’s message was more than a passing mention of a man they both missed.
“I got in Paul’s face, and asked him, ‘Why the hell do you care?’” Woodson says. “He looked at me, stayed calm, and talked for a while about how he cares deeply about doing something about the divide in this country between the haves and the have-nots. I said, ‘Okay, then, let’s do something about it.’”
“He doesn’t talk about it much, but I think his brokenness, from losing his father at a young age, has given him the ability to connect with the brokenness of others,” he says. “After his dad died, he and his mother had to rely on a network of people. So when he talks about why community matters, he’s speaking from experience.”
Ryan and Woodson now call each other throughout the week, and Ryan has told his congressional staff that for a couple of days each month, he needs to block off time to travel with Woodson. Next on the agenda are meetings in Denver and Texas, and a return to Cleveland.
The rule is that no one outside of Ryan’s inner circle should know, especially the Beltway press, which Ryan has mostly avoided since the election. For him, the weekend trips to church basements and homeless shelters are part of his political rehabilitation, as well as an effort to rebrand his party.
Woodson, though, is less cagey. He knows that Ryan has a large network of conservative intellectuals, such as Yuval Levin and William Bennett, who are advising him on his day-to-day work as chairman of the House Budget Committee. His role, he tells me, is to remind Ryan about his roots, and to work with him to show low-income voters that Republicans take poverty seriously.
Woodson laughs when I say that he, an elderly former civil-rights activist, is suddenly the éminence grise for one of the GOP’s most powerful players.
“It’s God’s work,” he says. “Nothing persuades more than an example. Poor people want leadership, but no one is even competing for them. No one! But they want to hear substance, just like anybody else. Paul understands that — and that’s everything.”
— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.