Consider it the first foreign trip of Rand Paul’s presidential campaign. That’s not how the Kentucky senator characterized the six days he spent in Guatemala this week, most of them performing free eye surgeries in the small, impoverished city of Salama, but he didn’t need to.
The trip was marked by all of the trappings of a politician on the ascent. Paul was accompanied by his top political advisers, personal friends, his ad men, several reporters, and even by cameras from the conservative activist group Citizens United, which is in the process of filming a documentary about him. The senator and his aides were ferried from one location to another by an armored caravan and accompanied at all times by an armed security detail. Media reports were embargoed until he left the country mid-day Thursday.
Paul, who practiced ophthalmology in Bowling Green, Ky., before mounting his senatorial bid in 2010, has always cast himself as a doctor first and a politician second. Over the past four years, that calculation has clearly shifted, though Paul is loath to admit it.
“I don’t think it’s either or, that I do one or the other,” he says.
Americans have never elected a president with a medical degree, and Paul, who is fashioning himself as a new type of Republican, isn’t shy about the qualities he thinks a doctor would bring to the Oval Office. “I personally think that if we got rid of all the lawyers and replaced them with all the doctors our country would be much better off,” he says, sitting on an examination table and clad in medical scrubs, “because doctors are “problem-solvers who don’t get caught up in partisanship.”
Throughout the trip, the humanitarian work of skilled medical professionals intermingled with one doctor’s presidential ambitions. Paul spent most of his time Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at Salama’s Hospital de Ojos, or Hospital for Eyes, working with a team of eye surgeons — some of them world-renowned — affiliated with the University of Utah’s John A. Moran Eye Center. It’s not every day Moran receives a big check from Donald Trump, but a five-figure donation from the real-estate magnate, solicited by Paul, helped to cover the cost of the trip. A Trump spokeswoman says it was “an honor” for Trump to lend his support.
While performing surgeries, Paul popped in and out of the operating room to sit for media interviews. At one point, he joined five doctors outside the clinic as an unmanned drone hired by Citizens United for its documentary filmed them from above (see image below). The senator, who mounted a 13-hour filibuster in March over the Obama administration’s use of drones to target American citizens, didn’t protest this time.
(Photo: Eliana Johnson)
As eye patches were removed from patients in the clinic’s waiting room, Wesley Kimbell, who is engaged to Paul’s niece, Lisa, nudged me to say, “Hey, I came up with a great slogan. Rand Paul 2016: A clear vision.”