Magazine | December 31, 2014, Issue

Where You Are and What You Say

Rand Paul speaks at the University of California at Berkeley, March 19, 2014. (Ben Margot/AP)
Rand Paul and his ‘audacious outreach’

There are fans of Senator Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican and libertarian. And there are critics. But they all tend to give him credit for one thing: speaking in venues that are supposed to be hostile to Republicans. In March, a headline in National Journal read, “Rand Paul’s Heading Deep Into Democratic Terrain.”

The terrain included the University of California at Berkeley. Before his appearance there, Paul explained what the point of that appearance was: “hopefully showing that the message of a Republican with a libertarian twist may well be acceptable to people, even in Berkeley.” His talk was destined to please, really. It was entitled “The NSA vs. Your Privacy.” (The NSA, remember, is the National Security Agency.)

Senator Paul was dressed casually for the occasion: no jacket, a white Oxford shirt, red tie, baggy blue jeans, and cowboy boots. The New York Times reporter wryly noted that Paul “was more dressed down than some of the Berkeley College Republicans who were there to welcome him.”

“Now, you may be a Republican or a Democrat or a Libertarian,” Paul said to the students. “I’m not here to tell you what to be. I am here to tell you, though, that your rights, especially your right to privacy, is under assault. I’m here to tell you that if you own a cellphone, you’re under surveillance.” Of the NSA, he said, “They don’t care if you’re white or black or brown. They care only that everyone must submit to the state.”

With great emphasis, Paul said, “I believe that what you do on your cellphone is none of their damn business.” This received big whoops and cheers. So did the senator’s repetitions of the sentiment. So did his speech at large.

Paul read to the students from Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel. Then he said, “In the U.S. today, we’re not yet burning people at the stake. Nor are we burning books — yet.” But he strongly suggested we were heading that way.

After he condemned James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, the audience was robust with applause. But apparently it was not enough for Paul. Narrowing his eyes, he said playfully, “Are the people that aren’t clapping — are y’all from the intelligence community?”

Paul gave a stirring defense of Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker and fugitive (a guest of Vladimir Putin in Russia for the last year and a half). The senator duly issued some caveats. He said he was of mixed views about Snowden — painted by some as a hero, painted by others as a villain. Paul leaned heavily in the direction of hero. So did the crowd, of course.

The speaker even managed to inject race into the issue. Is there any issue in American life in which race cannot be injected? Not really. Paul said, “I find it ironic that the first African-American president has, without compunction, allowed this vast exercise of raw power by the NSA.” And what does African-Americanness have to do with it? “Certainly J. Edgar Hoover’s illegal spying on Martin Luther King and others in the civil-rights movement should give us all pause.” Ah.

In the Q&A, Paul had some fun at the expense of the stuffy old GOP. “I’ve said they either have to evolve, adapt, or die. I was telling someone the other day: Remember when Domino’s finally admitted they had bad crust?” (This is the pizza chain, as you know.) Paul said the Republicans had bad crust. “We need a different kind of party.”

The students gave him a standing ovation. They lapped up everything they heard. The headline in the next day’s San Francisco Chronicle was, “Republican Rand Paul fires up a Berkeley crowd.” And, almost unanimously, people gave Paul credit for appearing at Berkeley at all.

But what did he tell the students that would have made them the least uncomfortable or disapproving? What did he tell them that would have made himself uncomfortable, there on the stage? It’s not like he spoke of the injustice of abortion. Or the danger of welfare dependency. Or the need for anti-missile defenses. It’s not like he defended the Republican party’s contribution to American life. That would not have gone down so well.

Of course, Rand Paul, like everyone else, is entitled to state his views. He is also entitled to tailor his remarks to an audience. He is a politician, and ingratiation is a big part of the game. It’s part of the game of life, too. But an ingratiating politician should not win points for chutzpah. If Paul had offered the Berkeley kids free beer and weed, he would not have been more popular than in offering the speech he gave.

Now and then, a politician will tell off a constituent, thrillingly. More rarely does he tell off a whole audience. Hilaire Belloc famously told off an individual constituent. Running for Parliament in 1906, he was asked by an unfriendly sort whether it was true he was a “papist.” Belloc drew his rosary from his pocket and said some version of this: “Sir, do you see these beads? I pray them every night. And if that offends you, I will pray to God that He spare me the ignominy of representing you at Westminster.” The crowd cheered. Belloc won the election.

#page#The crowd at Berkeley was not cheering for Jeane Kirkpatrick in 1983. A political scientist and veteran professor, she was then serving as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. President Reagan had nominated her. UC-Berkeley had invited her to lecture, and her topic was human rights in American foreign policy. The students, some of them, came to heckle and jeer her. They mainly objected to Reagan-administration policy in Central America.

Kirkpatrick persevered for a while, in her usual brilliant way, then left the stage. She could not speak over the jeerers. She came back, however, to finish her lecture. She even entertained a Q&A, in which she did some toying with the students. She told them they reminded her of the “divine mobs” in Nicaragua — the turbas divinas. These were youth mobs organized by the Sandinistas. They did things like shout people down.

The ambassador was scheduled to give a second lecture the next day, but she canceled it. She also withdrew from a planned commencement address at Smith College. The institution said it could not guarantee her security.

In 2000, Benjamin Netanyahu was prevented from speaking at the Berkeley Community Theater. (The Israeli conservative was between premierships.) A mob of hundreds threatened violence. They threatened not only Netanyahu but the ticket-holders waiting in line as well. The speech was canceled. This disturbed some in the Berkeley community, no matter their political beliefs: Berkeley is famed as a free-speech bastion. But one of the mob’s organizers made an almost charming statement: “He [Netanyahu] has a right to free speech, and we have a right to try and stop him.”

Jeane Kirkpatrick’s worldview was very different from Rand Paul’s. So is Netanyahu’s. The Berkeley community would cheer a Paul speech on foreign policy, as on the NSA. But other speeches he might give, they would not be so cheerful about. Maybe Paul will let one of these fly, in Berkeley, someday.

He is credited with “audacious outreach.” Those were the words in a National Journal headline this past August: “Rand Paul’s Audacious Outreach.” The senator has spoken in front of several predominantly black audiences. He stresses the importance of showing up — a very good point to stress. Woody Allen said, “Eighty percent of life is showing up.” That goes for politics as well.

Throughout the media, Paul is billed as “a different kind of Republican.” George W. Bush was once billed that way too — in part because he spoke in front of everybody: the NAACP, CORE, LULAC, La Raza, you name it. He habitually spoke of “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” which doomed minority children to failure in school, and in life.

Rand Paul has discussed issues dear to his heart — including school choice and “economic-freedom zones,” or “enterprise zones,” as Jack Kemp used to call them. Advocacy of school choice or enterprise zones is not music to liberal ears. But Paul has other music, which he plays loudly, at length, and often. He asserts that the U.S. justice system is rigged against black Americans.

At a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee last year, Paul said, “If I told you that one out of three African-American males is forbidden by law from voting, you might think I was talking about Jim Crow 50 years ago. Yet today, a third of African-American males are still prevented from voting because of the war on drugs.”

Speaking to students at Howard University earlier that year, he had said, “We should not have drug laws or a court system that disproportionately punishes the black community.” This is a word he leans on often: “disproportionately,” or “disproportionate.”

A few months after his gig at Berkeley, he had a gig at the conference of the National Urban League in Cincinnati. He said, “Our prisons are bursting with young men of color, and our communities are full of broken families. I won’t sit idly by and watch our criminal-justice system continue to consume, confine, and define our young men.”

The question of fair and just punishment is important. But so is the question, “Why are so many of our young men breaking the law? Isn’t that the problem, more than the punishment?” Now, this may not be a question for a politician to raise. And it may especially not be a question for a white politician to raise. But it is a question.

I could tell a number of “lions’ den” stories, and so could you, I’m sure. My favorite example is Shimon Peres, at Davos in 2009. The Israeli politician was then 85 years old. He was on a hostile panel, in a hostile hall. Long famed and praised as a dove, he defended his country’s military actions against Hamas. He was impassioned and commanding and right. It was the bravest forensic performance I have ever seen.

Let me be perfectly clear (as Nixon would say): I don’t demand that politicians make themselves unpopular. That would be batty. I also recognize the importance of cultivating common ground — which Rand Paul does, and does well. Furthermore, I believe that Paul has on occasion shown nerve, and that this commends him. My point is fairly simple — perhaps even disappointingly uncontroversial: What matters most is not where a politician is; it’s what he is saying.

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