Ron Paul: why racist newsletter flap could hurt him in Iowa

Ron Paul stopped an interview with CNN’s Gloria Borger on Wednesday when she pressed him with questions about racist comments in newsletters published under his name in the 1980s and ’90s.

Joshua Lott/Reuters
Republican presidential candidate Representative Ron Paul of Texas speaks during a town hall meeting in Washington, Iowa, Wednesday.

Ron Paul walked out on CNN’s Gloria Borger during an interview Wednesday, in case you haven’t heard. Ms. Borger kept pressing the Texas libertarian on what he knew, and when he knew it, about racist comments in newsletters published under his name in the 1980s and ’90s.

Representative Paul insisted the questions were irrelevant because they’ve been asked and answered for years.

“I didn’t read them at the time, I didn’t write them, and I disavow them. That is the answer,” Paul said in reply to Borger.

She persisted in raising the issue, so Paul took off his mike, handed it to a technician, and walked away.

Will the walkout hurt his chances of winning the Iowa caucuses? Per se, it probably won’t. But the newsletter issue could be a big problem for Paul, despite the fact that he thinks he’s addressed it adequately.

First of all, the comments were indeed ugly. After the Los Angeles riots in 1992, Paul’s newsletter commented, “Order was only restored in L.A. when it came time for the blacks to pick up their welfare checks.”

Many voters probably weren’t aware of the controversy over the newsletters, even though it’s been reported in years past. They might be surprised to find out that the crinkly and consistent libertarian they admire today was ever associated with such words. Paul might need to not just disavow them, but disavow them with emotion, emphasizing that he recognizes how hateful they sound today.

That’s the kind of response Borger appeared to be pressing for on CNN – she kept using the word “incendiary” – and Paul didn’t give it. He talked in his usual dispassionate manner.

Second, Paul hasn’t answered all the questions raised by these long-ago comments. His disavowal is a good start on damage control, but why didn’t he read those newsletters back then? He was sending them out under his own name, and making money off them: Was he not aware of their content? If so, why not? That’s a question that could shed some light on his ability to administer the duties of the office of president of the United States.

When did he become aware of these comments and begin to say they did not reflect his views? Already, journalists and bloggers are picking through years of old Paul interviews in an attempt to find replies that are inconsistent with what he’s saying now. On the conservative blog RedState, for example, contributing editor Leon Wolf pointed out Thursday that in a 1995 C-SPAN appearance, Paul was still touting the newsletters as something folks should read.

“Apparently, Paul did not change his story on these newsletters until 2001,” Mr. Wolf wrote.

Third – and this may be the biggest danger to Paul’s Iowa chances – the controversy makes Paul look like just another politician.

To this point in the 2012 election cycle, Paul has been distinguished by his consistency and his willingness to tell GOP audiences such tough truths as the fact that US budgets rose during the presidency of their icon, Ronald Reagan. Comedian Jon Stewart has called Paul the candidate of “uncomfortable silences.”

But now, suddenly, it’s Paul who is deflecting a journalist’s inquires, as Mitt Romney does when the subject is the Massachusetts health-care law, and as Newt Gingrich does when his earnings from Freddie Mac come up.

“Paul can run but he can’t hide,” charged Washington Post opinion writer Jonathan Capehart in his take on the subject.

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