So as Ron Paul is on track to win the Iowa caucuses, he is getting a new dose of press scrutiny.
And the press is focusing on the newsletters that went out under his name in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They were called Ron Paul's Political Report, Ron Paul's Freedom Report, the Ron Paul Survival Report and the Ron Paul Investment Letter.
There is no doubt that the newsletters contained utterly racist statements.
Some choice quotes:
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Other newsletters had strange conspiracy theories about homosexuals, the CIA, and AIDS.
In 1996 when the Texas Monthly investigated the newsletters, Paul took responsibility for them and said that certain things were taken out of context. (It's hard to imagine a context that would make the above quotes defensible.)
When the newsletter controversy came up again during the 2008 campaign, Paul explained that he didn't actually write the newsletters but because they carried his name he was morally responsible for their content. Further, he said he didn't know exactly who wrote the offensive things and they didn't represent his views.
But it is still a serious issue. Jamie Kirchick reported in The New Republic that Paul made nearly $1 million in just one year from publishing the newsletters. Could Paul really not understand the workings of such a profitable operation? Reporters at the libertarian-leaning Reason magazine wrote that the author was likely longtime Paul friend and combative polemicist Lew Rockwell.
Even though many of the newsletters are written in a first person, conversational style, many observers don't believe that Ron Paul actually wrote them.
There aren't any videos on YouTube with Paul speaking in incendiary terms about minorities. The newsletters don't "sound" like Ron Paul -- he doesn't do wordplay like "Morondon" or use prefixes like "semi-criminal" or "half-educated" in his speech or his recent writings. Further, most newsletter and direct-mail operations in politics employ ghostwriters.
So why were Ron Paul or his ghostwriters engaged in racism and conspiracy theories? And why did Ron Paul allow this?
The first answer is simply that marginal causes attract marginal people.
The Gold Standard and non-interventionism have long been pushed to the fringe of our politics, and ambitious people tend to dive into the mainstream. That means that some of the 'talent' that marginalized ideas attract will be odd and unstable.
There are two strategies for dealing with this problem. You purge your movement of cranks to preserve credibility and risk alienating a chunk of supporters. Or you let everyone in your movement fly their freak flag and live with the consequences. Ron Paul, being a libertarian, has always done the latter.
The second answer to this question: These newsletters were published before a decade of war that has exhausted many Americans, before the financial crisis, and before the tea party.
All three made Ron Paul's ideas seem more relevant to our politics. They made antigovernment libertarianism seem (to some) like a sensible corrective.
But in the 1990s and 1980s, antigovernment sentiment was much less mainstream. It seemed contained to the racist Right Wing, people who supported militia movements, who obsessed over political correctness, who were suspicious of free-trade deals like NAFTA.
At that time, a libertarian theorist, Murray Rothbard argued that libertarians ought to engage in "Outreach to the Rednecks" in order to insert their libertarian theories into the middle of the nation's political passions.
Rothbard had tremendous influence on Lew Rockwell, and the whole slice of the libertarian movement that adored Ron Paul.
But Rothbard and Rockwell never stuck with their alliances with angry white men on the far right. They have been willing to shift alliances from left to right and back again. Before this "outreach" to racists, Rothbard aligned himself with anti-Vietnam war protesters in the 1960s. In the 2000s, after the "outreach" had failed, Rockwell complained bitterly about "Red-State fascists" who supported George Bush and his war. So much for the "Rednecks." The antigovernment theories stay the same, the political strategy shifts in odd and extreme directions.
As crazy as it sounds, Ron Paul's newsletter writers may not have been sincerely racist at all. They actually thought that appearing to be racist was a good political strategy in the 1990s. After that strategy yielded almost nothing -- Paul's admirers abandoned it.
You can attribute their "redneck strategy" to the most malignant kind of cynicism or to a political desperation that made them insane. Neither is particularly flattering. Phil Klein of the Washington Examiner is correct when he writes:
Rick Perry and Mitt Romney have both attacked each other for what was written in their respective books. If either of those books had included a number of overtly racist statements, their candidacies would be over before they started.
This is undoubtedly true. The media seems to simply accept that Ron Paul has some oddities in his past and in his inner circle. They take his grandfatherly demeanor at face-value. In part this is because they believe he is not a serious candidate.
Winning the Iowa caucuses would change all that instantly. Undoubtedly the movement that Paul inspired has moved far beyond the race-baiting it engaged in two decades ago. Young people from college campuses aren't lining up to hear him speak because of what appeared in those newsletter about the 1992 L.A. riots. Rand Paul tried his hardest to place Paul-style libertarianism into the context of the tea party. And he will likely carry on the movement without this 1990s baggage.
But the questions remain. If Ron Paul is so libertarian that he won't even police people who use his name, if his movement is filled with incompetents and opportunists, then what kind of a president would he make? Would he even check in to see if his ideas are being implemented? Who would he appoint to Cabinet positions?
These are all legitimate questions. And the media is going to start asking them now. If there isn't already a "ceiling" on Ron Paul's support, widespread knowledge of the newsletters could build one quickly.