A couple days ago, news broke that Rand Paul's co-author and social media director Jack Hunter was once the Southern Avenger, a shock-jock radio personality who wore a red mask with the stars and bars criss-crossing his face. This Southern Avenger poured one out for John Wilkes Booth every May 10, Booth's birthday; was against Latino immigration, which he said would irrevocably change American culture; and complained about a "racial double standard" that kept whites from celebrating their racial heritage. Hunter was also a member of the League of the South, "whose ultimate goal is a free and independent Southern republic."
At first, Paul's office stonewalled. They put out a statement that said Rand Paul doesn't tolerate discrimination. Then Jesse Benton, Paul's former campaign manager—he's now running Mitch McConnell's 2014 reelection campaign in Kentucky—swatted at some local state Democrats who called on Paul to publicly condemn Hunter. Instead, Paul seemed to go on with his usual business, introducing a bill to end foreign aid to Egypt and announcing a trip to Nevada. Today, Paul finally spoke out, but it wasn't exactly a condemnation.
Hunter "is incredibly talented," Paul said in an interview with the Huffington Post, claiming he had known only "vaguely" about Hunter's past as the Southern Avenger. Yet he clearly seemed to know what the Southern Avenger was. “It was a shock radio job," Paul said. "He was doing wet T-shirt contests. But can a guy not have a youth and stuff? People try to say I smoked pot one time, and I wasn't fit for office.”
Paul went on to blizzard HuffPo's Howard Fineman with talk about his own relationship to Abe Lincoln and about whether a man is more than the sum of his writing, about how Hunter was not a white supremacist and how that kind of stuff—or any kind of discriminatory stuff—is a fireable offense in the Paul office. He also, tellingly, said: "I think it's hard. The thing is, I grapple with this. What am I supposed to do? I'm going to have a lot of people working for me. They've all got writings and opinions." (Emphasis mine.)
Let's untangle all that.
First of all, let's be honest: Jack Hunter, who immediately issued a statement, said he was "embarrassed" by the rantings of his youth and said "I was embarrassed by some of them even then." He played up articles that he felt proved his tolerance. He cited an article he'd written about the armed black struggle against Jim Crow and the KKK, as well as one his defenders said promoted gay rights, but which was actually a quibbling dispute of the notion that the fight for marriage equality was "the Civil Rights struggle of our time." He also played the youth card that Paul would play two days later: "I am also no longer a guy who judges beer drinking contests in a wrestling mask. Things change. We all hopefully grow up."
Moreover, he referred to the Washington Free Beacon story about his stars-and-bars past, and the articles about it, as "attacks." It's hard to see the bringing up of a past he himself says was "not-very-well-hidden" as an attack, but, according to Dave Weigel, it was seen in Paul's orbit as "a hit job."
And this, judging by the HuffPo interview, is how Paul sees it, too. In fact, he made an allusion to the Aqua Buddha kerfuffle that still makes Paulites' blood boil. Paul at once defended that as a youthful prank, but many presented its floating as an attack, which Paul sees as representative of the media's obsession with making politicians look stupid. When he spoke to a group of college students at a Tea Party event in Louisville this spring, he complained that “the media skewers you and makes you look like an imbecile or something because you made a mistake.” By way of a rebuttal to the media gods, he added, “It’s like, well, I did get into medical school and score at the top of my class. Somehow I did something right.”
To be fair, the Washington Free Beacon is no innocent lamb. As Michael Tomasky points out, it is a neoconservative rag—one that, hilariously, accused TNR's new owner of purging the Jews—and neoconservatives and Paulites hate each other. So yes, the article was an attack, but that didn't render its allegations moot. And, when it comes to Aqua Buddha, if you're Rand Paul and you're really annoyed that people are making a big deal about your silly, inconsequential youth, your near-rage about its kind of undermines the point that it was all silly and inconsequential.
Next point: That Paul is digging in his heels and not throwing the Southern Avenger—I mean, really, what could he possibly be avenging?—under the bus is also to be expected. Paul does not like the media dredging up youthful indiscretions, but he likes it even less when the media corners him and says: "Say this. This is what you're supposed to say."
Recall Paul's statements on the Civil Rights Act and how they have continued to haunt him, thrown back at him as proof that he doesn't support the landmark legislation. In fact, what Paul did was wax philosophical about whether equal protection was more or less important a right than that to private property. Code words in some quarters, sure, but this was classic Paul (both Rand and Ron). It was him playing what one Paul advisor groaningly called "Professor Rand." When that kind of thing hits the media paint spinner, it looks terrible, and Paul's reaction is the opposite of what it ought to be: Instead of walking it back, he digs in and insists that the stubborness is the kind of honesty that is woefully lacking from modern politics. In appearance after appearance, including at two historically black colleges, Paul has added heart-rending statements about his passion for equality and his hatred of discrimination, but has refused to concede that one point. He still thinks, and insists, that there is a discussion to be had. "He really got his nose bloodied on it, but he can’t nakedly pander," the advisor told me. "It’s just not him."
This kind of defiance, as I wrote in my recent profile of Paul, wins him major points with a base that is suspicious of the media to begin with. But this grassroots catnip isn't going to work when Paul almost certainly runs for president and is "going to have a lot of people working for me." As New York's Jonathan Chait pointed out, racists tend to pop up in the Pauls' circles. A lot. This has been true since the elder Paul got into politics, in Houston, in the late 1960s. Paul is going to have to explain this stuff, and explain it in a definitive way. How, for example, did he only have a "vague" notion of his co-author's previous work? Wouldn't his past work be an important qualifier when he was being considered for that job? How did he hire a man to direct his social media whose Twitter handle is @SouthernAvenger?
This is a different and more important question than the one his father faced over the racist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic apocalyptic drivel written under his name. Ron Paul had no chance of getting to the White House, but Rand could, and so it matters who those "lot of people" are. Rand, of all people, should know: He filibustered one of the people that was going to work for the current president (CIA Director John Brennan), and has threatened to filibuster another potential presidential employee (FBI Director James Comey).
Paul is a quick study, but if he doesn't learn how to staff better and explain those decisions—he does, after all, make libertarian hearts beat a little faster with his talk of transparency—then the Southern Avenger and his ilk will continue to haunt him.