Tea party winner stuck on race questions
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Rand Paul gave the Kentucky Republican establishment a black eye by winning Tuesday's U.S. Senate primary. Buoyed by his win and energized by the hosannas of tea party activists nationwide, the 47-year-old ophthalmologist son of Rep. Ron Paul agreed to an interview on "The Rachel Maddow Show" the next evening.
Big mistake. Ms. Maddow specializes in the kind of respectful but thorough probing that is rare in the hothouse of prime-time cable news these days. Instead of engaging Mr. Paul in banal chatter about the Kentucky horse race he won handily the day before, Ms. Maddow asked her subject to explain his skepticism about the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Mr. Paul began with a bizarre rhetorical riposte of his own. Comparing himself to the radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, Mr. Paul asked Ms. Maddow when Boston, that great metropolis of racial tolerance, "got rid of Jim Crow."
Perplexed because of Boston's long history of racial turmoil -- especially the school busing wars of 30-plus years ago in Beantown -- Ms. Maddow asked Mr. Paul to clarify his point.
Like an alien history professor who wandered onto the MSNBC set from an alternate timeline, Mr. Paul told Ms. Maddow that Boston had rid itself of Jim Crow in 1840 because blacks could use public transportation there. He bemoaned the fact that it took the American South another 120 years to catch up to Boston.
It was about as breathtaking a non sequitur as ever uttered on national television, but it led seamlessly to Mr. Paul's theory that the 1964 Civil Rights Act was at its best when it outlawed racial discrimination by state and municipal government in the public domain.
Mr. Paul was much more dubious about the effect of the legislation on privately owned businesses. In an earlier interview with National Public Radio, Mr. Paul said that he would have marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King against racial discrimination when it came to public accommodations, but hinted he would have voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act unless there were big changes to Title II.
Title II of the Civil Rights Act outlaws discrimination at theaters, motels, restaurants, buses and public businesses engaged in interstate commerce. Only private clubs, to which many members of Congress belonged at the time, were exempted. The lack of definition for "private" in the legislation has kept society's most creative racists and civil rights lawyers busy ever since.
While insisting that discrimination in any form was abhorrent to him, Mr. Paul told Ms. Maddow that under the Constitution, the racist owners of private businesses should have the latitude to refuse service to anyone they want. Such brutal logic is based on the arcane theory that Title II of the Civil Rights Act violates individual liberties by denying a bigot his right to free speech and association.
"How 'bout desegregating lunch counters" Ms. Maddow asked as their segment neared the 20-minute mark. Mr. Paul must have sensed that he had stumbled badly during the interview. He tried to sound as dispassionate and logical as possible, but each answer only succeeded in making him look, if not wacky, then hopelessly naive.
Mr. Paul said he didn't want government deciding which restaurants were publicly or privately owned. He asked if liberals thought bar owners had the right to deny customers permission to carry guns into their establishments. "Does the owner of the restaurant own his restaurant, or does the government own his restaurant? These are important philosophical debates, but not a very practical discussion," he said.
"Well, it was pretty practical to the people who had the life nearly beaten out of them trying to desegregate Walgreen's lunch counters despite these esoteric debates about what it means about ownership," Ms. Maddow said.
A mere 24 hours after his stunning victory over his Republican opponent, it was the ophthalmologist turned tea party hero who had the black eye. Attorney General Jack Conway, the Democrat on the November ballot in Kentucky, will have plenty of material to mine outlining his differences with Mr. Paul.
Thursday, the Paul campaign issued the following statement declaring that its candidate considered the 1964 Civil Rights Act settled law and that he would not support its repeal:
"I support the Civil Rights Act because I overwhelmingly agree with the intent of the legislation, which was to stop discrimination in the public sphere and halt the abhorrent practice of segregation and Jim Crow laws."
In the end, Rand Paul really doesn't want to be lumped in with those who opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, including his hero, Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater. Mr. Paul may not be a bigot, but he's no William Lloyd Garrison, either.
First Published May 21, 2010 12:00 am