What I learned at Ron Paul's 80th birthday party
Back in early 2008, I was the only intern working on Ron Paul's presidential campaign at a dingy little establishment housed above a dry cleaner in a decidedly unglamorous part of Arlington, Virginia.
The parking lot was so small and the dry cleaner so eager to call the tow truck that late arrivals on any given morning had to park half a mile away, in a sketchy parking garage that was somehow located on top of a highway. And on the way to that weird garage or our slapdash office, I'd pass the Hillary '08 building, an expansive glass office with convenient metro access, and comfort myself that what our campaign lacked in luster it made up for in libertarian principle.
And it was the principle, even more than the man, that inspired me and countless other Ron Paul supporters. While many Paulites can merrily rattle off personal facts about "Dr. No" — he has delivered more than 3,000 babies; his favorite movie is The Sound of Music — it has always been his unique message of peace and liberty that won him so much loyalty. If we seem obsessed, it's because before 2008 it seemed no one who shared our libertarianism would ever be on the national stage. For me, Paul's insistent and often lonely opposition to endless, aimless war was what really sealed the deal.
I never met Ron Paul any of the times he popped over to the office from Capitol Hill, so my first introduction was at an all-staff dinner held right after the Alaska caucuses, a contest many Paul supporters reasonably believed our man would win. Instead he came in third, but the dinner — a tiny extravagance in an otherwise fittingly frugal campaign — was a bright spot in what would ultimately be a disappointing primary season. The crowd of just 40 or 50 staffers made the event an intimate occasion, and at one particularly exciting moment, I hovered at the edge of the circle of eager staff assistants trying, as I was, to think of something smart to add to Paul's off-the-cuff commentary on monetary policy.
In the more than seven years since, I've been involved in the "liberty movement" that Paul's 2008 campaign spawned. My first writing job was with Young Americans for Liberty (YAL), the youth organization which grew out of 2008's Students for Ron Paul and launched with his endorsement. After I graduated from college, I worked at YAL for several years as the fledgling group's first communications director. I got to know Ron Paul a little, helping him move out of his D.C. apartment when he retired from Congress, and baking him chocolate chip cookies in a vain effort to get him to learn my name. Today, I'm still involved with YAL on a part-time basis as a communications consultant.
And that's how, a little over a month ago, I got an email asking if I'd like to take a trip to Ron Paul's 80th birthday party near his home just south of Houston.
"Really, you can't miss it, can you?" the official invite asked.
I really could not.
This actually wasn't my first Ron Paul birthday bash. In 2013, a handful of fellow YAL staff and I made it to his 78th birthday BBQ, a cookout at the former congressman's house. I scored a Paul-branded beer koozie and got to pore over the well-worn titles in his book-packed study, which is festooned with custom trophies, puppets, embroideries, and all sorts of hand-crafted memorabilia sent by Paul's adoring local constituents and nationwide fans alike. Actor Vince Vaughn, who has recently spoken about his libertarianism in interviews with GQ and Playboy, was there too. (Sen. Rand Paul, who recently snagged his father's full endorsement in his own presidential campaign, didn't make it either year thanks to charitable commitments in Haiti.)
This time around, the party was hosted by the Mises Institute, an economic think tank, at a local college. The room was cavernous and freezing cold, the air conditioning set to a very Texan 60°F. My YAL coworkers and I settled into a table near the back as the afternoon's events, which proved to be rather more scheduled and formal than the casual 2013 shindig, got underway. (Full disclosure: YAL paid for my flight, hotel, and rental car.)
In classic liberty movement style, the main event was prefaced by not one but four introductory speakers, each more effusive than the last in his praise for "the founding father" of modern American libertarianism. Fox News contributor and constitutional law professor Judge Andrew Napolitano spoke the longest, but it was economist Thomas Woods who told perhaps the quintessential Ron Paul story: Before Paul went on stage to speak at the Arab American Institute's National Leadership Conference in 2007, someone asked if he'd prepared a special talk for that night's unique audience. "No," Paul replied, "it's the same speech I give everywhere."
It's that consistency — that commitment, as Woods phrased it, to simply "telling unpopular truths to audiences of all kinds" — that makes Paul beloved among those who agree with him and respected among those who don't. It's also what brought some 650 people from 27 states to the southeast edge of Texas in the dead heat of summer for 40 minutes of speeches and mediocre BBQ in what seriously might have been the coldest room in the world.
When the man of the hour finally took the stage, he gave almost the same speech he gives everywhere, but not quite. This time, Paul's comments began with a biographical turn, an unusual detour for that rarest of all beasts: a politician who doesn't particularly like to talk about himself.
A small town obstetrician who enjoyed his work in medicine, Paul reminisced about how he first entered the political arena following President Nixon's 1971 decision to stop backing the dollar with gold. He figured a congressional campaign could be an effective way to educate his neighbors about economics, dismissing warnings from his wife, Carol, that running for Congress was a dangerous plan because "you might win!"
Paul lost his first bid for Congress, but in 1976, Carol proved to be right, and Ron Paul found himself in Washington. "My job is to vote exactly as I [had promised and] see if I'd be re-elected," he decided, after friends told him that local voters probably didn't realize what kind of gold nut they'd put in office. The Republican Party leadership didn't much like that interpretation of his job, but Brazoria County voters did, enthusiastically electing him to 12 terms until he retired in 2013.
For most of that time, Paul recounted at his birthday, he toiled in relative obscurity, hoping that someday someone might somehow notice his odd voting habits and investigate the libertarian principles which motivated them.
But all that changed with the 2008 presidential campaign. "2007, 2008 surprised me as much as some other people," Paul explained, "because I didn't have a plan!" He conceived of the campaign as another educational effort, so the groundswell of grassroots backing — the money bombs, the social media, the screaming crowds of college students, the bizarre and hilarious supporter videos — all caught the Texas congressman unaware.
That 2008 support came because Paul gave the same speech everywhere, and soon the birthday talk moved into that familiar groove. As is his wont, Paul spoke without notes, ranging freely from Austrian economics to Bernie Sanders, from his excitement over normalized relations with Cuba to historical details of the Revolutionary War.
He wound down the speech with a favorite theme, one he would expand upon in his weekly column two days later. "Liberty means you have choices economically, choices in personal habits," Paul declared, arguing that choosing only the left's defense of lifestyle decisions or the right's support for free markets will always be inadequate. Foreign policy, which has always been a focus, got no short shrift, as Paul made the case that applying his ethic of choice, responsibility, and tolerance means an "obligation not to interfere in the internal affairs of any other nation," too.
After a standing ovation, we filed into a long line for dinner and watched our libertarian hero cut a birthday cake iced with an awkwardly airbrushed version of the Liberty Tree of Boston. A honky-tonk local band blasted out some unidentifiable country music as hundreds of attendees queued up for the latest addition to their Photos with Ron Paul Collection. He amiably smiled and chatted with every one.
But a few minutes later, as I glanced around on my way out, Ron Paul had disappeared, likely to some quiet corner where he and a few economist friends could talk monetary policy once more. Because in the end, this is a guy who enjoys the crowd but doesn't feed off it. It's ideas that inspire him.