The editorial board of Louisville’s Courier-Journal didn’t mince words following its sit-down with Rand Paul last month. Much of what the Republican Senate candidate supports, it wrote, “is repulsive to people in the mainstream,” including “an unacceptable view of civil rights.”
And yet Paul’s view that the federal government should not have the power to force integregation on private businesses — part of 1964′s landmark Civil Rights Act — didn’t get the attention of the national press until Wednesday, following interviews with NPR’s Robert Siegel and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. (Watch the exchange with Maddow below. Paul subsequently changed his position Thursday, after an intense 24 hours of media fallout.)
It’s not as if the national media ignored the Kentucky contest. To the contrary, Washington political reporters headed out to cover the horse race — who’s up, who’s down — and wrote extensively on how the election plays into a larger narrative of tea party candidates like Paul fighting against the GOP establishment.
Somehow lost in all that coverage was any focus on Paul’s views on the Civil Rights Act. Indeed, a Lexis-Nexis search for “Rand Paul” and “Civil Rights Act” yields no results for the weeks after the Courier-Journal editorial ran.
So if Paul’s view is controversial enough to dominate cable news and the political blogosphere all day Thursday, how come it wasn’t an issue in the month leading up to Kentucky’s primary?
“It’s hard to say why the national media didn’t pick it up,” said Bennie Ivory, executive editor of the Courier-Journal. “It was clearly out there — a major editorial on a really highly visible race.”
Ivory added that “it’s just interesting how this thing has evolved in the last 24 hours.”
Indeed, the main political storyline one minute is Paul’s insurgent victory and the next, it’s a 46-year-old law. Given Paul’s libertarian views, it’s relevant to ask what the extension of such beliefs would mean in practice.
Siegel, when reached by phone Thursday, said he wasn’t sure why the civil-rights question didn’t come up since the Courier-Journal editorial. “It’s the first time I’ve interviewed him,” he said. “If I interviewed him a month ago, I would have asked him the same thing.”
The reason for asking Paul that question, Siegel said, is because “the overarching question is, ‘Just how conservative, how radical, how extremist are you?’ “
After putting the question to Paul, Siegel followed up a couple more times. But he didn’t have the chunk of time that Maddow did to press on for 15 minutes.
Maddow, in an email to Yahoo! News, said that she’s enjoyed her interviews with Paul and his father, Texas Congressman Ron Paul, and explained why she felt it was an important issue to push.
“Anyone campaigning to be part of a federal lawmaking institution should expect to be asked, even pressed, on his or her views of the appropriate reach of federal law,” Maddow said.
“For years, I’ve felt that the relationship between Ron Paul supporters and establishment conservatism is one of the most interesting, relatively unexplored dynamics in modern U.S. politics,” Maddow continued. “I intend to keep covering it, and I hope that Rand Paul and Congressman Ron Paul and members of the movement they’ve inspired will continue to be willing to participate in the conversation.”
It’s not uncommon for statewide candidates to face a different level of exposure once they appear on the larger national-media stage. That scenario plays out every four years, as elected officials with little name recognition coast to coast take their case to the national electorate in presidential contests. Paul, now in a much more closely watched Senate race, will likely be the focus of increased scrutiny of his views and associations.
For instance, the Washington Post published a letter Paul wrote to the Bowling Green Daily News in May 2002, where he argued against the “Fair Housing Act.” In views similar to those expressed on NPR and MSNBC, Paul wrote that “a free society will abide unofficial, private discrimination, even when that means allowing hate-filled groups to exclude people based on the color of their skin.”
Meanwhile, Mother Jones looked at Paul’s appearances on the radio show hosted by Alex Jones, whom the magazine dubs an “anti-government conspiracy theorist.”
While Paul put out a statement clarifying his views on the Civil Rights Act Thursday, and emphasizing that he wouldn’t try to repeal it, the candidate may find that he’ll need to respond to more questions on his worldview in the future, depending on what else is dug up.
“I think he’s going to have to start answering people’s questions now,” Ivory said. “He’s going to have to. His answers are going to have to be deeper than they have been.”
— Michael Calderone is the media writer for Yahoo! News.