Political Hay

Rand Paul and Halitosis

What he said and didn't say to Ms. Rachel Maddow.

By 7.12.10

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Now, while the body of Senator (and former Exalted Cyclops) Robert Byrd (KKK, WVA) is still as warm as a smoldering cross on a black family's lawn, and the memory of his record-length service in the U.S. Congress as fresh as a clean white sheet on a Grand Imperial Wizard -- now is a good time to take a cold look at the comments on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made by Kentucky senatorial candidate Rand Paul. (They can be found here.)

What is most surprising about Dr. Paul's comments is how he barely said that a private establishment should be allowed to discriminate against black patrons.

What he did say (in an eleven-minute interview with Rachel Maddow) was that he would have marched with Martin Luther King and that it was sad that the South wasn't desegregated until 120 years after transportation in Boston was desegregated. He said that there had been "incredible problems" in the South, which had to do mostly with voting, schools, and public housing -- in other words, with "governmental racism," "institutional racism." He said that that was what the Civil Rights Act largely addressed, and that he largely agreed with it. He pointed out that the Act had ten titles, and nine of them addressed institutional racism. He then asked, If you support nine out of ten things in a law but you think the tenth is misguided, do you just vote for it or do you work to modify it?

He also said, "I'm not in favor of any discrimination of any form. I would never belong to any club that excluded anybody for race." But he said we should ask the question: What about freedom of speech? Should we limit speech by people we find abhorrent? Should we prevent racists from speaking?

He said, "I don't want to be associated with those people, but I also don't want to limit their speech in any way, in the sense that we tolerate boorish and uncivilized behavior because that's one of the things freedom requires is that we allow people to be boorish and uncivilized, but that doesn't mean we approve of it."

He couldn't have been referring to former President Bill Clinton, who, in a eulogy for Senator Byrd, excused the senator's association with the Ku Klux Klan on the grounds that he was just "a country boy from the hills and hollows of West Virginia" trying "to get elected" (read about it here). Paul couldn't have been referring to Clinton's comment because Ex. Cy. Byrd hadn't died at the time of the Paul interview.

Then Paul has some fun at the liberals' expense: "[R]ight now… many gun organizations are saying they have a right to carry a gun in a public restaurant because a public restaurant is not a private restaurant. Therefore, they have a right to carry their gun in there and that the restaurant has no right to have rules to their restaurant.…

"So, you see, when you blur the distinction between public and private, there are problems."

But not for liberals, because they care as much for property rights as they do for a first edition of The Fiery Cross. Liberals could easily decide that there is no popular consensus that property rights are fundamental -- and for them popular consensus, not the Constitution, is what governs. See the recently decided gun case McDonald v. Chicago.

Finally, the obviously frustrated moderator Rachel Maddow says, "But I think wanting to allow private industry -- private businesses -- to discriminate along the basis of race because of property rights is an extreme view and I think that's going to be the focus nationally on your candidacy now and you're going to have a lot more debates like this."

Maddow's second thought was probably correct, but it's worth noting that the statement about wanting to allow private businesses to discriminate is hers, not Paul's.

Nevertheless, the issue prompts some observations.

1. It is always useful to consider the effect any piece of legislation has on property rights (of course, it is individuals who have a right to property, not the property that has rights). Liberals tend not to be fastidious about property rights, but conservatives, and Tea Partiers, and probably most Americans, are. Liberals tend to subordinate individual rights to the dictates of the state.

2. It is always useful to remind people that it was Republicans who made passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 possible. As Time Magazine observed (Feb. 21, 1964), "In one of the most lopsidedly Democratic Houses since the days of F.D.R., Republicans were vital to the passage of a bill for which the Democratic administration means to take full political credit this year." (A bottle of champagne and an autographed copy of the new book by American Spectator editor Bob Tyrrell goes to the first ten readers who guess correctly how Senator Byrd voted on the bill and whether he engaged in the second-longest filibuster in history, taking up 86 pages in the Congressional Record.) Remarkably, the Democrats are still taking credit for the Act today, at the same time that they and their Main Stream Media colleagues excoriate, on matters of race, the party that enabled it to pass. (For a superb history of the period, see Bruce Bartlett's Wrong on Race.)

3. It is interesting to note that black progress stopped at about the time of the Civil Rights Act. Of course, that was also when the Great Society programs were introduced. Thomas Sowell has made the point that the biggest drop in black poverty took place during the two decades before the Great Society -- which was also, of course, before the Civil Rights Act. In the 1970s, Sowell says, "when the impact of Great Society programs was fully realized, the trend of black economic improvement stopped almost entirely."

Or was it the impact of the Civil Rights Act? That may be a rude question, but to ask it requires liberals, who are feverishly trying to enact new Great Society programs, to come up with some explanation for why black progress stopped after the Civil Rights Act was passed. Global warming? Maybe, but back in 1964 liberals worried about global cooling. Or running out of water. Or oil. Or anchovies -- or something, anything that required the impositions of big government.

4. The useful question, for today, is not whether the Civil Rights Act should have been passed in 1964 -- though that is an interesting historical question -- but whether, given the conditions that exist today, it would be appropriate to enact it today. That is an interesting question -- and one that Dr. Paul should have mercilessly hectored the moderator with -- for two reasons.

First, if the Act does impinge on property rights and is not needed today because the conditions that existed in 1964 no longer exist and there are no new conditions that warrant it, then it should be repealed, because impinging on property rights for no reason is not acceptable (unless, perhaps, you're a liberal). To say it should be repealed is not to say, liberals please note, that it should not have been enacted in 1964.

Second, if, in the 46 years since the passage of the Act, conditions have changed so little that it is still needed, it can plausibly be said that the Act failed, and that a different approach -- e.g., allowing change to happen organically, as was argued by some of the Act's opponents -- might have been a more successful method of achieving the societal integration the Act was supposed to midwife.

5. Finally, there is good authority for the proposition that to every thing there is a season. A media interview during a senatorial campaign is not a good season for an honest discussion on the advisability of the passage of the Civil Rights Act. That is like a bridegroom announcing to his bride, as he carries her over the threshold, that she has halitosis. Dr. Paul probably knows that now. We will see in November if "now" was time enough. 

Note to readers: Don't forget to guess how Sen. Byrd voted on the Civil Rights Act. Email your response to editor@spectator.org (click the LETTER TO THE EDITOR link below). And remember, you must identify yourself sufficiently that we will know where to send the prizes. Oh, and don't forget about the filibuster question. 

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About the Author

Daniel Oliver is a Senior Director of White House Writers Group in Washington, D.C. He served as Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission under President Ronald Reagan.