“I’ve never been against the Civil Rights Act, ever. . . . There was a long, one interview that had a long, extended conversation about the ramifications beyond race, and I have been concerned about the ramifications of certain portions of the Civil Rights Act beyond race, as they are now being applied to smoking, menus, listing calories and things on menus, and guns.”
— Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., during a speech at Howard University, April 10, 2013
There’s an old rule in politics: If it’s too complicated to explain, you are probably in trouble.
Paul, a potential GOP candidate for the 2016 presidential election, gave an interesting speech Wednesday in Washington to historically black Howard University, but his remarks were overshadowed by his attempt to explain the controversy over his 2010 comments on the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“I have never wavered in my support for civil rights and the Civil Rights Act,” he said in his speech.
But then Paul expanded on his remarks in the question-and-answer period, saying in response to a tough question that he had been concerned only about the “ramifications and extensions” of the Civil Rights Act. We sought an explanation from Paul’s staff but did not get a response. So let’s go to the video tape!
The Civil Rights Act was pushed by President Lyndon Johnson but probably would not have become law without the shrewd legislative gamesmanship of then-Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois. Dirksen figured out a way to bring along wavering Republicans, to break a lengthy filibuster led by Southern Democrats, by carefully tweaking a House bill to reduce federal intervention in local matters — but not enough to force a rewriting of the whole bill in the House.
As an interesting history by the Dirksen Center notes: “The substitute gave higher priority to voluntary compliance than the House bill. It encouraged more private, rather than official, legal initiatives.” Indeed, thanks to Dirksen’s leadership, a larger percentage of Republican senators than Democrats supported the Civil Rights Act — 82 percent (27 in favor and six opposed) vs. 69 percent (46 in favor and 21 opposed).
The problem for Paul started when The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal placed on its website an April 17, 2010, interview between Paul and the paper’s editorial board. Presumably, that is the extended interview that Paul referenced.
In a key section, Paul said it would have been OK for Woolworth’s to refuse to serve the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., even though he himself would have stopped going there: “I think it’s a bad business decision to exclude anybody from your restaurant — but, at the same time, I do believe in private ownership.”
As the Courier-Journal noted in a long article of Paul’s history of controversial statements, the “criticism mirrored the views of his father [Rep. Ron Paul], who stood up on the House floor when it celebrated the 40th anniversary of the act in 2004 and denounced it as ‘a massive violation of the rights of private property and contract, which are the bedrocks of free society.’ ”
Indeed, Rand Paul, in a 2002 letter to the (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News, made a similar point about the U.S. Fair Housing Act, saying it “ignores the distinction between private and public property.” He added: “Decisions concerning private property and associations should in a free society be unhindered. As a consequence, some associations will discriminate.”
In other words, Paul’s problem with the Civil Rights Act appears to be with the delicate balance that Dirksen had struck to bring along the votes of other Republicans — not “ramifications and extensions.”
Indeed, we could find no reference to “ramifications and extensions” in the interview — or in other high-profile interviews with National Public Radio, MSNBC and CNN that Paul conducted at the time to explain the Courier-Journal remarks.
On MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show” on May 20, Paul suggested he would have wanted to modify one section of the Civil Rights Act, one dealing with “private institutions.” But his logic is a bit confusing because he appears to be referring to Title 2 — “public accommodations engaged in interstate commerce” (such as hotels and restaurants) — but there is also Title 7, which prohibits discrimination in businesses of a certain size.
“There are 10 different titles to the Civil Rights Act and nine of 10 deal with public institutions and one that deals with private institutions, and had I been around I would have tried to modify that,” he said. “When you support nine of 10 things in a good piece of legislation do you vote for it or against it and sometimes those are difficult situations”
Paul’s logic is sometimes hard to follow in these interviews, but he never makes a case that “ramifications and extensions” in the Civil Rights Act affected laws concerning smoking, guns and calorie listing in menus — which, in any case, legal experts say is a curious leap of logic.
Paul is rewriting history here.
Paul claims he “never wavered” on the Civil Right Act. But in the MSNBC interview, he mused openly about possibly wanting to change one provision if he had been a senator. Ironically, the issue that troubled Paul was what Senate Republicans at the time had modified to deal with the very concerns that Paul raises almost five decades later.
Some of his language at Howard appears to be a product of fuzzy thinking, but Paul is trying to recast and essentially erase what he said in 2010.
It would be better to own up to his mistake — if he now thinks it was one — rather than sugarcoat it.