WASHINGTON –- In an interview with The Huffington Post, Sen. Rand Paul stoutly defended an aide who, as a radio shock jock in South Carolina, praised John Wilkes Booth, heaped scorn on Abraham Lincoln and wore a ski mask emblazoned with the stars and bars of the Confederate Battle Flag.
Paul (R-Ky.) stressed that he opposed such views, many of which have been recanted by the Senate aide, Jack Hunter, who co-wrote Paul's first book in 2010 and who is now his social media adviser in Washington.
“I'm not a fan of secession,” Paul said. “I think the things he said about John Wilkes Booth are absolutely stupid. I think Lincoln was one of our greatest presidents. Do I think Lincoln was wrong is taking away the freedom of the press and the right of habeas corpus? Yeah.
“There were great people who were for emancipation. Lincoln came to his greatness. One Republican congressman described it as ‘on borrowed plumage.’ I love the description, because there were some great fighters [for emancipation] and Lincoln had to be pushed. But I'm not an enemy of Lincoln, like some who think he was an awful person.”
Paul said that Hunter had never acted in a discriminatory way, and that his earlier work in South Carolina was a form of youthful political showmanship.
“People are calling him a white supremacist,” Paul told me in his Senate office. “If I thought he was a white supremacist, he would be fired immediately. If I thought he would treat anybody on the color of their skin different than others, I’d fire him immediately.
“All I can say is, we have a zero tolerance policy for anybody who displays discriminatory behavior or belief in discriminating against people based on the color of their skin, their religion, their sexual orientation, anything like that,” Paul told me. “We won't tolerate any of that, and I've seen no evidence of that.
“Are we at a point where nobody can have had a youth or said anything untoward?” the senator asked rhetorically.
Hunter is 39 years old. He was a well-known figure in South Carolina for years before he caught Paul’s eye with some well-circulated YouTube videos.
Say this about Paul: He doesn’t run from a fight, especially if it means defying a Washington Beltway consensus.
The 50-year-old freshman senator, a tea party libertarian hungering to climb his way through the GOP to the White House, wins passionate fans for questioning the rise of the Security State at home and the drone wars abroad.
But he wins equally passionate critics for some of his statements on race and civil rights, which foes see as a throwback to the days when resistance to federal power was tantamount to defending the Old South.
The consistent thread is his irritation at other people -– especially those in the federal government or media –- telling him what he should do, say or think.
And he is not about to distance himself from a writer who long called himself the “Southern Avenger.”
Paul insisted that he had only known “vaguely” about Hunter’s work. But even if he had known all of the details, Paul said, he would not have shied away from hiring Hunter because he is a talented conservative writer.
“Let me put it this way,” Paul said. ”I’m aware of some of your columns, but not all of them. And some of them I find very unfair, calling me a conspiracy nut, things like that. But I chose to talk to you today. So that means we have a relationship now. But it doesn't mean that I agree with all of your past writings.
“It's the same way any time you meet somebody who's got a large body of work,” Paul continued. "So if I hired you to work in my campaign, there would be some things I agreed with, and some things I disagreed with.
“I think it's hard. The thing is, I grapple with this. What am I supposed to do? I'm going to have a lot of people working for me. They've all got writings and opinions."
Hunter, he said, "is incredibly talented."
Behind the flashy and provocative rhetoric, Paul said, Hunter often made thought-provoking arguments. “Look and listen to the actual words and not to the headlines, people,” Paul told me.
What about the ski mask? I asked.
“It was a shock radio job. He was doing wet T-shirt contests. But can a guy not have a youth and stuff? People try to say I smoked pot one time, and I wasn't fit for office.”
Paul clearly thinks that he is.
And, by the way, he told me, he was headed to Nevada this weekend -- Nevada being a key early-nominating state in what would be a 2016 GOP nominating race.
Before he gets there, Paul will have to deal with myriad nettlesome issues that come from his family’s political roots in the libertarian, states’ rights and nativist soil deep in some reaches of American politics.
A major theme of Paul’s short career has been the tension between the grassroots tea party enthusiasm and libertarian online donors he inherits from his father -– perennial presidential candidate and former Texas Rep. Ron Paul -– and Rand’s own strategic plan to be seen as a mainstream-able GOP figure.
The two imperatives seemed to have collided in the person of Jack Hunter this week, and Paul stood by his friend. He could hardly do otherwise. Hunter is too close to him, for one, to be easily jettisoned. But more important for Paul, firing him would have been allowing other people to tell him what to do.