November 19, 2007
A Revealing Rally
On Saturday November 10, on a visit to my wife’s friends in South Philadelphia (near the turf immortalized by Rocky), I attended a Ron Paul rally at Independence Mall. By the time the hurried candidate arrived at the scene, at 1:45 PM, the mulling crowds already numbered in the thousands (perhaps tens of thousands); and those who showed up were jumping up and down with Ron Paul signs while chanting the candidate’s name. The attendees were indeed a motley lot. Within about half a square mile I ran into such varied types as a visiting German priest who assured me that we were living in the end times, scads of self-described veterans who expressed anger at the Iraqi war of choice, working class blacks sporting Ron Paul paraphernalia, and immaculately dressed professionals who identified themselves as “paleos.” I had never before encountered such a hodge-podge of humanity packed into so small a space in order to shout their support for a presidential candidate. Despite the media efforts to depict Dr. Paul as a rightwing kook or as an aging anarchist going nowhere, it dawned on me as I was standing there that this candidate is gaining momentum in all sorts of unexpected quarters. In any case he has far more traction than his high-placed adversaries may wish to believe.
In his utterly unpretentious manner and appearance, Ron Paul calls to mind the perpetually disheveled Ralph Nader. Despite their diametrically opposed views about public administration and the role of government, both figures have attracted devoted followers, who seem willing to listen and cheer, while their leaders go on about complicated issues. Neither of these offbeat presidential candidates has shown much PR pizzazz, and in public debates they often sound crotchety and certainly unwilling to suffer journalistic fools gladly. But this has been part of the appeal of these two figures, who come across as honest, public-minded intellectuals. They are the very opposite of Hillary Clinton, who is both scripted and disastrously inept when trying to sound sincere.
Dr. Paul’s followers did not appear disappointed when he spent fifteen laborious minutes noting the structural defects of the Federal Reserve System, an interest that only a minority of those assembled probably cared deeply about. But what really brought them to the tips of their toes were the candidate’s sneering references to the neoconservative instigators of the war in Iraq. Dr. Paul first stated his general principle that “we should neither bomb nor subsidize other countries,” and then added this qualification. “It is not the American people but the neocons who should pay for the war damages.” At that point the crowds went wild, taking up their by now ritualized cheer “Ron Paul, Ron Paul.” Unless I”m mistaken, there was no one in the crowd who did not hate the war but loathed the neoconservatives even more.
This caused me to reflect that whether the next president would be Hillary or the neoconservatives” favorite Giuliani, neither victor would avoid massive, deep opposition. One is reminded here of the newly elected Abraham Lincoln, who in 1860 had not won a single vote in any of the Southern states on his way to the presidency. The crowd in which I was mingling at Independence Mall had undoubtedly the same hostile feelings toward Giuliani and more generally toward the Republican Party, which they believed had “betrayed its ideals.” Although I am more skeptical than Ron Paul and his followers that the Republicans, outside of a few noble souls, ever held to such “ideals,” I was struck by the widespread sentiment I encountered that day that the Republicans had abandoned their high principles.
On the way back to Center City, where I was to meet my wife after the rally, I ran into a black Ron Paul couple wearing multiple buttons on their clothes. When I asked them where they had located these treasures, they looked at me with surprise and then explained: “They”re available online but you need a computer if you want to order them.” That confirmed my impression that Ron Paul’s campaign belongs to the computer age. His followers, whatever their race or social origin, reside online. Fortunately the couple was nice enough to sell me two buttons at cost, one of which I wore the next day when I visited a used bookstore on Bainbridge Street, on the South end of Philly. The store owner looked like a decayed hippy still struggling to get home from Woodstock; and he probably had gone through life smoking myriads of joints. When he caught sight of my button, however, he simply slurred the words “he’s a good man.”
That utterance took me aback because it would have been inconceivable that the same person would have supported Ronald Reagan, or even less plausibly Barry Goldwater. But Ron Paul, the morally outraged antiwar constitutionalist, and an obstetrician who had delivered babies in rural Texas, often free of charge, does not strike anyone as a big-business Republican. He is an anti-establishmentarian, a fact that became apparent when my wife’s friend Denise, who would never in a million years consider herself any kind of “conservative,” commented on how much more principled Ron Paul seems in comparison to Hillary and Rudy. That is undoubtedly an integral part of the candidate’s appeal, and it might be why he is becoming a factor in the presidential election. Although I would place my money on the candidates of the national media, the Council on Foreign Relations, public administration and the apartments located on both sides of Central Park to hold on to their government, Ron may soon be giving the power elite cause for concern.