If pollsters’ predictions hold, and Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul come out on top in Iowa, the Republican primary will boast two front-runners who’ve been pranked by Sacha Baron Cohen. Gingrich got off easy, years ago, with an irritating Ali G encounter. (“Ain’t there a problem,” Cohen asked in character, “that if there is a woman president, they’re gonna spend all their time on facials?”) Paul met with Cohen when he was disguised as the very gay, very Austrian fashion reporter Brüno, shooting his 2009 movie.* It didn’t go so well.
The congressman got to the meeting place—a dark hotel room that could have been decorated by Sasha Grey—and started to answer a question about who designed his suit. The lights blew out. Brüno invited Paul to a bedroom, where the congressman tried to distract himself as his host offered strawberries and grinded his hips to dance music. Then Brüno dropped his pants. Paul, already pacing, barreled past him and yelled “Get out of here!” A camera captured Paul ranting as he fled the hotel. “That guy is queerer than the blazes,” he said. “He took his clothes off. He’s queer, he’s crazy, he put a hit on me, he took his clothes off.”
The “news of the weird” follow-up coverage came, and Paul rolled with it. When Curtis Sliwa asked about the incident on his radio show, Paul worried that he’d gone a little soft, imagining what one of his supporters would have wanted him to do. “Why in the world,” he asked, “didn’t I sock this guy in the nose?” He was punk’d by let’s-make-fun-of-the-old-guy humor. Nobody seemed particularly bothered that a once and future presidential candidate was fuming about a come-on from a “queer.”
That was in 2009. In 2011, the press has discovered—for the third time—the newsletters Paul sold in the years between his failed 1984 Senate bid and his congressional comeback in 1996. They reveal Paul (or his ghostwriter) to be a scared cynic with paranoid thoughts about blacks, gays, and Israel. The comments about black men—including their supposed “criminal” tendencies—have attracted wide attention. But the newsletters were often just as vitriolic about gay people, saying they were “far better off when social pressure forced them to hide their activities.” A “gay lobby” suppressed the truth about AIDS, the newsletters claimed. “I miss the closet,” groaned Paul-or-his-ghost.
Republicans aren’t supposed to survive comments like that. Gay activists have “glitter-bombed” Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich, showering them with sparkles to shame them for their anti-gay rights stances. After Rick Santorum compared gay sex to “man on dog” sex, Dan Savage told fans to Google-bomb “Santorum,” propagating the idea that it’s a Latin-sounding word for “the frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the by-product of anal sex.” That was six years ago. Santorum still gets humiliating questions about it.
Nobody grills Paul about this stuff. When I asked Savage about the ugly comments in old Paul Survival Reports, he shrugged them off. “Ron Paul can have the closet,” he said. “He might miss it, but we sure don't. Maybe there's room in there for his old newsletters?”
There is no comparing Paul and Santorum, said Savage, because Paul is a leave-us-alone libertarian. “Ron is older than my father, far less toxic than Santorum, and, as he isn't beloved of religious conservatives, he isn't out there stoking the hatreds of our social and political enemies,” he explained. “And Ron may not like gay people, and may not want to hang out with us or use our toilets, but he's content to leave us the fuck alone and recognizes that gay citizens are entitled to the same rights as all other citizens. Santorum, on the other hand, believes that his bigotry must be given the force of law. That's an important difference.”
That’s more or less what Paul and his campaign say about all of the newsletters. The man’s been in public office, on and off, since 1976. Where’s the anti-gay record? In 2004, Paul was one of only 27 House Republicans who voted against the Federal Marriage Amendment. In 2010, he flipped from a “no” to a “yes” on repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. “I have received several calls and visits from constituents who, in spite of the heavy investment in their training, have been forced out of the military simply because they were discovered to be homosexual," he explained. “To me, this seems like an awful waste.” He’s worked alongside gay libertarians before. Would-be social conservative kingmakers say they can’t back Paul because his federalism would let gay rights flower in the states. “Sometimes,” Iowa FAMiLY Leader CEO Bob Vander Plaats said this month, “his libertarian views trump his moral compass.”
Square all of that with the author of the newsletters. In 1989 he approvingly quoted a congressman who said gay rights was not a matter of “political philosophy,” but of “sodomy.” In 1994 he argued that “those who don’t commit sodomy, who don’t get blood transfusions, and who don’t swap needles, are virtually assured of not getting AIDS unless they are deliberately infected by a malicious gay.” The same year, he doubted that older gays worried too much if they got AIDS; “sex is the center of their lives,” he explained, and anyway, “they enjoy the attention and pity that comes with being sick.”
Paul says he didn’t write any of this, but another politician couldn’t say that and expect gay writers to back off. Paul gets a pass. James Kirchick, the gay reporter who broke the newsletter story in 2008, didn’t get the sense that Paul cared as much about this as “say, the need to root out the Trilateralist-Bilderberg conspiracy.”
“I do think it's possible that he views gays personally with disgust while maintaining a belief that the government should not regulate their lives,” said Kirchick. “I actually think that's the case with a lot of straight people, even ostensibly ‘liberal’ ones who know better not to say what they really think about homosexuality and homosexuals.”
So Paul’s imperfect. Paul’s gay fans, like Andrew Sullivan, admit that much. And Paul’s liberal defenders are wrestling with whether to give him a pass on the newsletters. For one thing, they see a strategic advantage to keeping him in the race. Whatever Paul believes personally, the effect of having Ron Paul on those debate stages is to force Republicans to confront federalism and paleolibertarianism. “The party bosses,” wrote a giddy John Nichols in The Nation, “are horrified at the notion that a genuine conservative might grab the Iowa headlines from the false prophets.”
Nichols doesn’t think he’s describing a potential president. None of Paul’s liberal defenders do. Savage doesn’t. The Republican primary is a running conversation, and it expands or contracts the definition of “conservatism.” As long as Paul is in the race, it doesn’t matter what he might have thought about gay sex once. He wants politicos—people like himself, really—to stay out of the bedroom. One reason he talks like this is that gay rights, culturally, has won out.
“I recently had a conversation with a man about Ron's age who told me that he was uncomfortable with what I do in bed,” remembered Savage. “I laughed and promised not to do it to him. He gave me the craziest look and then laughed himself. Apparently, I wasn't the first gay person he'd said this too, but I was the first gay person who didn't get a sad when he told me what he thought about homosexual activities.”
And what about Paul? Well, “1990 was 21 years ago—an eternity in the evolution of attitudes toward gays and lesbians. What has he said about us lately?”
Correction, Dec. 27, 2011: This article originally described the Sacha Baron Cohen character Brüno as German. He is Austrian.