It was all going fine until Rand Paul got stuck on a name. The Kentucky senator had just finished a 20-minute speech at Howard University, the 167-year-old historically black college in northwest Washington, D.C. He’d survived the inevitable civic demonstration, when Brian Menifee, a mechanical engineering senior, tried to unfurl a red and black and green banner reading “Howard University Doesn’t Support White Supremacy.” Menifee, wearing dreadlocks and a He-Man and the Masters of the Universe T-shirt, was yanked out of the room by security as the senator looked on and the audience applauded.
“You know, I wasn’t sure if my speech would be entertaining,” joked Paul.
That got a laugh. Paul got through his remarks, all about how “when the time is right, I hope that African-Americans will again look to the party of emancipation, civil liberty, and individual freedom.” Students ran to the microphones, the queues for questions spilling into the aisles of the auditorium. But the third question sounded like a gimme.
“Are we discussing the 19th-century Republican Party,” asked Howard junior Immanuel Lewis, “or are we discussing the post-1968 Republican Party of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan? My question for you is: Which one do you identify with?”
Exactly what Paul had come to discuss. “We see horrible Jim Crow and horrible racism in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s—it was all Democrats,” he said. “It wasn’t Republicans. Now, did some of them switch over and become Republicans? Yes.” Then he searched his memory.
“One of the African-American U.S. senators was a guy named, uh—I’m blanking on his name—from Massachusetts.”
Students started shouting the answer. Brooke! Edward Brooke! He was a graduate of Howard, after all.
“Brooks!” said Paul. “Edwin Brooks!” Laughter burbled out of the audience, barely suppressed, as Paul quoted Brooke on how Republicans simply needed to talk more about their accomplishments.
“How many of you—if I’d said, who do you think the founders of the NAACP are,” asked Paul, “do you think they were Democrats or Republicans, would everybody here know they were all Republicans?”
More shouting, more laughter. Yes! Every Howard student is required to “satisfy an African-American course requirement.” Of course they knew this.
“I don’t mean that to be insulting,” said Paul. “I don’t know what you know. I mean, I’m trying to find out what the connection is.”
The tension cooled, but it never fully thawed. Rand Paul possesses a monk’s confidence in his ability to convert skeptics with his words. He makes alliances more easily than some Republicans, finding the libertarian common ground with Democrats on drones, drug policy, or the ongoing war in Afghanistan. His 13-hour filibuster of CIA Director John Brennan’s nomination was a genuine sensation, and it moved public opinion. He followed it up with a Spanglish speech about immigration reform. Outreach to black voters? Anything’s possible for the Hayek Whisperer.
And Paul was trying to perfect a triple-axel that other Republicans had tried and failed to perform. The post-election Republican visit to Howard is nearly a tradition. Then-RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman did it in 2005. “If the party of Lincoln does not have more African-Americans come back home,” said Mehlman, “then we can't call ourselves a real majority.” Then-RNC Chairman Michael Steele did it in 2009, with a more buddy-buddy approach. “A lot of folks thought I was gonna come up into this institution and convert all of y’all to become Republicans,” he said. “That is a bone-headed idea.”
Well, that was his opinion. Paul was beaten to Wednesday morning’s speech by a team of Young Americans for Liberty volunteers, wearing “Stand With Rand” stickers, trying to get names for the senator’s mailing list. When the senator arrived, he paid tribute to his cojones.
“When I think of how political enemies often twist and distort my positions,” he said, “I think [of T.S.] Eliot’s words: ‘When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall, how should I presume?’ And here I am today at Howard, a historically black college. Here I am, a guy who once presumed to discuss a section of the Civil Rights Act.”