I disagree with Andrew Sullivan more often than I agree with him, but in general I have no difficulty following his reasoning. But his defense of his endorsement of Ron Paul leaves me shaking my head and doubting my reading comprehension.

The history – for those not well-versed in the deeper circles of the Wingnut Inferno – is that for several years during the late 80s and early 90s Ron Paul made a stack of money as the publisher, and nominal author, of a couple of newsletters filled with claims such as:

Given the inefficiencies of what DC laughingly calls the criminal justice system, I think we can safely assume that 95 percent of the black males in that city are semi-criminal or entirely criminal.

Ta-Nehisi Coates reviews the bidding, pointing out that Paul has never actually repudiated the garbage published under his name.* (It appears that the newsletters were actually written by Paul’s good friend Lew Rockwell, though Paul has never quite said as much.)

Sullivan, who has endorsed Paul in Iowa, responds:

This issue comes up again and again. Paul has taken two stands on it: the first was to take formal responsibility, even though he claims he didn’t know about the contents; the second was to insist he didn’t write them or know who did. Some of his early responses cited by TNC do seem defensive and cranky. … I think the papers (and comments almost two decades ago) should definitely be considered, in context, when judging his candidacy, and not because the neocons are determined to smear anyone challenging their catastrophic record. But compared with Rick Perry’s open bigotry in his ads, or Bachmann’s desire to “cure” gays, or the rhetoric around “illegals” in this campaign, these ugly newsletters are very, very old news. To infer from them that Paul is a big racist is a huge subjective leap I leave to others more clairvoyant than myself.

Yes, the story is “old” as news: that is already known, no longer fresh. But Sullivan seems to be offering, on Paul’s behalf, a mixture of “everyone does it” and the Barabas Defense: “But that was in another country. And besides, the wench is dead.” The problem is that racial bigotry is far from dead, and since Paul has never either retracted what was said in his name (and to his financial benefit) nor apologized – let alone given away the money he made peddling bigotry – it’s not unreasonable to continue to hold him accountable for it.

I’m not sure what he relevant “context” is. If Sullivan’s point is that Paul’s bigotry was never sincere, I see no reason to disagree. But is a willingness to – insincerely – push poisonous lies for money and political advantage such a minor flaw? As (aaaaarrrrghhhh!) President, Paul would face lots of moments where hurting black people would be politically advantageous. Why should anyone care if he acted that way without any subjective bias?

Paul’s fundamentally John Birch Society view of the world makes him fit in well with the Tea Party crowd. But what on earth is Andrew Sullivan doing in such company?

If Paul manages to win Iowa’s Tallest Midget Contest, we’ll see the knives come out. I wonder if Romney et al., who need the votes of the GOP racist base now and its enthusiasm in November, will dare to attack him for for publishing racist rant. I’d bet against it.

* Update Here’s video of Ron Paul laughing off the whole affair; he now says he doesn’t believe all that garbage, “but I didn’t write them and those aren’t my beliefs, so I sleep well.” When he was challenged about the newsletters during his Congressional campaign in 1996, he didn’t deny writing them and defended their substance, so his claim that “this has been addressed for 20 years” is a bit of a stretch.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.