Ron Paul: Why The Young Flock To An Old Idealist

May 16, 2011

NPR has been profiling some of the Republicans who are considering a presidential run in 2012, to find out what first sparked their interest in politics. Read more of those profiles.

Go to any Ron Paul event and it strikes you immediately. What's up with all the young people?

The 75-year-old Texas congressman packs halls on college campuses. His campaign volunteers often look too young to shave. And even at a recent New York City book signing, it was surprising to see how many teenagers and 20-somethings line up for an autograph clutching Paul's new book, Liberty Defined.

Sixteen-year-old Rob Gray says the age of the crowd doesn't seem odd to him.

It's "the old canard of the young being more open minded than the old," he says.

Paul, the world's most unlikely teen idol, is running again for president.

He failed to reach the White House twice before: in 1988, running as a Libertarian, he got less than 1 percent of the vote. In 2008, he made a losing shot at the Republican nomination.

But don't expect the man to reinvent himself. Paul is nothing if not consistent. He still wants to shut down the Federal Reserve; still wants to slash the size of government and bring the troops home. Already in the first Republican primary debate, he restated his long-held belief that drugs should be legalized.

It's a unique set of beliefs for a congressman, but that's why his fans love him.

At the New York City event, the young people keep packing into the bookstore. The line starts in the children's section, moves through self-help and recovery, past the memoirs and along the great ideas bookshelf.

When Paul arrives, he sits down in the World History section, and his bushy eyebrows go up in surprise.

Paul says it still amazes him when kids want to talk about the Federal Reserve.

"When I was in high school and college, at the age many of those young people are now, I didn't have much interest in politics at all," Paul says, "I was probably more interested in trying to get into medical school."

Looking back at his youth, you can see the spark that drove Paul is the same as the one that inspires his fans: A desire for a unified philosophy to make sense of the world.

But for Paul, the ideological search wouldn't come until he was in medical school in the 1950s at Duke University. He was looking for a hobby when he wasn't studying. He didn't want to golf, he says. But he loved to read.

Paul seemed especially taken by a book his mother gave him: Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak.

You could see how the book would resonate: It's about a young, idealistic doctor who wants nothing to do with politics until he is co-opted into the Russian Revolution.

"I was intrigued with this the whole idea of Communism and the terrible conditions in Russia and the way Zhivago had to put up with this," Paul says.

It was all about the value of individual liberty. Soon Paul found an economic theory with the same message. He devoured books by the Austrian economists F.A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, writing about free-market capitalism.

"It was sort of like a game about how the monetary system worked," he says.

By then you could probably call Paul a libertarian. But he still shunned politics. He just wanted to be a doctor. He moved to Texas and delivered babies.

Still Paul quietly lived his principles. He would treat any patient who came to him, but he wouldn't accept federal payments like Medicare and Medicaid. He didn't try to change the world — until the world changed on him.

"I remember that day very clearly. August 15th, 1971," Paul says. "It was a Sunday night when the announcement came."

President Nixon addressed the nation and said that he was suspending the convertibility of the dollar into gold. The gold standard was over.

For an Austrian economics buff like Paul, this was akin to declaring the end of the world. He had learned to hate the idea of paper money backed only by the promises of the government. He thought it would lead to massive inflation.

But even hearing Nixon didn't push Paul to run for office. The real spark came the day after the U.S. left the gold standard, when Paul realized that most of the world didn't seem to care.

"The stock market went up a record amount as a consequence of this disastrous announcement," Paul remembers. "And my interpretation was, my Lord, what's going on here? They are doing everything wrong and everybody loves it."

So Paul ran for Congress in 1974 because, he says laughing, "Who wanted to hear me talk about economics while practicing medicine?"

Paul lost, but later won a seat from his coastal Texas district in a special election in 1976. In the following years, Paul would move in and out of Congress. He was elected 11 more times. But he never got the U.S. any closer to returning to the gold standard. He was always a lonely voice in Congress, and still is.

Paul rails against government spending — and the budget goes up. He argues against wars — and the troops keep fighting. He calls for the legalization of drugs — and nothing happens.

Even Paul jokes about his lousy track record at changing the world. But when he announced his third run for president, he said that perhaps the world is finally coming around to his way of thinking.

It turns out that some young people were listening.

At the New York book signing, every 20-something remembers their Ron Paul spark. For most, it was discovering YouTube videos of Paul's two earlier runs for president.

It's not hard to see the attraction for a college student. They've just left home. They don't want anyone, not their parents, not the government, telling them what to do.

"I think it's just the concept of freedom, being able to choose what you want with your life," says 26-year-old Kenneth Christiansen.

But there's something more that explains Paul's following. Every young person fears that getting older means a life full of compromises. A few even mentioned at the book signing that someday they may have to support a candidate with a better chance of winning. But not now.

Gray, the teenager, says Paul gives him hope.

"That not everyone is a sellout; not everyone is controlled by special interests," he says. "There are people who still stick to their principles."

And in that idealistic way, you can say that Paul never grew up. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit