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Raised Around Cry For Smaller Government, Rand Paul Carries The Torch


Over the course of a long presidential campaign, issues that once seemed obscure can take center stage, and voters can change their minds in response to changing events. In the aftermath of terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, some candidates are now calling for stepped-up surveillance, but not Rand Paul. The GOP senator made headlines last May when he spoke for hours on the Senate floor against government surveillance, and that is just the beginning of Paul's push to dismantle big chunks of the federal government. In this encore presentation, NPR's Scott Horsley reports on the roots of Rand Paul's libertarian philosophy, much of which he inherited from his father Ron Paul.


SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Rand Paul's hometown of Lake Jackson, Texas, sprang from the shotgun wedding of industry and big government that Paul and his family have long railed against. The city's curving streets, carefully laid out to preserve the live oak trees, are a stark contrast to the unregulated sprawl of Houston, 50 miles to the north.

ROBERT RULE: The city has kept a master plan. It is unusual city for that. It has been master-planned since the beginning. They're very strict about new properties.

HORSLEY: Robert Rule who runs the local historical association says Lake Jackson was hastily built near the Texas Gulf Coast to house workers at a Dow Chemical plant so they could produce the magnesium the military needed in World War II.

RULE: The U.S. government stepped in, and they made it happen.

HORSLEY: Dow Chemical banners still hang at Rand Paul's high school, a large brick building surrounded by ballfields, where the senator's nephew Matthew Pyeatt is now assistant principal.

MATTHEW PYEATT: Our family has deep roots in this community and in this school. You know, in a town like this, where there's only about 25 or 28,000 people, everybody knows who you are, and everybody knows who your family is.

HORSLEY: Rand Paul was known as a stand-out on the high school swim team. His older brother Ronnie still holds the school record for the 100-meter butterfly. Their father, Ron Paul, was the local obstetrician, delivering many of the babies in town while refusing to accept either Medicare or Medicaid. The elder Paul took his libertarian leanings to Congress in 1976.

MARY JANE SMITH: Ron went up there as Dr. No. We loved it. We loved his going up there and just trying to turn back the growth of government.

HORSLEY: Mary Jane Smith ran some of Ron Paul's early campaigns, at first operating out of the den of the family's ranch-style home. Members of the Methodist church choir and the PTA were drafted to help sort incoming mail. And libertarian economists were frequent guests at family dinners.

SMITH: They were always around the kitchen table. The kids would come and have dinner, and I remember Randy sitting there, being there. And I've heard him say as an adult, I just learned so much by just listening.

HORSLEY: Rand Pail listened carefully and absorbed much of his father's small government philosophy. Before he tried taking a scalpel to government, though, Rand Paul followed his father into medicine. Pyeatt shows me a high school yearbook with a striking photo of young Randy in anatomy class, smiling as he dissects a cat.

PYEATT: He said - when he was a very young man, he said, I'm going to be a medical doctor. He knew exactly what he wanted to be and exactly what he needed to do to get there and be successful.

HORSLEY: In 1981, Paul went off to college at Baylor University in Waco, taking his homegrown politics along. He joined a new political organization, the Young Conservatives of Texas. Founder Steve Munisteri says Paul quickly distinguished himself, offering a college-aged preview of the speaking ability that would later make him a C-SPAN sensation.

STEVE MUNISTERI: He can quote philosophers to you. He can quote poets to you. He can quote text from Austrian economics. I mean, he was somebody that would constantly explore what you believed in and what he believed in.

HORSLEY: Paul was accepted to Duke medical school after just three years of college. Ultimately, he opened an ophthalmology practice in his wife's home state of Kentucky. Unlike his father, the young Dr. Paul did accept Medicare and Medicaid. He also built his own home in a stately subdivision where the rules governing property owners filled 21 typewritten pages. The staunch defender of individual freedom couldn't even choose his own mailbox.

The neighborhood's developer Jim Skaggs was also chairman of the Warren County Republican Party. He says Paul was never active in backslapping party politics.

JIM SKAGGS: He never attended a meeting while I was chairman of the party here. You get to know who is and who isn't interested in politics (laughter).

HORSLEY: So Skaggs was surprised five years ago when Paul came out of nowhere, in his words, to win a Senate seat, beating Mitch McConnell's handpicked candidate. To be sure, 2010 was a good year for Tea Party insurgents, but Skaggs says, in hindsight, Paul was a savvier politician than he gave him credit for.

SKAGGS: I underrated Rand. He's one of the more intellectual and hardest working people there.

HORSLEY: People who'd known Paul back home in Texas were not surprised. Mary Jane Smith says it wasn't just Austrian economics Paul picked up around the family dinner table. He also learned the nuts and bolts of running a political campaign. In fact, Smith says, Rand Paul was more interested than his father in the tactics it took to get elected, such as how to use polling data to fine tune a campaign message.

SMITH: Ron would say, oh, no, no, no. We're not changing anything - no, no, no, no. But Rand, he would make it adaptable to what's going on. He is more realistic about the campaigns than his father is.

HORSLEY: And supporters say now that he's been elected, Rand Paul is also more strategic about governing than his quixotic father, whose views were often too extreme for his own Republican Party. The younger Paul didn't exhibit much willingness to compromise during the debate over government surveillance, but Munisteri believes, on most issues, Paul is willing to cut deals if that's what it takes to move beyond dorm room dogma into legislation.

MUNISTERI: The difference maybe between his dad and Rand is his dad didn't mind being the only vote, you know, 434 to one. Many times, you cannot get everything you want. The key question is - do you move government closer to the direction you want it to be or farther away?

HORSLEY: And the direction Rand Paul wants to move the government is still the dramatic downsizing he heard discussed around the kitchen table all those years ago.

Scott Horsley, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.