Months after his long-shot bid for the Republican presidential nomination ended, Rep. Ron Paul has become a hot ticket on the international stage. Unlikely as it may seem, Paul, a Texas Republican, is the most popular member of Congress outside the United States, if foreign television appearances are any indication.
Paul expected his international influence to diminish after the quixotic presidential campaign. In fact, it's gone the other way.
"It's actually building," he told the Huffington Post. "It really truly baffles me. I see myself as somebody who's been saying the same thing for about 30 years and not too many people paying any attention."
How much international media does a typical member of Congress do? "Practically none," says a top House GOP communications aide. Foreign media appearances are so rare, he says, that the party doesn't track them.
Paul says he doesn't go looking for the appearances. "I have a low resistance, because they pester me to death and I usually get talked into it. I don't usually look for 'em, but if somebody wanted to honestly ask me questions and express myself, because they relate to international affairs, I'm on [the] international relations [committee], and so they ask me," says Paul, pausing, probably realizing there are 46 other members of that committee who get nowhere near the number of foreign requests. "I don't know how it came about," he concludes. "It certainly isn't planned, because I'm not looking for more interviews."
Turn on Russia Today any given afternoon and you're likely to see Paul waxing political. A Paul-seeking viewer could also find him on the BBC and other outlets in Great Britain -- "too many to count," says the spokesman, Jesse Benton, for his ongoing Campaign for Liberty) -- or on stations in Canada, Holland, Sweden, Australia, Brazil and Argentina.
He's also routinely asked to appear in person. "Dr. Paul currently has invitations to speak all over the world, including Turkey, The Czech Republic, the U.K and Hong Kong," says Benton.
"Yes, we do get more foreign media requests than we can accommodate," affirms Rachel Mills, his congressional spokeswoman. In the last month, she says, he's appeared on Italian National Television, Russia Today, BBC and Iran's Press TV. A number of others were declined for lack of time, she said.
Told of Paul's foreign popularity, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) lets out a chuckle. "He's a great member of our caucus," he says, smiling.
Stepping back, it's not hard to guess why Paul is so popular among foreign producers. He's a fierce critic of American policy from top to bottom -- foreign policy, fiscal policy, monetary policy, civil liberties. And he's popular with audiences.
"When he is a guest, ratings increase. He is huge on the internet and CNN, Fox are trying to utilize that as well," said a journalist who works for a foreign network. "Also, when Dr. Paul was running for president, a lot of his interviews on the mainstream made him look like a lunatic...that has changed dramatically."
Paul reads the Constitution strictly and votes against any bill he thinks goes outside Congress' authority as granted within it. He strongly opposes sanctions and U.S. military interventions in foreign affairs and favors legalizing drugs, gambling and other vices. He deems the American government "broke."
Those are popular positions for viewers with anti-American sentiments and if Paul's popularity abroad is any evidence, those sentiments are alive and well, despite President Obama's international outreach. Take Russia Today, a network with an undercurrent of hostility toward American foreign policy -- though also a station independent of the Kremlin and not in the tank for its own authoritarian tendencies.
Paul, a regular on Russia Today, tells its audience the same thing he says on the House floor: that the U.S. and its puppet, NATO, should stop meddling in Russian affairs or in nations nearby. That's just what they want to hear.
Russia Today reporter Dina Gusovsky is happy to tee one up for Paul in a typical interview. "[C]an you comment on the NATO exercises in Georgia that are supposed to take place in early May?" Gusovsky asks. "There's already the bad blood between Russia, the U.S. and NATO. Is this going to exacerbate tensions? I mean, why is the United States spending so much money and effort in that region?"
Paul knocks it straight down the middle of the fairway, telling Gusovsky, "you're right to say United States because NATO is United States, and that's our policy. I think it's a waste of money especially since we don't have any. We have to borrow that from the Chinese in order to go and do these things and pretend it's a NATO operation. But I think that is just antagonistic. I strongly oppose it. I don't even think we belong in NATO. I think if they need a pact of countries in Europe then they should do it, but not with our help. Because my position is that not only should we back off from moving in that direction of getting involved in the countries and republics that are very close to the Russian border, I think we should leave Europe. And we'll have to, just like how the Soviets had to break up their system for financial reasons, eventually the United States will have to do the same thing and that's why I've always been preaching that the best way to follow fiscal conservative views is to change our foreign policy and not spend so much money just getting ourselves into more trouble."
The interview goes on for nearly eight minutes, a lifetime by U.S. cable standards. The more deliberative format appeals to Paul.
"The interviews are always very friendly. There's less noise and less gotcha type of stuff and no shouting," he says. While he's generally willing to do foreign shows, he's less eager to do American ones, he says, because of the crossfire setup that engenders confrontation.
"The format we have now isn't very healthy, where we just yell and shout at each other," he says. "I try to turn down these things where they put two people on a screen and to try to explain your position you have to yell louder than the other guy. As a matter of fact, I tell me staff I don't even want those. But if people are serious and want to ask me a question and want to know why I want to legalize marijuana and bring the troops home I'll tell them and try to explain it."
Paul's popularity extends to the ground level in foreign countries. His website draws readers from all over the globe, as this graphic world map shows. Paul's YouTube videos get high in Ireland, Great Britain, Australia, the Czech Republica, New Zealand and Poland. During the campaign, there were Paul MeetUps in 118 countries. And there are still Campaign for Libertry groups almost everywhere - from Afghanistan, the Aland Islands and Albania to Zaire, Zambia and Zimbabwe (where there are three). Benton says the campaign doesn't solicit foreign involvement, yet it continues to grow.
That kind of foreign entanglement -- the voluntary kind -- is the type that Paul, often derided as an isolationist, seems fine with. And much of the rest of the world seems fine with it, too.
"It has nothing to do with isolation," he says. "I want to talk and travel and trade with people, before we start boycotting and bombing and embargoing. And I guess that falls on receptive ears internationally."
WATCH Ron Paul on Russia Today in April:
Ryan Grim's book, This Is Your Country On Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America, is now on sale
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