By Walter Kirn, GQ
On my neighbor's vast new high-definition TV set, with its jarring, medical-imaging-level clarity, human faces look strange, as in The Doors song, but the face of Ron Paul looks stranger than most. When we sat down to watch him debate the other night in my neighbor's California den, it took us a moment to absorb Paul's features, which seemed to hail from a weird pre-modern era of deeply lived existential severity. The make-up that blurred the other candidates' looks and rendered them tolerable in ultra-close-up sat uneasily on his lines and wrinkles, a disconcerting contemporary impertinence. Somehow, retouching just doesn't suit his character, maybe because, unlike his sleeker opponents (Newt Gingrich is no longer running, he's just sitting), Paul indeed possesses one.
My neighbor, a Jewish Democrat who made a good share of his money in the '70s producing groovy movies and rock-and-roll acts, had glancingly confessed a liking for Paul a couple of months earlier. He hadn't exactly said he'd vote for him, but few people who are soft on Paul, I've found, are inclined to make such declarations, at least not in person, to one's face. His hardcore supporters are mostly on the Internet, where they tend to come forward in lengthy comment streams appended to unrelated political articles and random YouTube music videos. Sometimes they offer articulate remarks that cite arcane concerns such as the Constitutional legitimacy of the Federal Reserve, but more often they simply blurt out their affection, sounding like civic-minded Howard Stern fans. Paul, to them, is self-evidently superior to all the others in the field -- and to anyone who might ever compete in any field. When he's gone, these folks won't have anyone, it feels like. In the fashion of devoted Scientologists who still can't accept that L. Ron Hubbard has permanently left the planet, they'll live on in a state of wistful, jazzed denial.
My neighbor's wife served pot stickers and soda as we settled in to watch the fight. A recently naturalized American citizen who's originally from boring, good-government Canada, she hadn't paid any attention to the primaries until that second. But she was eager to learn. When Paul emerged from the auditorium's wings during the awkward introductory stroll-on that partly resembled the roll-call in a brothel and partly the beginning of a reality show about people striving to lose weight, she was taken aback by Paul's decrepitude. "How old, is he?" she asked. We couldn't tell her. All we knew is that once the candidates started squabbling, he seemed to grow younger by the minute -- not in years but in temperament, in attitude. To begin with, he used the term 'cop-out' in a way that his up-tight juniors would never have thought of. He also, during a long discussion of birth-control, showed some sign of knowing what contraception was, indicating it came in pill form, for example. The others played dumb on the matter and got all garbled, as will happen when you absolutely oppose a thing that you're reluctant to confess exists.
"Is that one the Mormon?" my neighbor's wife kept asking whenever Santorum took a turn. Compared to Paul, whose ornery demeanor and principled rejection of Now America could at least be credited to a superannuated liver, baby-faced Rick had no visible excuse for his expressions of medieval certitude. (It's not just the nature of Santorum's beliefs that strike the more secular-minded as absurd, it's the sheer number of them.) The contrast between the wizened libertarian and the unwrinkled Inquisitioner enabled the agile Romney to split the difference, handing him points that he hadn't completely earned and helping him to reassert his status as the first among dis-enlightened equals. To be the real Mormon yet not appear to be is quite a trick, but with others' help, it's possible.
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I found myself growing sweet on the old codger, if only because he embodied a set of values familiar from past Ohio family reunions, where my elderly relatives gathered to sigh and simmer over the decades-old wrongs of the New Deal. He at least keeps the others' dishonest, I reflected. In a season of unrelenting volatility whose swings and swoops may have as much to do with voters' media-shortened attention spans as they do with uncertainty about the candidates, Paul's graph line has been a reassuring constant, steady, straight, and sober. Whatever he does or doesn't do for people, he does or doesn't do it consistently, suggesting he's either immune to opportunism or just plain bad at it. "I like that he means what he says," my neighbor remarked during one of Paul's charmingly antiquated warnings about the perils of armed foreign entanglements. My girlfriend, who was watching with us, nodded, and so did my neighbor's wife, who'd grown impatient with American political evasiveness. The notion that there was a Mormon on the stage but that she couldn't tell which one he was, except that he wasn't the 'old guy,' was getting to her.
There was even something endearing about Paul's lapses into senior-moment incoherence, as when he answered a question on immigration by holding, among several other mini-positions that were layered on top of his main argument, that our present border policies keep out a lot of enthusiastic tourists and other beneficial foreign visitors. The fact that he had so many ideas at once and couldn't decide in just what order to state them implied that he was thinking while he spoke, not just shuffling mental three-by-five cards. I found myself wanting to finish his sentences for him, to straighten out his logic and his syntax, which isn't something that happens when his rivals talk. Them, I wish would they shut up when they start straying. I sense that they're straining to give the right effect, not laboring to gain access to their true minds.
The screen of the big new TV set that filled the wall remained, to the end, decidedly unkind to the cranky, elderly non-Mormon. Its speakers, however, were more flattering. They reminded us he had a job once, as a doctor, whose duties did not involve ending others' benefits or, as was the case with Romney's career in whatever 'private equity' is, forcing them to apply for benefits. They also reminded us that he alone had actually served in the armed forces whose colossal powers he, as president, someday might be tempted to unleash. And unlike Santorum, who my neighbor's wife eventually took to calling 'abstinence man,' Paul offered evidence of having lived in that imperfect, creaturely dimension where women sometimes become pregnant when men touch them, occasionally with the result of fervently wishing to become un-pregnant without having to perform the task themselves. Behold: an earthling! And therefore, perhaps, a loser.
But a high-definition loser, which makes him poignant. And which also makes him, in some ways, one of us.
Walter Kirn is the author, most recently, of a memoir, "Lost in the Meritocracy." His 2001 novel "Up in the Air" is the basis for the film of the same name. His column appears every Friday.