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“The more I hear Rand Paul talk about the coronavirus, the more I’m convinced his medical degree is written in crayon,” the Louisville Courier-Journal’s Joseph Gerth wrote of Kentucky’s junior U.S. senator.

The columnist added: “He went head to head with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leading epidemiologist of our time, and made a complete fool out of himself, arguing that he ought not have to wear a mask because he had tested positive for the coronavirus 361 days earlier.”

Gerth proposed that Paul, a Bowling Green Republican, doesn’t “let facts get in the way of a good rant.”

Neither did another right-wing Kentucky physician-turned-politician – the largely forgotten state Sen. John M. Johnson of Paducah. He helped lead the state’s minority Southern Rights (pro-Confederate) party early in the Civil War.

The Louisville Journal, the state’s leading Unionist paper and a C-J ancestor, regularly roasted Johnson. “The Doctor is growing like Falstaff in more ways than one, and in obesity and falsehood particularly,” the Journal  jabbed.

Though they differ in BMI, Dr. Paul and Dr. Johnson have more in common than the senator would admit. 

Paul’s not a fan of federal laws designed to end discrimination and promote equality. Neither was Johnson. He said Uncle Sam had no right to deprive white folks of their slaves.

Johnson vowed he wasn’t a disunionist. Paul claims libertarianism, not racism, is his lodestar. 

But Paul rates an “F” on the current NAACP Civil Rights Federal Legislative Report Card. (So does Republican Mitch McConnell, Kentucky’s senior senator; and all five of Kentucky’s GOP congressmen. Rep. John Yarmuth, the sole Democrat, gets an “A.”)

For years, Paul has been twisting himself into libertarian pretzels to explain away his antipathy toward federal activism on civil rights or on anything else to promote the general welfare. His refusal to wear a mask to save lives in the deadliest pandemic in a century comes to my mind.

Going on 11 years ago, Paul said he had problems with the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. The most important civil rights legislation since Reconstruction, it outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. 

Paul protested that he wasn’t a racist. He said he just didn’t like Congress telling private business owners what to do – in this case, stop discriminating against customers. Besides, discrimination, according to Paul, “could be handled locally.”

Paul is parroting the “states’ rights” line that white Southerners used to justify slavery and Jim Crow segregation, said Murray State University historian Brian Clardy.

“I don’t know what’s in his heart,” Clardy said. “But he is trotting out those same tired old arguments to reverse decades of progress that have been made in civil rights and civil liberties.”

I grew up in western Kentucky at the tail end of the Jim Crow era. I remember more than a few white folks who hated to see Jim Crow go. A lot of them claimed that “civil rights” should have been “handled locally” rather than from Washington.

History instructs that the slave states could have ended slavery “locally.” They didn’t. The Civil War did. 

The old Confederate states and border states like Kentucky could have ended Jim Crow. They didn’t. Congress did through landmark laws like the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  

Last year, I’m-a-libertarian-not-a-racist Rand, single-handedly blocked the Emmett Till Antilynching Act. Paul said he just wanted to narrow the bill’s definition of lynching.

Old Stand-in-the-schoolhouse-door George Wallace would have especially loved that Paul pretzel. The arch-segregationist Alabama governor and presidential candidate claimed he was a defender of “states’ rights” and, heavens no, was not a racist. 

Paul seems to relish his role as a lawmaker unto himself. “The childish tantrums that he throws periodically, like the one he threw with Dr. Fauci, are emblematic of the attitude he carries toward public policy,” Clardy said.

Journal reporter covering Frankfort similarly described Johnson: “The facetious Senator has often declared that he belongs to the Johnson party, and I believe he is right; he constitutes it solely, per se, for I question if there is a man in Kentucky, not a rabid secessionist, who would be willing to sail in the same boat with him.”

Meanwhile, Charles Booker, a Democrat and former state representative from Louisville who is “strongly considering” a run against the senator next year, refused to swallow one of the latest Paul pretzels. This one was a C-J op-ed in which Paul called for ending no-knock police raids like the one that led to the death of Breonna Taylor but insisted“the narrative that the violence around us all revolves around race is false.” 

Booker shot back in his own C-J op-ed. He agreed that no-knock raids should be banned but accused Paul of calling “for racial blindness in response to racialized injustice.”

Booker said Paul was trying “to do what he does best: manufacture controversy and create cultural grievance to divide Kentuckians against each other.”

Johnson did likewise, according to the Journal, which reported that the senator falsely declared that “the Federals have been committing all manner of depredations” in Frankfort. The paper was quick to challenge his accusation that a Union man gunned down a 16-year-old lad “in the streets of Frankfort for cheering for Jeff Davis, and his murderer was not arrested.”

Apparently, no such slaying happened.

Paul “had the audacity to accuse Fauci of ‘theater’ for wearing masks while Paul himself is the most accomplished crisis actor in the U.S. Senate, painting himself as a victim of everything from fluorescent and LED lightbulbs, to low-flush toilets to masks.” Gerth wrote

“Poor Rand.”

Johnson also relished playing the role of “crisis actor” and “victim.” Paducah and the rest of the Jackson Purchase leaned steeply Confederate. But Unionism prevailed elsewhere in the Bluegrass State. Even so, Johnson often accused the Unionist party of ignoring the people’s will by refusing to put Kentucky in the Confederacy.  

After Kentucky voters elected even more Unionists to the House and Senate in 1861 and the legislature forsook neutrality for outright support for the Union war effort, Johnson skedaddled to Russellville and helped organize Kentucky’s bogus Confederate “government” behind rebel lines.

The Journal lowered the boom on the doctor for his Paul-like gall. “He feigned sickness to escape from his legislative duties in Frankfort, went to the rebel camp, concocted most injurious lies about the feeling of public opinion, and then impudently wrote back to the State Capital asking for travelling expenses in the service of the Senate.”   

The Journal concluded that there was “no bigger scoundrel of a rebel in Kentucky, except [Confederate Brigadier General] Humphrey Marshall, who has the advantage by avoirdupois, though not perhaps in heart.”    

The Senate ultimately expelled Johnson for the traitor he was. It will take Kentucky voters to send Paul packing next year. 

“We deserve real leadership that’s able to speak the truth, call out racism and call upon our better angels in service of working people, instead of dutifully enriching themselves while Kentuckians suffer and cry out for justice,” Booker argued 

He called Paul “a profoundly unserious politician, one who thrives on division and cultural grievance, rather than uniting us to confront our shared challenges.”

That sounds a lot like John M. Johnson and his fellow Confederates. But one could argue persuasively that the GOP of Doc Paul looks a lot like the party of Doc Johnson.

–30–

Cross-posted from the Kentucky AFL-CIO web site..

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Berry Craig of Arlington, Ky., is a professor emeritus of history at West Kentucky Community College in Paducah and an author of seven books and co-author of two more, all on Kentucky history. His latest book is Kentuckians and Pearl Harbor: Stories from the Day of Infamy, published last fall by South Limestone Books, an imprint of the University Press of Kentucky.

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