His parents married two days before the crash of 1929. He was reared on nightmarish stories of currency that proved worthless, told by relatives whose patriarch had fled Germany in the dark of night when his debts were about to ruin him.
Hard times, and fear of worse, were constants in Ron Paul’s boyhood home. His father and mother worked tirelessly running a small dairy, and young Ron showed the same drive — delivering The Pittsburgh Press, mowing lawns, scooping ice cream as a soda jerk. He also embraced their politics, an instinctive conservatism that viewed Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman as villains and blamed Democrats for getting America into wars.
As a young doctor in training, dissecting cadavers or practicing surgery on dogs, he would tell all who would listen about how the country was headed down the wrong path, about the urgency of a strict gold standard and about the dangers of allowing government too much power over people’s lives.
“Once that got ingrained, that became his religion,” said his brother Jerrold, a minister and a psychotherapist. “He says he preaches the ‘gospel of freedom’ — that’s the money quote. Politics became his crusade.”
But for the silver hair, the baggy eyes and the grandchildren, the 76-year-old man running for president today — carrying the torch for a gold-based currency, agitating to “end the Fed,” warning of threats to personal freedom and prophesying imminent economic collapse — is almost indistinguishable from the Ron Paul of half a century ago.
Supporters and detractors often marvel at his consistency since entering politics in 1974, citing it as evidence of either levelheadedness or lunacy. It contrasts sharply with some of the rivals he is trailing in the Republican primaries, including Mitt Romney, who is often accused of ideological flip-flopping.
While the Austrian economists who deeply influenced Mr. Paul have gone in and out of fashion among conservatives, his own fidelity to them has never wavered. Even his investment portfolio, nearly two-thirds of which is in gold and precious-metal stocks, shows the same commitment to principle — not to mention preparation for a financial catastrophe.
Now, with a solid third-place showing in Nevada and ardent grass-roots support expected to help him in caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota, Mr. Paul is likely to command greater attention for his inimitable mix of doom-saying and doses of folksy, homespun humor. But to Mr. Paul, his candidacy is just another step in a lifelong quest “to find the plain truth of things.”
“I like to think that’s what I do,” he said in an interview. “Imperfectly — but most people don’t even care. Do you listen to these debates? Are they seeking the plain truth of things? I think that’s why people sense I’m somewhat different.”
What jumps out most from interviews with Mr. Paul and scores of his relatives, friends and colleagues is not only how different his ideas are, but also how early in life he developed his worldview — one that appears to have guided nearly every political and financial move he has made ever since.
Hard Times, Hard Work
Social Security, a pillar of the New Deal, was signed into law a week before Ronald Ernest Paul was born in 1935. But his family believed Roosevelt’s economic policies were a threat to capitalism and an affront to the values of hard work and private charity.
From a young age, Ron, the third of five, and his four brothers earned pennies picking raspberries that their grandfather, a farmer, sold in Pittsburgh, and plucking dirty milk bottles from the crates of empties in their basement. Yet they saw their parents let customers short on cash slide on paying their bills for months at a time.
“I think Ron reflects that,” Jerrold Paul said. “He’s fiscally frugal, but he’s also a generous guy.”
Raising five sons born in the space of seven years, Howard and Margaret Paul worked every day but Christmas, spoke English at home but swore at their sons in German and were the last in the neighborhood to buy a TV set.
“We were poor, but we didn’t know it,” said David Paul, a brother who, like Jerrold, is a Lutheran minister (the other two brothers are a retired math professor and an accountant).
The boys were free to do what they wanted, up to a point. When Billy Graham brought his crusade to downtown Pittsburgh, Ron, a teenager, headed off to the revival on his own. But when he shot a BB gun at a neighbor’s passing car, he lost the gun for good.
His parents did not impose their politics on their sons. But family lore about hyperinflation, property as the safest investment and a great-grandfather’s escape from crushing debt in 19th-century Germany all made an impression. As did a grade-school janitor who hired young Ron to paint the walls and ranted about bankers being “the source of our problems,” as Mr. Paul recalled in one of his books.
Wartime rationing also left a mark. When he saw a local butcher shop ignoring the rules on Saturdays and selling “all the meat you wanted, at a price,” Mr. Paul wrote, it was “my first real-life experience in the free market solving problems generated by government mischief.”
A high school athlete — he wrestled opponents 20 pounds heavier and won the Pennsylvania championship in the 220-yard dash — he was offered a full athletic scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh, even after an injury and crude surgery severely damaged his knee. But he turned down the offer, saying it would be wrong to accept given his doubts that he could compete. In private, he despaired of ever racing again — and railed against a God who, as he told Jerrold, “would give me something and then take it away.”
He went off instead to Gettysburg College, where he paid his way washing dishes and managing a campus coffee shop, the Bullet Hole. His brothers in Lambda Chi Alpha took note of his rectitude. “You’d go out for a beer, and he’d have a Coke,” said James Fuller, a classmate. “He never missed church. He was a very straight shooter.”
“Peer pressure wasn’t going to change him,” said Samuel Blackwell, another classmate. The same went for his politics. Mr. Fuller said he pegged Mr. Paul as “to the right of Attila the Hun.” Others said he was so opinionated that the fraternity’s cook — a local farmer and a liberal Democrat — took delight in goading him into political arguments.
Mr. Paul was pre-med, but he gravitated to economics and political science classes, though he said his college instructors mainly caused him to doubt his own instincts. “They were always trying to beat them out of me,” he said.
By the time he graduated, Mr. Paul was sprinting again (he is tied for fifth on Gettysburg’s all-time list in two sprint events) and had married Carol Wells, who had asked him to escort her to her 16th birthday party. He had never dated anyone else.
At the Duke School of Medicine, the Pauls had the first two of their five children. But even with the demands of medical school and a family, Mr. Paul found time to plow through “Atlas Shrugged” and “Doctor Zhivago,” new best sellers that would inspire generations of conservatives and libertarians.
If the Ron Paul who had arrived at Gettysburg was a bundle of visceral conservative political impulses in search of an intellectual framework, he found it at Duke through his extracurricular reading.
It was “The Road to Serfdom” by Friedrich Hayek that became the ur-text of Mr. Paul’s emerging ideology, introducing him to Austrian economics and its Manichaean choice between laissez-faire capitalism and a government-run economy destined for disaster. (Mainstream economists have long dismissed the Austrian school, but it retains a devoted following among libertarians and some conservatives.)
On his visits home, his brothers noticed, Mr. Paul began sharing what he was learning. His father, a man with an eighth-grade education and a steel handshake, and his mother, who dreamed of teaching but never attended college, beamed with approval. “My parents would say, ‘He really articulates what we think,’ ” Jerrold Paul remembered. “What was instinctive for them became intellectual for him.”
Fellow medical students, too, still remember his exhortations about the gold standard and the encroaching welfare state. “He believed in not too much federal government,” said Siegfried Smith, a classmate. “And this was a time when we didn’t have a lot.”
Jerrold Paul, who said he broke with his brother politically over Ron’s early advocacy for Barry M. Goldwater, recalled that Ron — who today opposes foreign aid and military intervention of almost any kind — also started adopting nationalist, or at least noninternationalist, views. When Jerrold announced plans to move to Egypt as a missionary in 1959, he said, Ron urged him to reconsider, saying, “We need people in this country.”
The young Dr. Paul worked as an intern in Detroit before being drafted as an Air Force flight surgeon around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. After two years based in San Antonio, where he befriended two doctors who regularly invested in silver dollars, he returned to Pittsburgh for a residency in obstetrics and gynecology at Magee-Womens Hospital.
Abortion was still illegal, but, increasingly, legal exceptions were being made for psychiatric reasons. Mr. Paul traces his opposition to the procedure to the time when he wandered into an operating room there and saw a pregnancy terminated by Caesarean section, with a 2-pound fetus, delivered alive, left in a corner to try to breathe, try to cry, and die.
Other co-workers from that time, however, recalled that women butchered by back-alley abortionists were frequent patients; some did not survive. Mr. Paul said he never came across such a patient in his three years.
Despite long hours and heavy demands, Mr. Paul never lacked the energy to preach, recalled Dr. Sheldon Weinstein, a fellow obstetrics and gynecology trainee.
“He was always talking about how much gold there was in Fort Knox, how we shouldn’t be in Vietnam,” Dr. Weinstein said. “For me, it was novel — he was an oddball. He was worried about the monetary system; I didn’t have any pennies, let alone dollars.”
Planning for the Worst
Dr. Weinstein and other residents recalled whispering that Mr. Paul must be a member of the John Birch Society, the ultraconservative group whose views on the monetary system, economics and foreign policy Mr. Paul has described as much like his own.
Mr. Paul denies ever belonging to the group, though he was listed as a subscriber to its magazine, American Opinion, according to Birch records in Brown University’s archives. And when he planned his first run for office in 1974, he has said, the first person he called for advice was Larry McDonald, a right-wing congressman who was later president of the group. Mr. Paul and the John Birch Society are also 50-50 co-owners of a 3.8-acre property in Sweeny, Tex., that was bequeathed to them by a constituent of the congressman who died in 2010; Mr. Paul’s campaign said it was surprised by the gift, and the group said the property would be sold off. In the interview, Mr. Paul said he parted ways with the John Birch Society over its emphasis on conspiracy theories — “that 12 or 15 people for hundreds of years get together and plan the world.”
But he hastened to say that conservatives’ rejection of the society, as far back as the 1960s, was wrong. “I’ve known these people, and I saw them as mostly strict constitutionalists,” he said. “To turn that into something radical and mean is not fair.”
Mr. Paul jumped at the chance to return to Texas in 1968 after learning of an obstetrician who was retiring in an area with no competition. The leap paid off. Before long, he had amassed a farm outside town, an Olympic-size swimming pool, a beach house and other real estate investments.
In 1971, however, President Richard M. Nixon’s abandonment of the gold standard propelled Mr. Paul to buy gold for the first time — and to embark on a new career. He saw it as a “declaration of bankruptcy for our country,” he later wrote.
The so-called Nixon Shock was an unimaginably grave threat to ultraconservatives, said Chip Berlet, a historian of the ultra-right wing. Many “saw it as a sign that a conspiracy had penetrated the Republican Party — as subversion from within,” he said.
Mr. Paul ran for Congress in 1974 and lost, then won a special election in 1976. To keep up his medical practice, he took on a young partner, Jack Pruett.
In their first meeting, Dr. Paul laid down two conditions: They would perform no elective abortions, and they would not participate in Medicare or Medicaid. They treated poor women at a discount or free, Dr. Pruett said, sometimes receiving vegetables or eggs instead of cash.
But Mr. Paul’s mind remained focused elsewhere. His medical office was lined with economics textbooks, Dr. Pruett recalled. And when they closed the books one year and found that they had $60,000 left over to split, Mr. Paul proposed that they invest in gold coins.
“I still have my Krugerrands,” Dr. Pruett said. “We paid $132 apiece. They’re worth about $2,000 today.”
Mr. Paul continues to invest according to his principles, and he has outperformed the stock market. From 2001 to 2011, his holdings in gold, silver, mining companies and other bets on an economic collapse more than doubled in value, an analysis of his Congressional disclosures suggests, to between $1.6 million and $3.5 million. His entire portfolio is now worth between $2.4 million and $5.4 million.
He also continues to maintain his medical license, for the same apocalyptic reason that he urges young people to learn a trade. “That is the ultimate protection,” he said, even safer than stockpiling gold. “Even if you have to live in a totalitarian society, somebody’s going to want your skills.”
Kitty Bennett and Kate Welsh contributed research.