My Buzzfeed Dot Com Education

There it was, just sitting there, on my web browser, which I had opened a short time earlier. I stared at the title for what seemed like hours, but couldn’t have been more than a few minutes. “Paul Ryan’s Inner City Education,” it said. “,” it said. “McKay Coppins,” it said. “I know I should read this, but I’m really, um, really busy today” I thought. Even as the thought crossed my mind, I knew it was a lie. I wasn’t busy. Wouldn’t be busy all day, most likely. There was nothing to keep me from reading the article. The cold, rainy April weather mocked me through the window, taunting me with a too-clever “oh, there’s nothing for you out here, not today, sorry.” I considered re-grouting my bathroom tile, but then it hit me:

I’m not even sure what “grout” is.

Is it the the thing that happens in a battle when one side is really winning? No, that’s a “rout.”

What about that condition people get sometimes, with all the painful arthritis? Wrong again; that’s “gout.”

Say, what’s “the grip” then? Wait, you spell it “grippe”? What the hell? And it’s just the flu? That’s it? Anyway, I Googled all of these things, which finally, something to do besides reading this Paul Ryan fluff piece.

Unfortunately I ran out of things to Google, and so I came back to the article. I read the headline again, the byline. I thought of all the ex-convicts and reformed drug dealers, recovering addicts and at-risk youth, who probably could have written something much more interesting than what I was about to read. I considered injuring myself badly enough to require a trip to the ER, but I knew that, no matter how long I was at the hospital, this article would be there, waiting for me. The downside of literacy, I guess; stuff never really goes away once it’s been written down. Thanks, Obama whoever invented writing.

After several minutes, a sturdy, smiling pastor named Darryl Webster arrives and greets their guest of honor. “I appreciate you coming,” Webster says as he clasps the congressman’s hand. “You know, when you get up this early in the morning, it’s intentional.”

“Usually when I get up this early, I get up to kill something,” Ryan cracks.

That is funny. I guess you’ve got to get up pretty early in the morning to gut Medicare or slash food assistance programs, eh?

The words hang uncomfortably in the air for a moment, this not being a congregation of bowhunters. Ryan hastens to clarify. “This is the first time I’m getting up this early without wearing camouflage,” he says.

OK. I get it now.

Paul Ryan actually hunts poor people, with a bow, like for sport, and he’s explaining that he has to get up really early in the morning to do that, probably before the police wake up.

Wait, no, that can’t be right. He must be talking about hunting other animals, with a bow. Ducks or something, pigs maybe. Chickens? Wild mushrooms? Doughnuts? I don’t know.

Johnson’s eyes narrow as he comes face-to-face with Ryan. “I know you,” he says, trying to remember from where. “Are you…”

“I’m Paul.”


“I’m in Congress,” he tries.

“Oh…” the chaplain says, tentatively. “Yeah. OK. I guess that’s how I know you.”

“Back home, I just tell people I’m the weatherman.”

“Ha! This Paul Ryan fellow, whoever he is, is quite the japester!” — Mitt “Mitt” Romney, probably

Paul Ryan is no politician, which you can tell by the fact that he’s been working in politics for the last 25 years.

He also knows how it looks. There is a long tradition in American politics of campaigning in Harlem to win votes in Westchester, and more than one critic has accused him of using disadvantaged people of color as stage props in his political ascent. He’s sensitive about this perception, and moves to preempt it almost immediately after we meet in the predawn hours at a downtown Marriott Courtyard, where it’s still too early for the mini-muffins and microwavable breakfast sandwiches. I am the first reporter he has allowed on one of these trips, and he spends a good deal of time encouraging me to ignore him.

“This story isn’t about me,” he tells me. “It’s about Pastor Webster and the work he’s doing in this community. I’m just an observer.”

Yes, McKay Coppins, this story that you’re writing that’s all about Paul Ryan isn’t about Paul Ryan. He’s simply an observer, a seeker of knowledge, venturing into the wide world like Kane in “Kung Fu,” except instead of going from place to place and having adventures, Paul Ryan is going from place to place to observe The Poor in its natural habitat. Why, he’s never even invited a reporter to accompany him on one of these trips, except for the time he invited a reporter on one of these trips.

Make sure you really stress that last part in your piece, McKay. It’s important.

This is Ryan’s trademark Midwestern modesty on full display, the same characteristic that requires him to express aw-shucks puzzlement at the strong feelings his politics inspire. “I don’t see why people give such a flip about me,” he says. “I’m just a guy in Congress!” But he is also a deeply polarizing figure in Washington and beyond, a fact that has largely filtered the responses to his newfound passion for the poor into two categories: swoons and sneers. The reality is that Ryan, like most politicians, operates in the reality somewhere in between House of Cards and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and his political transformation — from right-wing warrior-wonk crusading against the welfare state, to bleeding-heart conservative consumed with a mission to the poor — is one of the most peculiar, and potentially consequential, stories in politics today.

Aw-shucks! Paul Ryan is just some guy! Who runs the Budget Committee! In Congress! And ran for Vice President! Why is everybody so interested in Paul Ryan, asks Paul Ryan, to the reporter whom Paul Ryan invited to accompany him on his journeys and write a 7000 word piece about how Paul Ryan keeps insisting that Paul Ryan is not the story here, dammit?

When I ask him if he can understand how some people might have honestly interpreted his comment [“We have got this tailspin of culture in our inner cities, in particular, of men not working, and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value of the culture of work”] as a racial dog whistle, he thinks about it.

“Dog whistle… I’d never even heard the phrase before, to be honest with you,” he says. The admission isn’t meant as a dodge, or an excuse.

No, it’s not an excuse. You see, Paul Ryan was literally born yesterday, everyday.

Paul Ryan (artist's rendering)
Paul Ryan (artist’s rendering)

If the episode has brought Ryan a heightened degree of self-awareness, it has also infected his rhetoric with a persistent strain of insecurity. He is like a singer who has suddenly discovered his lack of relative pitch while on stage, and now worries that every note he’s belting out is off-key. As we talk, he chooses his words with extreme care, and is prone to halting self-censorship.

At one point, as he tells me about his efforts during the presidential race to get the Romney campaign to spend more time in urban areas, he says, “I wanted to do these inner-city tours—” then he stops abruptly and corrects himself. “I guess we’re not supposed to use that.”

His eyes dart back and forth for a moment as he searches for words that won’t rain down more charges of racism. “These…these…”

I suggest that the term is appropriate in this context, since it is obviously intended as an innocuous description of place. He’s unconvinced, and eventually settles on a retreat to imprecision: “I mean, I wanted to take our ideas and principles everywhere, and try for everybody’s vote. I just thought, morally speaking, it was important to ask everyone for their support.”

OK, seriously, give me a break. A thoughtful reporter might, at this point, not even halfway through his mash note, start to think that he’s being played here, that the hammy, overdone “who, me?” and “aw-shucks” and “I’m not important!” and “gosh, I’m just struggling so hard with all this important stuff” routines are carefully choreographed to paint just exactly the particular picture of Paul Ryan that Paul Ryan wants the public to see. But that reporter isn’t McKay Coppins, and if it were, then McKay Coppins wouldn’t have been invited to join Paul Ryan on his epic journey of self-discovery via platitude.

Has Paul Ryan mentioned that McKay Coppins is the only reporter that Paul Ryan has ever invited to accompany Paul Ryan on these missions? Paul Ryan would like you to remember that, because It’s Not About Paul Ryan.

Like a fool, I read this entire piece, thinking that, at some point, the discussion would turn from “Paul Ryan Bravely Talks To Real Poor Americans” to “Paul Ryan Addresses The Fact That His Policies Are Designed To Hurt Those Poor Americans In Order to Finance A Massive Tax Cut For Rich People,” but of course it never happened. Instead, we get Paul Ryan being really energized by the idea that ex-cons need good references to get jobs (though the unemployment rate continues to hover around 7%, amazingly the question “what jobs?” never seems to come up) and how it should be cheaper to call people in prison. Apart from that, we get a lot of Paul Ryan being really moved by stories of people pulling themselves out of poverty, and how resilient people are, and mostly it reinforces Paul Ryan’s pre-existing belief that the way to help people who are poor and starving is to eliminate government aid and nutrition programs, because Bootstraps.

Then Paul Ryan flies off to a fundraiser with a bunch of fellow millionaire Republicans and explains to them that conservatives have to Talk About Poverty. They don’t actually have to do anything about poverty, just talk, apparently.

The bottom line, for me, is: who gives a shit what deep concern Paul Ryan has for the poor in his precious soul? He’s not just some private citizen trying to lend a hand to those in need, he’s Chair of the freaking House Budget Committee, and when you’ve got a job like that what matters is what you’re doing, not what you’re thinking and feeling. We don’t need anecdotal tales of Paul Ryan’s excursions out among The People to try to cobble together his ideas or policy preferences–he’s given us several budgets that make those things as clear as crystal. You wouldn’t know what was in those budgets from reading McKay Coppins, but luckily other people have read them and can tell you for certain that what Paul Ryan, in his Deep Concern For The Poor, wants is to cut health care for the poor, cut food assistance for the poor, and raise taxes on the poor, and sock all that money into a $6 trillion tax cut for rich people and corporations.

In order to justify this reverse-aid to the poor while maintaining his new secret identity as The Poor Whisperer, Ryan, with Coppins dutifully taking down what he’s saying and nodding along, twists the fabric of reality to argue that aid to the poor makes people poorer (sadly, no!) and then insists that all that draconian stuff in his budgets isn’t his idea, he’s just doing what the rest of his caucus wants. And, hey, if you happen to be A Poor who would like to come and talk to Ryan, say at one of his committee hearings, maybe to save him the trouble of coming to you, guess what? He’s just not that in to you!

I’m tired of writing about this now, so I’ll let Jonathan Chait finish:

The newer iteration [of Ryan’s public persona] wants to make his case in non-pecuniary terms. Point out that his budget enacts a massive upward redistribution of income, and he will tell you about his soul. It is very much the same method used by George W. Bush to ward off criticisms of his fiscal priorities. (When Al Gore stated during a 2000 presidential debate that Bush had taken funding from children’s health insurance in order to cut taxes for oil companies, Bush replied, “If he’s trying to allege that I’m a hard-hearted person and I don’t care about children, he’s absolutely wrong.”) It’s a tactic that meets both Ryan’s needs and the needs of journalists possessed of great confidence in their ability to judge the sincerity of political theater.


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