Paul Ryan Finds God

McKay Coppins, BuzzFeed, December 20, 2013

On Oct. 24, 2012, Paul Ryan slipped into a high-ceilinged backstage room at the Waetjen Auditorium on the campus of Cleveland State University with a small gaggle of advisers and secret service agents. No reporters.

Ryan was there for a meeting that the Romney campaign brain trust had seemed, for months, intent on stopping. Since joining the presidential ticket in August, the Wisconsin congressman had been lobbying to spend more time campaigning in diverse, low-income neighborhoods. Ryan, a protégé of the late, big-tent GOP visionary Jack Kemp, argued the visits would show the country that Republicans cared about the poor. The number-crunchers in Boston countered that every hour spent on inner-city photo ops was a lost opportunity to rally middle-class suburbanites who might actually vote for them. Eventually, they reached a compromise: Ryan could give one big speech about poverty in Ohio and hold an off-the-record roundtable with community leaders who work with the poor—but the campaign would have to vet them all.

To help organize the event, Ryan enlisted the help of Bob Woodson, a 75-year-old civil rights leader and conservative community organizer. Woodson went to work compiling a list of black ministers, homeless shelter volunteers, and halfway house managers he thought Ryan should meet. Most of them, Woodson later acknowledged with some pride, were “ex-something: ex-drug addicts, ex-alcoholics, ex-convicts.”

When the list was turned over to the Romney campaign for approval, “it was like the machines exploded,” a Ryan aide recalled. “There were so many red flags—guys that had multiple felonies in their background. And they kept coming back and picking out names, saying, ‘Absolutely not, we cannot have this person.’” At one point, Woodson grew frustrated with Team Romney’s meddling. “Do you guys know anything about poverty?” he demanded of an operative. “This is where these guys come from! They are working with the poor because they had hit rock bottom.”

By the time Ryan arrived backstage at the Waetjen Auditorium less than two weeks before the election, about a dozen advocates for the poor were waiting for him. They took turns telling stories from the front lines of the losing war on poverty. They spoke of their own experiences with addiction and homelessness. They testified of redemption. And then, as Ryan prepared to leave to deliver his speech, a tattooed minister who had arrived at the meeting via motorcycle asked the congressman if he could lay hands on him to pray.

Ryan looked momentarily panicked, according to some who were in the room, but then he shrugged and smiled. “I’m Catholic, but I’m cool with that,” he responded.

Secret Service agents tensed up as the group surrounded him and the man placed his hands on Ryan’s shoulders—inches away from his neck, a nervous aide noted later. The candidate made the sign of the cross, and the minister called on the power of God to give Ryan strength, and help him fulfill his divine mission. Several people present, including Ryan, became emotional.

Ryan left the meeting, gave his speech, lost the election, and returned home to Wisconsin. But several weeks later, he couldn’t stop thinking about that prayer. Speaking with a close aide, he said it was the most powerful experience he’d had during the campaign—and that he felt strongly he needed to act on it.

“This is my next ‘Roadmap,’” Ryan told the aide, referring to the name of the audacious conservative budget that had made him a star in Washington. “I want to figure out a way for conservatives to come up with solutions to poverty. I have to do this.”

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Until recently, Paul Ryan would have seemed like an improbable pick to lead the restoration of compassionate conservatism with a heartfelt mission to the poor. Of all the caricatures he has inspired—from heroic budget warrior to black-hearted Scrooge—“champion of the poor” has never been among them. And yet, Ryan has spent the past year quietly touring impoverished communities across the country with Woodson, while his staff digs through center-right think tank papers in search of conservative policy proposals aimed at aiding the poor. Next spring, Ryan plans to introduce a new battle plan for the war on poverty—one he hopes will launch a renewed national debate on the issue.

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But those closest to him say Ryan’s new mission is the result of a genuine spiritual epiphany—sparked, in part, by the prayer in Cleveland, and sustained by the emergence of a new pope who has lit the world on fire with bold indictments of the “culture of prosperity” and a challenge to reach out the weak and disadvantaged.

“What I love about the pope is he is triggering the exact kind of dialogue we ought to be having,” Ryan told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel this week, adding, “People need to get involved in their communities to make a difference, to fix problems soul to soul.”

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