Aug 15 2012

Paul Ryan’s ‘Self-Reliance’

Concocting an 'origin story' for VP hopeful's character

As corporate media tell and retell Republican vice presidential hopeful Paul Ryan’s life story, one theme emerges above all others: His “self-reliance. “David Fahrenthold and Paul Kane in the Washington Post (8/11/12) asserted that

Ryan’s big ideas bear the stamp of his own story: They stress independence and self-reliance, the qualities that took him from the mailroom to a spot on his party’s presidential ticket. What government owes its citizens, Ryan says, is not a guarantee of happiness–only a fair shot to pursue it….“

He lost his father early and had to grow up sooner than he wanted to,” said Rep. Jeff Flake (R.-Ariz.). “That certainly has informed his policies and his outlook. We’re better off looking inward…. Individual responsibility is where it’s at.”

Under the headline “Paul Ryan’s Early Self-Reliance Laid Ground for Staunch Conservatism,” the Boston Globe’s Michael Kranish and Bobby Caina Calvan (8/12/12) reported on Ryan:

One day, at 16 years old, he tried to wake his father, only to realize that he had died from a heart attack. His grandmother, who had Alzheimer’s disease, moved in. Such difficulties only reinforced Ryan’s belief in self-reliance.

“His personal story–with the death of his father forcing him to become self-reliant early in life–is inspiring,” wrote New York Times columnist Joe Nocera (8/14/12). His colleague Frank Bruni (8/14/12) agreed: “Mere days since he loped to the microphone on the U.S.S. Wisconsin, necktie off and cowlick flying high, we have an origin story. When he was 16, his father died, and from the soil of grief and dislocation, a rugged individualism bloomed.”

New York Times piece by Jennifer Steinhauer, Jim Rutenberg, Mike McIntire and Sheryl Gay Stolberg (8/13/12) provided one of the most extended riffs on this theme:

The death of his father when Mr. Ryan was only 16 punctured his life of math tests and bike riding, and in that fissure, the seeds of his worldview were planted.“

Paul went to work at McDonald’s and began to pull his own weight, and becomes class president the same year,” said his brother Tobin. “It is remarkable that he chose a path of individual responsibility and maturity rather than letting grief take a different course.” He added: “Some of his political views did begin to coalesce around the time of my father’s passing.”

His self-reliance followed him to summer camp, where as a counselor he canoed and hiked, and into young adulthood, where he took up deer hunting….

It followed him into college, where he immediately took a passionate interest in the canon of conservative economic theorists and writers–Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and Ludwig von Mises–who inspired the up-and-coming generation of libertarian-minded activists and lawmakers.

It followed him to Congress, where his brand of conservative economics, honed in Washington’s conservative policy and research groups, eventually inspired the Tea Party freshmen in the House for whom Mr. Ryan has served as seer, cheerleader and workout buddy.

And, finally, it captured the imagination of Mitt Romney, who named Mr. Ryan as the Republicans’ presumptive vice-presidential nominee on Saturday.

So the “self-reliance” that Ryan learned as a teenager provides, it would seem, the key to his entire career. But a few paragraphs down, Steinhauer and co. indicate their awareness that this story has a gaping hole in it:

Yet even if he is viewed as politically pure by the modern-day standards of his party’s base, he is not without contradictions…. Even as he delved more deeply into libertarian economic theory in college, his tuition was partially paid by the Social Security benefits he received after his father died.

Whoa–“not without contradictions”? If Ryan’s life story is to connect up in any way with his extreme anti-government political philosophy, then “self-reliant” has to mean “as opposed to relying on government.”

Yet Ryan, in the wake of his father’s death, was crucially aided by government. “It was a tough time for our family, and Social Security was there to help us when we needed the help,” Ryan told AP (1/16/05; cited in New Yorker8/15/12). “I was a personal beneficiary of the Social Security safety net system.” (Presumably Ryan’s elderly grandmother was also receiving Medicare benefits.)

It should go without saying that there’s nothing wrong with a child whose parent has died taking survivor’s benefits–that’s what they’re for! But it’s hard to frame receiving such benefits as the core element of a story whose moral is that people should be independent of the government.

Nor does the rest of Ryan’s story do much to bolster a “self-reliant” narrative. He used those Social Security benefits to learn about libertarian economics at publicly financed Miami University, and after college got a job on the public payroll as a Capitol Hill staffer (American Prospect8/14/12). His only adult job in the for-profit private sector, in fact, was a year spent working as a marketing consultant at his extended family’s construction business–which is also hard to frame as a sign of “self-reliance.” (As Salon noted–8/14/12–the Ryan family business has relied heavily on government contracts over the years.)

Yet “self-reliance” as the key to Ryan’s character is the story corporate media were fed, and by and large they swallowed it. Maybe they could do with a little less reliance on campaign spin.