Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan is a verbal machine gun. Silence is the only thing he attacks with more ferocity than government-run health care. But when the topic turns to him, he hesitates.
“Being recognized in public isn’t something I ever really wanted,” Ryan says to me as he takes a sip from his Singha beer. We’re at Washington D.C.’s Talay Thai restaurant, which Ryan can see from his Capitol office window. “It’s really weird to have someone write about your life – it just seems so boring to me,” he says as he picks at his plate of drunken noodles.
“I’m not trying to sell myself as a star,” he says. I note that we could wallpaper the Capitol with the portraits of representatives whose names will never cross the lips of another human being. Ryan says he can only handle 10% of the 50-to-60 press inquiries he receives each day. So why is he getting so much attention?
“I think there’s a vacuum of leadership,” he says. “The Bush-Cheney generation of leaders is gone, and people are hungry for the next generation. They’re hungry for what I call conviction politicians – people who believe in something, stand for it, and are able to articulate it,” he adds.
Ryan has become the ultimate political oxymoron – a Republican national media darling. To conservatives, this is akin to seeing Sasquatch roller skating down the street smoking a pipe. It simply doesn’t happen.
And yet there is Paul Ryan, on a CNBC panel out-nerding all the high-paid TV financial analysts. And there is Paul Ryan on the Sunday network talk shows explaining how America is in the midst of a slow-motion federal entitlement catastrophe. And there is Paul Ryan dismantling the health care bill at President Obama’s sham “summit,” while the president glares at him as if Ryan just told the Obama kids there’s no tooth fairy.
Ryan is a throwback; he could easily have been a conservative politician in the era before cable news. He has risen to national stardom by taking the path least traveled by modern politicians: He knows a lot of stuff.
Few members of Congress have attained Ryan’s mind-boggling velocity. Elected to Congress in 1998 at the tender age of 28, he is on everyone’s watch list. Fortune has anointed Ryan as President Obama’s foremost adversary. Conservative patriarch George Will has Ryan all but penciled in as the GOP vice presidential nominee in 2012. America’s Cougar-in-Chief, Sarah Palin, listed Ryan as her favorite presidential candidate in 2012. The London Daily Telegraph ranked Ryan as America’s ninth most influential conservative, ahead of Mitt Romney, George W. Bush and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.
In fact, rarely does Wisconsin’s fiscal dreamboat give an interview these days when he’s not asked if he’s running for president in 2012; he steadfastly maintains that he will not. But why are people so suddenly so excited by a congressman from Janesville, Wisconsin? In other words…
What’s so damn special about Paul Ryan?
At dinner, I mention to Ryan that he has essentially become a talisman for Republicans: On the campaign trail, uttering the name “Paul Ryan,” immediately brands you as a serious thinker. Candidates like Senate hopeful Marco Rubio of Florida play up the connection.
“It’s not about me, or my name, it’s about the ideas that I’m pushing,” Ryan protests.
“What I say is what I do, and it’s backed up with the numbers. I feel like it’s a race against time to change the trajectory of the country.
He explains: “If we don’t turn this thing around really fast, we’re going to be a big welfare state. We will lose the American Idea in a nanosecond relative to history if we don’t step up fast and get the American people to help us take this thing back.”
After dinner, we walk back to Ryan’s office to begin a “telephone town hall” with constituents in Rock and Walworth counties. Basically, Ryan stares at a computer that randomly auto-dials numbers and fields any questions the responders have. People can either ask him something or listen to others grill the congressman.
At 8:07 pm, with the Longworth House Office Building virtually empty, he sits down at his desk and slides on his headset. “Good evening, this is Congressman Paul Ryan,” he greets callers, instructing them to hold on the line if they have a question. I wonder if I would even have a question ready if my congresswoman called me. Apparently plenty of people do.
Ryan rolls through calls, one by one, speaking at lightning speed. It’s almost as if he’s invented a way of breathing while speaking, to eliminate wasteful pauses. All the callers are polite. The final one, who identifies himself as a union worker, urges Ryan to run for president. Ryan answers with his pat answer: “My head isn’t big enough and my kids are too small.” (Ryan and wife Janna have three children – Liza, 8; Charlie, 6; and Sam, 5.)
When Ryan finishes, the computer says 5,895 constituents have participated. Many callers ask him about his pet issues. Several mention their concern about the national debt. One asks about the looming specter of inflation. It seems far-fetched that these issues are of concern to regular people, unless those regular people have the Prime Minister of the Congressional Nerd Brigade as their representative.
On the day Paul Davis Ryan was born in 1970, President Richard Nixon unveiled his record-setting $200.8 billion federal budget proposal for the upcoming year – a budget that included a large increase in Social Security payments.
Ryan was raised as a fifth-generation Janesville resident. His father practiced law in the same building as future U.S. Senator Russ Feingold’s father. To differentiate Young Paul from Paul Sr., Ryan was nicknamed “P.D.” People often mistook this moniker for “Petey,” which caused Paul to recoil.
One day as a 16 year old, Ryan came upon the lifeless body of his father. Paul Ryan, Sr. had died of a heart attack at age 55, leaving the Janesville Craig High School 10th grader, his three older brothers and sisters and his mother alone. It was Paul who told the family of his father’s death.
With his father’s passing, young Paul collected Social Security benefits until age 18, which he put away for college. To make ends meet, Paul’s mother returned to school to study interior design. His siblings were off at college. Ryan remembers this difficult time bringing him and his mother closer.
Within months, Paul’s maternal grandmother moved into the house. She suffered from Alzheimer’s, and it often fell on young Paul to care for her, including brushing and braiding her hair. Ryan credits his father’s death and the care of his grandmother as giving him first-hand experience as to how social service programs work.
Ryan excelled at school and was voted class president his junior year. He also served as Craig’s school board representative. He ran track and played soccer, but wasn’t good enough to make the Craig basketball team, so he played Catholic league hoops.
Upon graduation, he headed to Oxford, Ohio, to attend Miami University. (Twenty three years later, he would return to give the commencement speech.) His junior year, Ryan took an internship with Wisconsin Sen. Bob Kasten’s foreign affairs advisor. Ryan says he spent more time opening mail than working on the study of Soviet containment, but it got his foot in the door when a real internship with Kasten’s small-business committee opened up over the summer.
Ryan returned to classes in the fall for his senior year. Two weeks in, he got a call from Cesar Conda, Kasten’s staff director. Conda confided that the committee’s staff economist was leaving the following May. Would Ryan take the job after he graduated for one-third of the salary?
Ryan wasn’t sure...until Betty Ryan gave him a tongue-lashing. She feared her son was destined to become a ski bum. The Kasten post led Ryan to a job with two of the GOP smartest thinkers, Jack Kemp and Bill Bennett, at Empower America, then as Senator Sam Brownback’s legislative director.
Ryan cites his time with Kemp and Bennett as the formative years that shaped his political outlook. However, he was homesick most of the time. He wanted to get back home, and he wanted to hunt more.
In 1998, Ryan’s hometown representative, Mark Neumann, was gearing up to challenge Sen. Russ Feingold. He approached Ryan about running for his congressional seat. Ryan wasn’t sure. At 27, even he thought he was too young. For advice, he turned to Bennett, who urged him to take the plunge. “I wanted to see if my running for Congress passed the laugh test,” Ryan remembers.