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Rand Paul defends 'incredibly talented' aide despite neo-Confederate ties

U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) addresses a breakfast meeting of the 2013 Annual Legislative Summit of U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (USHCC) March 19, 2013, at Capitol Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) addresses a breakfast meeting of the 2013 Annual Legislative Summit of U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (USHCC) March 19, 2013...

Sen. Rand Paul strongly defended his hiring of staffer Jack Hunter on Thursday, a former shock jock who spent years promoting neo-Confederacy organizations, advocating for Southern secession, and bemoaning threats to white culture.

In an interview with the Huffington Post's Howard Fineman, Paul said he doesn't agree with Hunter's views on Abraham Lincoln, the Confederacy, and secession. But he added that the social media aide "is incredibly talented" and said he passes his office's "zero tolerance policy for anybody who displays discriminatory behavior or belief in discriminating against people based on the color of their skin, their religion, their sexual orientation, anything like that."

“People are calling him a white supremacist,” Paul said. “If I thought he was a white supremacist, he would be fired immediately. If I thought he would treat anybody on the color of their skin different that others, I’d fire him immediately."

Related: Rand Paul can't understand why black voters don't vote GOP. Here's a clue

Paul compared attacks on Hunter to criticism of his own past marijuana use. “Are we at a point where nobody can have had a youth or said anything untoward?" he asked.

Paul's reference to "youth" is a relative term, to put it mildly. Hunter is 39 today. As recently as 2009, he wrote a column defending secession (as in: something to consider today) as well as his personal affection for the Confederacy. In 2007, he warned that a "non-white majority America would simply cease to be America for reasons that are as numerous as they are obvious."  In 2005, he wrote that he celebrates John Wilkes Booth's birthday, and in 2004, he wrote a column entitled "John Wilkes Booth Was Right."  In 1999, he chaired the League of the South, a group devoted to Southern secession.

As the conservative Free Beacon reported on Tuesday, Hunter held his radio job as the "Southern Avenger" as late as 2012. In 2010, he co-authored Rand Paul's book The Tea Party Goes To Washington.

A familiar pattern

Hunter said in a statement Tuesday that he no longer holds his old views and is embarrassed they came to light. He added that "I abhor racism and have always treated everyone I’ve met with dignity and respect as individuals." But he also told the Beacon that he still believes the Civil War was a mistake.

The biggest problem is that Hunter fits a familiar pattern. Senator Paul has been working hard to position himself as a mainstream legislator in contrast to his father Ron Paul, whose own brand of libertarianism is steeped in neo-Confederate ideology. The elder Paul considers Abraham Lincoln a tyrant, published years of racially inflammatory newsletters, and his organization today employs a variety of fringe figures with views similar to Hunter.

Senator Paul had his own blowup in 2010 when he criticized the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but for the most part has avoided the more extreme edges of his father's support network even as he's relied on its backing to build his career. That phase appears to be over: Paul is defending his fringe associates at all costs now. If a lifetime of Confederate fetishism isn't enough to disqualify a close aide, it's not clear what would be.  All this comes as Paul is working on a campaign to attract African-American voters to the GOP.

"The thing is, I grapple with this," Paul told Fineman. "What am I supposed to do? I'm going to have a lot of people working for me. They've all got writings and opinions."