In late 2013 and early 2014, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) invested a fair amount of time and energy talking about poverty and visiting low-income communities. We know this to be true, of course, because the congressman made a point of letting people know.
In November 2013, for example, the Washington Post
ran a big, front-page article
about the far-right lawmaker's interest in "fighting poverty." The piece said Ryan was "quietly visiting inner-city neighborhoods." A month later, BuzzFeed ran a similar, lengthy piece
on the subject, noting that the congressman "has spent the past year quietly touring impoverished communities across the country."
There was a certain awkwardness to the pitch. For example, Ryan has taken a leading role
in trying to gut the nation's safety net at the federal level, demanding deep cuts to social programs that benefit struggling families, making it tough to see him as an anti-poverty crusader.
But the fact that both articles used the word "quietly" also stood out -- if the congressman was really interested in being "quiet" about his visits to struggling areas, he probably wouldn't be eager to let the Washington Post and BuzzFeed know about his trips.
Ryan's critics have complained that these expeditions were part of a politically calculated vanity project designed to soften the GOP's image and set the congressman -- who was the GOP's vice presidential nominee in 2012 -- up for a bid for higher office. But on March 17, Ryan will issue a rejoinder to that accusation in the form of a documentary film on the people he met during his travels to impoverished communities.
I'm not sure how well the second sentence follows the first. To prove his efforts aren't a vanity project, Paul Ryan is releasing a movie to promote his efforts?
Ultimately Ryan's motives are beside the point. Human motivation is difficult to discern. Even people who act in the crassest self-interest are capable of deluding themselves into believing in their own virtue. Ryan surely believes that he is doing good for the world, precisely because he is an ideologue. What's so unusual about Ryan is his ability to do things that would be held up as evidence of ambition or political motive by most politicians, but are presented as the opposite when done by him. But this is also why the primary evidence for analyzing Ryan should not be his own testimony about his motives, nor his visits to bookstores, or other performative gestures in full view of the media, but his actual policy agenda.