For Kelley Paul, wife of GOP presidential contender Rand Paul, writing a new book about who she is and where she comes from is the best way to add her voice to those already waiting to define her. She tells Cahir O'Doherty about her inspirational Irish grandmother whose philosophies helped make her who she is.
Kelley Paul, 51, could win my vote. It's just a shame that she's not running for president.
Wife of the Tea Party favorite from Kentucky, Senator Rand Paul, she's already been thrust onto the national stage as he prepares his run for president.
Few people may be as fully prepared. Described by some as a “secret asset” to the famously dour senator’s campaign, some might go further and say that the photogenic former political consultant to Ted Cruz might actually have been the right one to contest the field.
Kelley Paul is smart, funny, well spoken and she has that I'm-talking-only-to-you charisma that marks a great politician out from a merely good one. And I say politician because it would be naive to think she's not a major part of the ticket, now her husband has thrown his hat in the GOP ring.
Although this week she's in New York to launch the publication of her new book True and Constant Friends - an inspirational memoir of sorts about her family, friends and faith - it's also clear the book is a carefully planned appeal to women voters and thus a part of her husband's ongoing presidential campaign. She's gearing up for her own run as the candidate’s wife.
“This book allows me to present who I am, not through anyone else's lens. It's very personal,” Paul tells the Irish Voice during a Monday interview.
“In some ways I’m grateful for the experience of politics because it's brought me this. I find myself drawing very closely to my friends, my family and my faith – who I am. That’s the biggest way I fortify myself. We don't want any of this experience to change who we are.”
The book is also, she says, her way of pushing back against the 30 million voices waiting to define her as her husband's presidential campaign kicks off. Although she has lived in Bowling Green, Kentucky for two decades as they raise their three sons, in recent months Paul has been living in Washington as media interest in her family explodes.
It's a change in fortune that she has reservations about, and to stave off its worst excesses as the media circus surrounds her she has found herself returning over and over to the life lessons she learned from her late Irish grandmother Julia O’Toole.
Julia immigrated to the U.S. from Dublin in 1929, becoming a housekeeper to some of the most prominent families in New York and finding more than a little of their dignity and style rubbed off. Her example of grace under pressure, no matter what hand fate dealt, led Paul to think of all the strong women in her life, and the ones that came before them that shaped her generation of friends.
“A 19-year-old getting on a ship with no cell phone and no way to contact her parents, I'm in awe,” Paul says.
“A lot of the stories in the book show me how much things have changed, because people were very brave back then. You just had to take huge risks. ”
There are few risks greater than seeking the presidency of the U.S., but Paul doesn't draw the obvious comparison. Certainly she appears to have inherited her Irish grandmother’s youthful daring.
“She had to take that risk because she had no life in Ireland. Her father was an invalid after being gassed by the Germans in World War I and her mother was really struggling to feed the family, which included her younger sister and brother. She quit school at 12 and worked as a maid in a boy’s school but she couldn't make any money.”
Help came from a distant relative who worked as a laundress in New York. “She wrote to my great grandmother that she was saving to buy Julia a ticket to come over to New York,” says Paul. “The plan was she would work for a wealthy family in the city.”
The plan worked, and soon Julia was sending money home to her hard pressed mother. “It was always her intention to return to Ireland one day, but then of course she fell in love and got married and made her life in America,” Paul says.
Growing up Paul was enchanted by her Irish grandmother, who wore stylish scarves, strolled around with a drink in her hand and was the life and soul of every gathering she attended. In fact she seemed so glamorous that it came as a shock when Paul learned she had actually spent most of life as a hard working maid.
“She had such exuberance and such a lovely way about her that she affected everyone she met. I gave a speech about her recently in a small town and a lot of the ladies that attended are now in their seventies, and they knew her,” Paul says.
“They talked about how when she came to Kentucky she was so stylish and still had a lovely Irish accent. She had worked in these wealthy homes and she had a gift for storytelling. She'd walk in to a room in her scarf and lipstick with her highball in hand and she'd take over the party. You'd have thought that she was a wealthy lady of New York herself.”
It was only when Paul got older that her mother told her the truth.
“She told me that grandma's life was really hard. That just proved to me you can be whoever you are, you can be whoever you want to be,” she says.
“You don't let outside circumstances define or crush your spirit. To me she is a great American success story.”
That's also the kind of inspirational rhetoric that seems very carefully crafted to appeal to women voters, a trouble spot for many Republican candidates. Rand Paul certainly did not help his feminist credibility recently when he raised his finger to his mouth on live TV to shush a female news anchor who was needling him over his policy positions. Perhaps to “soften” this rather patrician tendency, his wife has also included the contributions of seven of her lifelong college friends in the new book.
“We all met in 1981 and we were close friends all through college at Rhodes, with varying degrees of closeness. But we were always in this group together and roommates,” she recalls.
“We started getting together for reunions in our twenties. So now it’s been 33 years since we became friends – so we've seen each other through all of our stages from late teens to our early fifties.
“The reason I decided to go on this journey and include each of them, and ask them for their own reflections about their own grandmothers, was that when I talk about mine people come up to me after readings and tell me about theirs.”
America’s social and political history is inevitably contained in these exchanges, because grandmothers’ experiences reflect changing ideas about women in the workplace, about the rise of gender equality, about the lessons of these women's lives.
“I loved the experience of going back a generation or two and learning who were the women who had inspired my friends and helped make them who they are,” Paul adds.
“I had no idea that one of my friend’s grandmothers had been involved in the civil rights movement, or that another had refused to wear the veil in Turkey.”
Asked about the contemporary civil rights issue of same sex marriage Paul demurs. “You know I pretty much decided on this book tour I want Rand to speak on political issues for himself. I really want to stay away from political discussions because I'm not an elected official, I'm not running for anything.”
More's the pity, since it's clear she's a natural. It's clear her own second act, should her husband win or lose, will show us that she's followed in her spirited Irish grandmother's footsteps.