Someone gifted in public relations sees a jewel in whatever he's holding. The trick is to turn the thing until the interesting facet reveals itself.
Someone really gifted at public relations finds the facet that is both interesting and actionable. That's what Sen. Rand Paul did Wednesday night, and it was magnificent.
The Kentucky libertarian turned and twisted an unpolished rock Attorney General Eric Holder handed him -- ambiguity in a letter about the legality of killing American citizens on U.S. soil -- and uncovered a facet that warranted a dramatic Senate filibuster: our Fifth Amendment right to due process, a principle dating back to 1215 when the Magna Carta was penned in England.
Paul used Holder's bumbling omission -- clearly the attorney general doesn't believe that government can execute citizens on American soil -- to hammer away for 13 hours on live TV about the extra-Constitutional excesses of today's federal government, holding up the appointment of John Brennan to head the Central Intelligence Agency. He didn't read from the Bible or the Washington Yellow Pages to pass time as others have done in filibusters; he stayed squarely on message with the help of a cadre of Republican Senate colleagues that grew in number as the spectacle went on into the night -- and as the Twitter universe exploded.
"Does the Obama administration believe it has a Constitutional right to kill Americans on American soil without due process?" the shaggy-haired upstart demanded to know over and over again. And hour after hour, the White House inexplicably let it go on.
I can't remember the last time the Republicans held the clear moral high ground in such a high profile fashion and on an issue with such broad populist appeal. In a nutshell, the Republicans found themselves defending Americans against their government's reserving the right to kill them.
Talk about a political winner.
My personal stroke of genius Wednesday night was to alert my teenage daughters that a bona fide, old-fashioned filibuster was occurring -- "just like the one in 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,' " which is required watching in my household -- and coaxing one of them to actually watch part of it with me. For once, the Republicans were looking like the good guys on television, and I wasn't going to blow the opportunity to indoctrinate.
Rand Paul found a way to remind audiences old and young that the Constitution is an indispensable rule book, and that straying from it could lead to tyranny under the wrong circumstances. He also put the arrogant Obama administration up against the ropes, where he could jab away. He scored hit after hit as the filibuster went on.
A few winners:
"I have allowed the president to pick his political appointees. . . . I will not sit quietly and let [the president] shred the Constitution."
"I think it's also safe to say that the Barack Obama of 2007 would be right down here with me arguing against this drone-strike program if he were in the Senate."
I've never been a big Rand Paul supporter. It irks me that he delivers a separate State-of-the-Union response under the tea party label, which isn't a political party at all. But I found the thrill that crawls up Chris Matthews' leg whenever President Obama speaks crawling up mine as I listened to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz reading tweets aloud on the Senate floor from everyday Americans who "#standwithrand."
On Thursday, the White House capitulated the point in a terse letter from Holder, making Paul's filibuster an all-out victory.
Not everyone on the Republican side liked it. Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who dined with the president the night of the filibuster (not that there's anything wrong with that), scowled over Paul's tactics as showy and unnecessary, and accused him of not understanding national security interests.
Nonsense. Rand Paul clearly articulated his understanding of 21st century national security emergencies in his remarks. McCain and Graham don't understand 21st century PR.
Now if Paul would only orchestrate a filibuster on the national debt. Generation Screwed would go positively atwitter.
William F. B. O'Reilly is a Newsday columnist and a Republican political consultant.