Southern Avenger no more: Rand Paul aide Jack Hunter leaves staff, returns to punditry

W. James Antle III | Managing Editor

The man who for years called himself the “Southern Avenger” says he now seeks to avenge his own honor.

Jack Hunter, the aide to Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul who has been under fire for comments critical of Abraham Lincoln and sympathetic to the Confederacy, has left the senator’s office to resume his career as a political pundit.

Hunter told The Daily Caller News Foundation that he wanted to avoid being a distraction for Paul and to clear his own name, which he argues is now unfairly associated with racism.

A senior Paul aide confirmed Hunter’s departure.

“I’ve long been a conservative, and years ago, a much more politically incorrect (and campy) one,” Hunter said in an email. “But there’s a significant difference between being politically incorrect and racist. I’ve also become far more libertarian over the years, a philosophy that encourages a more tolerant worldview, through the lens of which I now look back on some of my older comments with embarrassment.”

Hunter, who has contributed opinion pieces to The Daily Caller, is a personal friend of the author.

The Washington Free Beacon originally reported that Hunter toasted the birthday of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth, lamented the United States’ shrinking white majority and compared honoring the Founding Fathers while admiring Lincoln to “praising Jesus and worshiping Satan simultaneously.”

The story set off a firestorm of controversy across the political spectrum. Hunter was most recently criticized by his former editor at the Charleston City Paper for asking him to remove posts and for being the “most common kind of racist, the one that doesn’t realize that he is one.”

Chris Haire, the Charleston alt-weekly’s managing editor, also described Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Pat Buchanan as racists. Asked why he published Hunter — a paid columnist — if he believed him to be a racist, Haire tweeted in response, “To reveal the mindset of the SCGOP and the Neoconfederate fringe.”

Paul described Hunter’s comments as “absolutely stupid” but defended his “incredibly talented” social media director in an interview with The Huffington Post.

“People are calling him a white supremacist,” Paul said. “If I thought he was a white supremacist, he would be fired immediately.”

Others have defended Hunter as well, saying that while he may have been attracted to peculiarly Southern forms of conservatism and occasionally naive about racial issues, he is not the figure some critics have portrayed.

“In all my dealings with Jack Hunter, I have found him to be most impressive, most professional and a committed conservative,” South Carolina Republican Rep. Mark Sanford told TheDCNF. “I think a lot of this has less to do with Jack Hunter than Rand Paul and 2016.”

Former Charleston City Paper music editor Ballard Lesemann knew Hunter back when he was still wearing a pro-wrestling-style mask emblazoned with the Confederate flag. He told TheDCNF that Hunter was already assuming a less kitschy and provocative persona back then.

“By the time Jack started working with local AM news/talk station 1250 WTMA, he’d already ditched the mask and the schtick side of the Southern Avenger character, and he began to develop a more serious, thoughtful, in-depth approach and delivery,” Lesemann said.

While the two of them “bonded more over conversations about Iron Maiden, Rush, and the Who than about political candidates and partisan politics,” Lesemann was familiar with Hunter’s political work.

“As a left-leaning independent who voted for Ralph Nader in 2000, 2004 and 2008, you can imagine how my own political views could clash with those of Jack Hunter’s,” he said. “But in all of our conversations, interviews, and late-night tavern chats, we never fought or argued.”

Marcus Amaker edited Hunter’s entertainment writings for the Charleston Post and Courier. He described Hunter as “a good guy” and “professional freelancer.”

“I never had any issues with Jack,” Amaker told TheDCNF. “Honestly, I haven’t paid much attention to the controversy. Anything that seeks to divide people isn’t on my radar and doesn’t get my energy.”

Prior to working for Rand Paul, Hunter was the official campaign blogger for Ron Paul during the 2012 GOP primaries. In that capacity, he frequently worked to marginalize extremists within the movement, ridiculing conspiracy theorists and defending the idea of working within the mainstream Republican Party.

Now the controversy over Hunter’s past writings and radio broadcasts is widely seen as a drag on libertarian-leaning Republicans’ mainstream political ambitions and a reminder of the elder Paul’s newsletters.

While the former Texas congressman denied writing or even reading the racist content in the newsletters that appeared under his name, questions persisted about their authorship.

Hunter isn’t denying writing the columns in question, but he does say the coverage doesn’t represent the full body of his writing.

“The stories made me angry, as well as many who’ve followed my work, because the cherry-picked distortions weren’t even remotely the real me,” he said. “It was enraging to watch neoconservatives, liberals and even some actual racists speculate about what I believe, based on what they were eager to portray me as believing. Not surprisingly, their speculations almost always suited their own political purposes.”

“Still, the moment I became a distraction for Sen. Paul, I knew it was time to leave. My purpose has always been to help, not hinder,” Hunter added. Now as he once ditched the mask, he will also discard the Southern Avenger name.

“I also wanted the ability to defend myself in my own voice, not as a member of anyone’s staff or even as the ‘Southern Avenger’ character, which has now been so mischaracterized that I will permanently retire that moniker,” Hunter said.

In addition to any fallout for Rand Paul’s political future, the controversy raises philosophical questions for conservatives and libertarians.

“Nothing in American history has done more harm to the limited government cause than the association of state sovereignty arguments with defenses of slavery,” wrote Philip Klein in the Washington Examiner. “Confederates who employed limited government arguments to argue for preserving a brutal and inhumane practice shouldn’t be deemed friends of limited government.”

Hunter maintains he is now freer to join these debates.

“I look forward to returning to just being a pundit and fighting these battles on my own,” he said. “The neoconservatives, who first ran and promoted this story, would much rather argue about the Civil War than the Iraq War.”

“From their standpoint, and given current trends within the Republican Party,” Hunter concluded, “I can’t say I blame them.”

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