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That's My Issue: Paul Ryan's Life-Changing Moment

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Paul Ryan has been picked as Mitt Romney's running mate. (Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

That's My Issue is WNYC's project to gather stories of how your life experience has shaped your politics. Ryan Lizza's recent New Yorker profile of Congressman Paul Ryan - now Mitt Romney's GOP running mate - contains a classic "That's My Issue" moment. Here's the story of how the sudden death of Ryan's father shaped him.

The summer of 1986 brought a life-changing event. One night in August, he came home from work well past midnight, and he slept late the following morning. His mother was in Colorado visiting his sister, and his brother, who had a summer job with the Janesville parks department, had left early. Paul answered a frantic phone call from his father’s secretary. “Your dad’s got clients in here,” she said. “Where is he?” Paul walked into his parents’ bedroom and thought his father was sleeping. “I went to wake him up,” he told me, “and he was dead.”

“It was just a big punch in the gut,” Ryan said. “I concluded I’ve got to either sink or swim in life.”

Later in Lizza's piece, more on the effect of the tragedy on Ryan:

His father’s death also provoked the kind of existential soul-searching that most kids don’t undertake until college. “I was, like, ‘What is the meaning?’ ” he said. “I just did lots of reading, lots of introspection. I read everything I could get my hands on.” Like many conservatives, he claims to have been profoundly affected by Ayn Rand. After reading “Atlas Shrugged,” he told me, “I said, ‘Wow, I’ve got to check out this economics thing.’ What I liked about her novels was their devastating indictment of the fatal conceit of socialism, of too much government.” He dived into Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Milton Friedman.

Lizza described the story in further detail on the Brian Lehrer Show

Lizza: Yeah, so he was a summer -- he was 16 years old, high school student, he was working at McDonalds. He came home from a long night working the grill and he slept in that day, and he got a frantic phone call from his father's secretary. Now his grandfather and his father both defected from the family business and they were lawyers. So his father had a small law firm downtown Jamesville, and his secretary was calling to say 'hey your father's got clients in the office here. Where is he?' And so Paul Ryan got up, he was the only other person at home, he walked into his parents’ bedroom and he saw his father there in the bed. He thought he was sleeping, he went to wake him up and he was dead. He had died of a heart attack. So his father, his grandfather, and his great-grandfather all died before they were 60, which has done a couple of things for Paul Ryan. One, it’s made him a health nut (he talks about this quite frequently), but two I think it’s given him a sort of sense that he’s gotta hurry up and get things done in life ‘cause you never know how much time you have. And he essentially told me that.

That's Paul Ryan's story -- what's yours? Tell us on the That's My Issue homepage.

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