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How Ryan Got His Footing In Conservative Politics


And, of course, this fall, Paul Ryan will be at the center of the political debate. The man Mitt Romney chose as his running mate first came to Congress in the late 1990s. He was still just in his 20s. And we're going to spend a little time now looking at Ryan's roots. Ryan Lizza wrote a profile of the Republican running mate in a recent issue of the New Yorker magazine. And Ryan Lizza joins us on the line.

Mr. Lizza, thanks for being here.

RYAN LIZZA: My pleasure.

GREENE: So working on this profile of Paul Ryan, you spent some time in his hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin. And you wrote about a family that I read as, kind of, being big fish in a small pond. It's that pretty accurate?

LIZZA: Yeah, the Ryan family is well-known in that corner of Wisconsin and in Janesville. His great-grandfather started a construction firm there, which is now a national construction firm called Ryan, Inc.; was one of a major, major employer, major road builder in the Midwest. You know, as someone said when I was out there, growing up a Ryan in Janesville was a big deal.

So it's a prominent family. He grew up in what's known as the Courthouse Hill District of the small town - Janesville, it's an historic district. He grew up relatively well-to-do but not, you know, not exceedingly privileged. But yeah, comes from a well-known family that helped build the town.

GREENE: Well, speaking of his family, a moment that really defined Paul Ryan's life, you wrote, was the death of his father.

LIZZA: Yeah.

GREENE: Could you remind us what happened?

LIZZA: Yeah, he talks about this quite a bit. All his family members were way and he was alone at home, had come home from working late at McDonald's, slept in, and he got a call from his father's secretary. His father was a lawyer downtown. And the secretary said, My God, where is your father. He has clients in the office. So Paul Ryan walked into his father's room. He saw him in the bed. He thought he was sleeping. He went to wake them up. And as he said, he was dead, died of a heart attack.

So the 16-year-old sophomore in high school was suddenly fatherless. And he said that he had a big impact on him. And, frankly, important and his ideological development, 'cause in the wake of his father's death he went through, what he described to me, almost as a sort of existential crisis where he started reading a lot. And he got very into conservative economic philosophy; Ayn Rand and 200000000000.

And that sort of was the beginning of his move into conservative politics, believe it or not, when he was a teenager dealing with the loss of his father.

GREENE: And when he brings those politics to Washington, and interesting that you touch on how it wasn't that he was determined to oppose Democrats. But really, he wanted to take on the identity of his own party.

LIZZA: That's right. So when I first interviewed him - I first interviewed him in early 2009 and that interview was all about, you know, he was the leading minority guy on the budget committee and so his job to really take on the Obama budget. What I found in that interview, he wasn't just satisfied with taking on Obama. He wanted to take on the Republican leadership, as well. Because he felt that through the Bush years, he had been cast in this role of supporting, as he says, a lot of big spending policies that made them feel a little guilty.

And he wanted to put forward an alternative agenda to Obama. And that was a big debate the Republicans are having in 2009: Do you just attack Obama or do you put forward an alternative as well. That's the way it's been running along ever since and he was sort of the leader of the attack-and-propose. And it worked out pretty well for him, 'cause he eventually got all the Republicans to support the ideas that he put forward in that time period.

GREENE: In just a few seconds we have left, Ryan, you wrote about Janesville, Wisconsin. An interesting thing you touch on is how the town struggled economically, relied on federal spending for help. But that's not - federal spending not something that Paul Ryan is usually in favor of.

LIZZA: Well, this is the irony. His budget would drastically reduce discretionary spending in the budget. But what I learned in Janesville is that the whole sort of nascent recovery of that town is relying on a series of federal initiatives. And so, that something he'll - that paradox will be something he'll have to grapple with in the campaign.

GREENE: All right. Ryan Lizza, thanks so much for speaking to us.

LIZZA: Hey, my pleasure.

GREENE: Ryan Lizza is the Washington correspondent for The New Yorker magazine. He was talking to us about his profile of Paul Ryan.

And you are listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.