Ron Paul: Monika Berenyi, Canadian Artist, Shares Chat With Republican Presidential Hopeful
Monika Berenyi was searching for the post office in the complex network of U.S. Capitol Hill buildings when she turned a corner, transforming herself into an ambassador for Canada during the most-watched political race in the world.
The Toronto-based artist and historian was pursuing a research fellowship at the U.S. Library of Congress when a librarian sent her through the basement to her destination.
"I got lost and started following what appeared to be a labyrinth. I popped up somewhere. I realized as I was walking that I was in a government building ... and suddenly standing in front of Ron Paul's office."
Her quest momentarily forgotten, she went inside.
Some of Berenyi's work centers around the history and pictures of the Great Depression. Paul was born in 1935. When his clerk asked what had prompted her entry into the office, she explained her work and noted she had read two of Paul's books.
The clerk concluded a meeting was in order and a date was set for six weeks later, in June.
In the interim, Paul, a U.S. Congressman from Texas, announced his candidacy to become the Republican Party's nominee for president.
Berenyi was far from political junkie. But she had a scholar's respect for the "End the Fed" author she had read closely for her own research into watersheds in 20th century American social history.
They met in the Cannon House building on June 22, a day that Paul already had five television interviews lined up.
Sitting in his office, the 76-year-old picked the brain of the woman 40 some-odd years his junior about Canada, history and philosophy.
It was a rare and personal encounter with a man who dubs himself anti-establishment, and who is frequently portrayed in U.S. media as a fringe contender who proposes radical measures and promotes ideology that some might describe as off-the-wall.
"We didn't talk about politics, America or the government, we talked about his universal message to humanity," Berenyi said in an interview, two days before Saturday's South Carolina primary was expected to impact Paul's political future.
"The whole experience was nothing short of enlightening for me, and it's a beautiful memory I have."
Paul has gained more ground in this contest than his previous two bids since 1988, and he's built steady momentum with his libertarian world view and by tapping into social networking.
The former obstetrician finished third and second in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary respectively. On Friday, most polls were placing him third, behind front-runner Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, in the high-stakes South Carolina competition.
At times he has eschewed the press, which has also given him disproportionately low coverage compared to other candidates, according to the Pew Research Center's journalism think tank.
Paul stood up from behind his desk, introduced himself and shook hands with Berenyi and the two sat down together at a large oval table to converse as sunlight streamed through a series of large windows.
"He asked me, how would I describe Canada?" she said, noting that for an American politician he appeared "extremely aware" of his neighbours north of the border.
They chatted about education, health care, the population distribution and at length about the vast national resources and how the natural world plays an important role in the Canadian identity.
"He seemed very fascinated by the landscapes and nature and the geography," she said, noting he was an excellent listener who seemed to take special interest in the Prairies.
In a soft-spoken voice, he also told her that as a little boy his father took himself and his brothers on an incredible bicycle trip from their home in Pennsylvania to Toronto. It was a memory he recollected fondly after she said she's completing her second Masters degree in the documentary media program at Ryerson University.
He also inquired how her own parents immigrated to Canada, and she explained her father came over just after the Hungarian Revolution. The tale prompted his own.
"He shared the story of his great-grandfather coming over from Germany, what life was like and the hardships and the trials of being an immigrant in North America," she said.
And then they poured over a published book of Berenyi's work, which uniquely juxtaposes historical record from the midst of the Great Depression and photographs from an archive beginning the same year Paul was born.
"We went through the pages of it and we went through the photographs together," she said. "During the time that we were exchanging, we rewound history and Dr. Paul was able to reflect on his memories from that time period.
"He also related to the fact that what I was doing as an artist was important."
They saw eye-to-eye in the belief that history is repeating itself, and that the historian's task in a world of gadgetry remains incredibly important "so that we can learn from the past," she said. But they also agreed about the importance of youth engagement.
"He's pretty contemporary in his ability to hold on to the important things from the past and also create territory for himself in this new media paradigm," she said.
When their talk was over, Paul asked if she could leave a signed copy of her book and to snap a photograph together.
She returned home, only realizing later that night she had forgotten to wish him well in his nomination run.
"He's often referred to as some kind of constitutional revivalist or libertarian or the man behind the archaic values, but as a human being he's deeply philosophical and he's a man of ideas," Berenyi said.
"I believe firmly we are going to look back on this epoch in history and we are going to try to understand ... his ability to be the spokesperson for things that nobody else seems to want to talk about."
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