RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And with the Republican field for president in flux, there is at least one constant. Congressman Ron Paul is running for president for the third time. He still wants to shut down the Federal Reserve and slash the size of government.
As part of our series on the spark that propels the candidates, NPR's Robert Smith reports on what makes Paul run.
ROBERT SMITH: Go to any Ron Paul event, and it strikes you immediately. What's up with all the teenagers?
At a recent book signing in New York, a line of young people snakes through the store. It starts in the children's section, it moves through self-help and recovery, past the memoirs, along the great ideas bookshelf.
Rob Gray is 16 years old, and he doesn't think there's anything odd about lining up to see a 75-year-old congressman.
Mr. ROB GRAY: Well, I mean I guess to throw around the old canard of the young being more open-minded than the old.
SMITH: Ron Paul, the world's most unlikely teen idol. He comes into the store with no fanfare, just plops down at a table in the World History section. His bushy eyebrows go up in surprise. Paul tells me that it always amazes him when kids want to talk about the Federal Reserve.
Representative RON PAUL (Republican, Texas): Well, I have to admit, when I was in high school and college, at the age many of those young people are now that come in and see me, I didn't have much interest in politics at all. I was probably more interested in trying to get into medical school.
SMITH: Oh, he got in. And it was only in his early twenties when Ron Paul finally had some time to look around at the world. He was struck by a novel that his mother gave him.
Rep. PAUL: Early on, it was Dr. Zhivago. I remember that.
SMITH: You could see how the book would resonate. It's about a young doctor that wants nothing to do with politics until the Russian Revolution destroys his life.
(Soundbite of movie "Dr. Zhivago")
Mr. OMAR SHARIF (Actor): (As Dr. Yuri Zhivago) Where are you taking me?
Mr. TOM COURTENAY (Actor): (As Pasha) To the front.
Mr. SHARIF: (As Dr. Yuri Zhivago) And where is the front?
Mr. COURTENAY: (As Pasha) Good question, doctor. The front is wherever there are enemies of the revolution.
Rep. PAUL: I was intrigued with this, this the whole idea of the communism and the terrible conditions that were happening in Russia and the way Zhivago had to put up with this.
(Soundbite of music)
SMITH: It was all about the value of individual liberty. And soon Paul found an economic theory with the same message: Friedrich Hayek writing about free-market capitalism.
Rep. PAUL: I read a lot. It was sort of fascinating. It was sort of like a game on how the monetary system worked.
SMITH: By then you could probably call Ron Paul a libertarian. But he still shunned politics. He just wanted to be a doctor. He moved to Texas, delivered babies. Still, Dr. Paul quietly lived his principles. He wouldn't accept federal money through Medicaid, for instance. But he didn't try to change the world, until the world changed on him.
Rep. PAUL: Well, I remember that day very clearly. August 15th of 1971, and it was a Sunday night when this announcement came.
(Soundbite of archived recording)
President RICHARD NIXON: I have directed Secretary Connelly to suspend, temporarily, the convertibility of the dollar into gold or other reserve assets.
SMITH: From all his economics reading, Ron Paul knew exactly what Nixon meant. The U.S. dollar was now officially off the gold standard. And in Paul's worldview, this was asking for massive inflation. But even hearing Nixon, didn't push the doctor to run for office. It was the next day when he realized that nobody else seemed to care.
Rep. PAUL: The stock market went up a record amount as a consequence of this disastrous announcement. And my interpretation was, my lord, what's going on here? They're doing everything wrong and everybody loves it.
SMITH: And this was Ron Paul's spark: The feeling that people were just sleepwalking through life and only he could wake them up. So he ran for Congress in 1974.
Rep. PAUL: Because who wanted to hear me talk about economics while practicing medicine?
SMITH: He lost, but he won a seat in 1976. And he did try to put the dollar back on the gold standard, but he was just one lonely voice in Congress, and he still is. Ron Paul rails against government spending, and the budget just goes up. He argues against wars, and the troops keep fighting. He calls for the legalization of drugs, and nothing happens. Except it turns out a lot of young people are listening.
At the book signing, every twenty-something remembers their Ron Paul spark. Usually it's discovering a YouTube video from one of his two runs for president. And it's not hard to see the attraction. I mean, they've just left home; they don't want anyone, especially the government, telling them what to do. Kenneth Christianson is 26.
Mr. KENNETH CHRISTIANSON: Yeah I think it's just the concept of freedom, being able to actually choose what you want with your life.
SMITH: But there is something more. Every young person knows that getting older means a life full of compromises. A few even mentioned to me that someday they might actually have to support a candidate that has a slightly better chance of winning, but not now. Sixteen-year-old Rob Gray says Ron Paul gives him hope.
Mr. GRAY: Not everyone is a sellout. Not everyone becomes controlled by the special interests. There are people who still stick to their principles.
SMITH: In that way, maybe Ron Paul never grew up.
Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.