WASHINGTON (AP) — At age 15, Paul Ryan was already feeling isolated from his father, who had grown distant from his family and leaned heavily on whiskey. Then one morning the future congressman found his alcoholic father in bed, dead from an apparent heart attack at age 55.
It’s a formative story the Republicans’ 2012 vice presidential nominee has not fully told publicly before now. In an interview with The Associated Press, Ryan said the event shaped him as a politician and as a family man — and figures heavily into whether he will seek the presidency in 2016.
“Having not had a dad for a long time, it brings you much closer to your kids and your family,” Ryan said from New York as he begins a tour to promote his new book, “The Way Forward: Renewing the America Idea.”
As Ryan weighs a presidential campaign, talk turns to his three children. The oldest, Liza, is about to turn 13.Ryan says he is not eager to spend even more time away from Janesville, the small Wisconsin town where he grew up and where he and his wife, Janna, have raised their own family.
“One of the reasons why I’ve always passed elected leadership positions up in the House — you know, speaker, leader, all the things people ask you to run for — is because it takes you away from your family even more,”Ryan said. “I’ve made career decisions based upon family balance and part of that is because of my own upbringing and my own childhood.”
During his turn as Mitt Romney’s vice presidential nominee, Ryan often returned to Janesville on weekends. In the final weeks of the campaign, Janna and the kids joined him on the plane or on bus tours that went for hundreds of miles each day.
Ryan’s stint as Romney’s No. 2 lasted 87 days. A two-year presidential campaign would be tougher as well as longer, keeping his family traipsing through early nominating Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. And that’s before the frenetic head-to-head race against the Democratic nominee if he were to win the nomination.
But in his new book, Ryan lays the policy-heavy groundwork for a presidential campaign — or perhaps an expanded role in the House. He is expected to give up the gavel of the House Budget Committee and shift to the powerful Ways and Means Committee early next year.
While there is plenty of partisan criticism of President Barack Obama and his Democratic allies — he calls the Obama administration “lawless” — the book’s personal revelations are the ones that could soften his image as a hard-nosed budget negotiator. None is more personal than his father’s drinking.
Ryan describes a morning phone call from his father’s assistant during the summer of 1986. The unexpected call roused the younger Ryan after a late night working at the local McDonald’s. The assistant said Paul Murray Ryan, a lawyer, had clients waiting for him at the office.
Ryan went looking for his father around their Janesville home and checked his parents’ bedroom.
“It was obvious I wouldn’t be able to save him,” he writes in the book. “His heart had stopped and he was gone.”
Years of drinking had taken their toll, Ryan said. Paul Murray Ryan had struggled with alcohol addiction and at one point checked himself into an in-patient treatment program. He stayed sober for more than 20 years, but then slipped back into a pattern of whiskeys from the time he came home until the time he went to bed.
“I’ve never talked about it before,” Ryan said in an interview.
Ryan said the relationship with his father had “atrophied,” especially during the two years before the heart attack.
“While he certainly tried to fight it, my dad’s addiction eventually won out,” he writes. “Over time, it made him more distant, irritable and stressed. Before I lost him to a heart attack, whiskey had washed away some of the best parts of the man I knew.”
His mother was visiting Denver when the elder Ryan died. The high school sophomore started planning for funeral services before his mother returned home and learned her husband had died.
“I grew up real fast,” Ryan said.
Why, after not discussing his father’s struggles during previous campaigns, did Ryan write about it now?
“It would have been incomplete had I not discussed it,” he said in the interview. “I thought it would have been too whitewashed had I not talked about it.”
Jackson reported from Chicago.
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