Now ends the fluff, and begins the very public testing of Beto O’Rourke
“The more he talks, the more he likes the sound of what he’s saying.”
That isn’t snarky commentary; that is a direct pull quote from the Vanity Fair piece that is serving as media launch vehicle to Beto 2020.
It’s 10:30 P.M. and Amy is now curled up on a chair next to Beto, scrolling through e-mails. The kids are asleep. I ask O’Rourke if he could see himself among the presidential biographies on his shelf — Washington, Lincoln, Kennedy. “I haven’t really thought about that,” he says. “I think, ego-wise, we’re going to be O.K. if we don’t run. Where we won’t be O.K. is, if we don’t run and come to the conclusion later on, if we had run, man, this wouldn’t have happened. Things would have been a lot better. Or — ”
“You didn’t do everything you could,” Amy says, completing his sentence.
“We didn’t do everything that we could,” he says.
Beto O’Rourke seems, in this moment, like a cliff diver trying to psych himself into the jump. And after playing coy all afternoon about whether he’ll run, he finally can’t deny the pull of his own gifts. “You can probably tell that I want to run,” he finally confides, smiling. “I do. I think I’d be good at it.”
“This is the fight of our lives,” he continues, “not the fight-of-my-political-life kind of crap.
But, like, this is the fight of our lives as Americans, and as humans, I’d argue.”
The more he talks, the more he likes the sound of what he’s saying. “I want to be in it,” he says, now leaning forward. “Man, I’m just born to be in it, and want to do everything I humanly can for this country at this moment.”
It is quite the piece, complete with Vanity Fair having dispatched Annie Leibovtiz to provide the photos to accompany Joe Hagan’s prose. It drips with angst and the weight of decision making and destiny. It is grade A media roll out strategy.
And if it seems familiar, it’s because it is, as Kyle Swenson in The Washington Post points out:
The picture, splashed on the cover of next month’s Vanity Fair, features Beto O’Rourke, and accompanies a long cover story that lit up the Internet on Wednesday. Taking readers inside the former congressman’s will-he-or-won’t-he ruminations about running for president after losing a 2018 Senate campaign against Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), writer Joe Hagan’s piece ends suggesting a definitive yes. (Although he still has not made an official announcement, O’Rourke has reportedly told an El Paso television station he will join the race)
But eagle-eyed sleuths on the Internet were more curious of the cover portrait. As some pointed out, the image bears an uncanny resemblance to a 2007 magazine cover of John Edwards, another presidential hopeful, then featured on the now-shuttered Men’s Vogue. Sly grin. Outdoors. Jeans. Truck. Family dog.
Both magazines are owned by Condé Nast. Both pieces were penned by Hagan. And both photos were taken by famed photographer Annie Leibovitz.
Still others pointed out the pose was very similar both in posture and clothing to Reagan’s Time Magazine “Man of the Year” cover.
To be fair, there is a certain way to look and be presented when you are rolling out a presidential campaign, and to use Swenson’s phrasing “when it comes to presidential iconography, there’s a limited set of images that tend to be recycled again and again.” It’s all designed to show Beto O’Rourke not as a wealthy former congressman who has the security to be at his leisure while deciding whether or not to run for the White House the last few months, but Beto O’Rourke the family man, concerned citizen, regular guy spurned to action by fate and circumstances.
But that also is going to feed into the strongest criticisms of Beto O’Rourke, the candidate.
Beto O’Rourke came within a respectable 3 points of unseating Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), in the process gaining national attention and record setting fundraising. He was the telegenic beneficiary of a confluence of events: mid-term elections that were going to see the Democratic Party gain seats in congress, nearly universal loathing of Ted Cruz outside of the Republican Party, the continued dream of flipping Texas red to Democrat blue, and the general love of a long shot underdog story.
That dynamic has little to do with a presidential campaign.
Beto’s persona will carry over, and some of his fundraising contacts, but little else. Whereas he had the complete phalanx of everyone not supporting Ted Cruz assisting him in his Senate campaign, the 2020 presidential nomination will be political blood sport for the ages. The crowded field for Team Blue isn’t just the result of no clear leader, but also of a palpable belief that President Donald Trump is vulnerable and beatable by anyone who emerges victorious in the nomination fight. The theory goes, and is widely proclaimed, that whoever the Democratic Party nominates will be better than Donald J. Trump and therefore will enjoy universal support en route to victory.
Sounds good. On Paper.
In reality, there are still 20 months of bloodletting to get through, and already the not-so-silent primary against the candidates, both declared and undeclared, has produced some ugly moments for the contenders to navigate. Senator Kamala Harris has been answering legitimate questions about her prosecutorial record, and less legitimate and rather ugly questions over her husband, career, and even her own racial background. Senator Amy Klobuchar has been fighting a steady drip of stories about her treatment of her staff. What little attention Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has is being funneled to dealing with how she handled sexual harassment allegations between two staffers. Senator Bernie Sanders has had a stream of old videos emerge showing everything from him honeymooning in Russia and praising the Soviet system to making unflattering comments.
There are many other examples. It will only get nastier from here. There will be no stepping aside from the large group of fellow Democrats seeking the highest office of the land. So how will Beto O’Rouke, who rather publicly has been soul searching, self-exploring, and otherwise being very open on everything, fit into that?
His supporters play up the openness and honesty angle. The comparison some of those supporters try to make to the Hope and Change of Barack Obama range from subtle to screaming. The Vanity Fair piece went with the latter, detailing the former president’s sit down with Beto after his senate defeat, and by setting the scene of him coming home from his Oprah interview to find his wife Amy reading Michele Obama’s book Becoming.
When O’Rourke blurted out to Oprah that he’d make a decision on whether to run or not “before the end of this month,” the answer surprised even him. “I did not intend to say that,” he tells me. On the flight home from New York, O’Rourke learned that Trump was coming to El Paso. Amy was reading Becoming, by Michelle Obama, absorbing the former First Lady’s account of her trials living through a toxic presidential race with her husband. By the time the O’Rourkes touched down at El Paso International Airport, Amy’s stomach was in knots. “She was kind of pissed at me when we got home,” recalls O’Rourke. “Almost like ‘You fucker.’ ”
She knew he was running.
It’s that kind of heavy-handed imagery that is causing eye-rolls from detractors. What comes off as open and honest on social media to some can quickly careen into silliness and TMI to others, such as when O’Rouke decided to Instagram his dentist visit. It was quite the online Rorschach test between those who found it endearing and those who found it idiotic with little ground in between. In a campaign that is already marked by the candidates’ usage of self-made social media videos, Beto cooking in his kitchen was well-received while his blogging of his soul searching travels raised eyebrows and elicited chuckles.
Just as dividing was the details surrounding Beto’s 1998 DUI. The incident being twenty years old and widely known, it is not in doubt that it happened, but there was some noise around the circumstances and whether or not O’Rourke tried to flee the scene. That story won’t move the needle much in the campaign to come, having been hashed out in both his congressional and senatorial campaigns. The narrative of having grown up and past it will hold up for most folks, as our last three presidents have included an admitted drug experimenter in Barack Obama, an alcoholic for better part of a decade before finding religion in George Bush, and a laundry list of personal failings surrounding Bill Clinton. It’s barely even worth mentioning compared to the life and times of our current president.
So barring some John Edwards-type self destruction, God forbid, what do we make of Beto O’Rourke as things stand today?
The Vanity Fair piece is instructional not just in the narrative being built around the man and candidate, but also in letting you know who supports him. It takes stroke to not only get that treatment, but to get Conde Nast’s A-Team and full media push to accompany it. Those same people with stroke have clearly decided that Beto should run and be supported. We know he does media and live events well.
And that is about it. The rest is conjecture.
Yes, he fundraised well in 2018 but that was when he was postioned as the bottom of a nation-wide funnel pointed specifically at him. $70M is record-setting for a senate race, but will barely get you through the door in a presidential campaign. Yes, he is good on TV, but so are several of the other candidates. Yes, he is relatively young, especially to the post-70 Bidens, Sanders, and Warrens of the race. But at 46 he’s in the middle range between Harris, Gillibrand, and Klobuchar who are all in their 50s (Senator Cory Booker turns 50 in April), and the younger Julian Castro (44) and the much younger Tusli Gabbard and Pete Buttigieg, who are both in their 30s. Yes, he performed above expectations against Ted Cruz, but everything went his way in that race.
An endorsement, beyond just hints and conversation, by the Obamas would be something, but even that holds uncertainty. The former president surely wouldn’t endorse until the primary is mostly decided, or at least winnowed down. Then there is the question of whether a party that is hell-bent on beating Trump even wants to do a remix of Hope and Change against Donald Trump when many loud voices are demanding scorched Earth. Polls don’t mean much at this stage, but since November and while he was waiting to announce, Beto’s numbers did dip.
In December, a CNN/Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa poll found that 28% of likely caucus-goers there had a “very favorable” view of O’Rourke. A new poll this month found that number had decreased to 19%.
Bernie Sanders’ entrance gobbled up attention and an eye-catching fundraising haul. The will-he-won’t-he of another candidate in Joe Biden also looms before the full field of contenders is set. Then there is the question of “can he fight?” So far he has gone out of his way to praise and not criticize anyone currently running, but that will quickly have to change. At some point if he wants to win, the skateboarding former punk rock band member is going to need to trade blows and get his hands dirty in a very crowded race. Not to mention that the winner of the nomination gets the prize of being the sole focus of President Trump’s attention from both the bully pulpit of the office he holds and the Twitter account he uses to drive the daily news cycle.
The charge against Beto O’Rourke by his detractors beyond just his politics is inexperience, political naivety, and being something of a hyped-up empty suit. Policy wise, he will be walking the same tightrope many Democratic candidates will be on, whether he meets the individual issue purity test a dozen different concerns demand. He has already been sniped at from his left, and no matter what positions he lands on he will be far from acceptable to those on the right. The Sanders supporters started attacking him almost immediately following the 2018 midterms, seeking to snuff out the potential usurper to what they felt was stolen from them in 2016. Others feel that with his failure to unseat Cruz his political usefulness has come to an end.
But that is the good part of a grueling presidential campaign. Now that Beto O’Rouke is in the race, the time for speculating is done, the coulda, shoulda, willas now have an embodiment and trajectory. There will soon be discernible data points to judge on, and a pass/fail grade at the end of this most public of tests.
That “no one person” line clashes with his own Vanity Fair profile, and plays into the criticism that he, and his supporters, might think too highly of themselves:
Settling into an armchair in his living room, he tries to make sense of his rise. “I honestly don’t know how much of it was me,” he says. “But there is something abnormal, super-normal, or I don’t know what the hell to call it, that we both experience when we’re out on the campaign trail.”
O’Rourke and his wife, Amy, an educator nine years his junior, both describe the moment they first witnessed the power of O’Rourke’s gift.
It was in Houston, the third stop on O’Rourke’s two-year Senate campaign against Ted Cruz. “Every seat was taken, every wall, every space in the room was filled with probably a thousand people,” recalls Amy O’Rourke. “You could feel the floor moving almost. It was not totally clear that Beto was what everybody was looking for, but just like that people were so ready for something. So that was totally shocking. I mean, like, took-my-breath-away shocking.”
For O’Rourke, what followed was a near-mystical experience. “I don’t ever prepare a speech,” he says. “I don’t write out what I’m going to say. I remember driving to that, I was, like, ‘What do I say? Maybe I’ll just introduce myself. I’ll take questions.’ I got in there, and I don’t know if it’s a speech or not, but it felt amazing. Because every word was pulled out of me. Like, by some greater force, which was just the people there. Everything that I said, I was, like, watching myself, being like, How am I saying this stuff? Where is this coming from?
For those skeptical of Beto O’Rourke, his squaring of the “all in this together” Beto with the mystical wonders of “feel the floor moving” magical mystery Beto will be quite the trick to pull off. Will voters “witness the power of O’Rourke’s gift?” Or will his doubters be proven right, that the El Paso native is more sizzle than steak? We have 20 months of vetting, if that long, to find out.
Now ends the fluff. We will see what, if anything, of Beto O’Rourke holds up.
Originally published at ordinary-times.com on March 14, 2019.