It’s nine P.M. on a Thursday night and Beto O’Rourke is trying to manage a couple of life-altering and possibly world-historical political events while also driving his family home from a Mexican restaurant. Donald Trump will touch down in O’Rourke’s hometown of El Paso in four days to hold a rally and whip up excitement for a wall along the border with Mexico. O’Rourke’s iPhone is pinging with texts asking what he plans to do about it—and also whether he’s going to run for president of the United States of America.
Henry, age eight, weighs in from the back of the Toyota Tundra.
“Dad, if you run for president, I’m going to cry all day,” he says.
“Just the one day?” asks O’Rourke, hopefully.
“Every day,” says Henry.
Daughter Molly, freckle-faced and clever, astutely observes, “The White House is going to be all wet.” Earlier that day, the 10-year-old declared cheerily, “I want to live in the White House!” O’Rourke’s eldest, 12-year-old Ulysses, named for the hero of the Homeric classic that Beto O’Rourke has said he cherishes, delivers the final word: “I only want you to run if you’re gonna win.”
For a potential presidential candidate, Trump’s visit is a gift, but one that could easily be bobbled or squandered. O’Rourke is trying to organize a counter-rally, but he is meeting stiff resistance from local activists whose big idea is to stage a protest outside Trump’s rally. “They’re insisting on their event. They just want us to come in and support,” he tells me. O’Rourke thinks a protest is exactly wrong and would play right into Trump’s hands. “I gotta think, What does his team want?” he says of Trump. “What are they expecting us to do? Some calculation went into this. So is that what they’re looking for?”
Characteristically, O’Rourke wants a more optimistic approach, one that doesn’t let the president define the terms. And so he’ll spend the next 24 hours carefully steering allies to his idea of staging an upbeat “March for Truth,” which would just happen to star El Paso’s best counter-argument to Donald Trump: himself.
And it will all work out—if he can just keep his eyes on the road. “Motherfuckers!” he says after darting into a busy intersection while ferrying the brood home from school that day. Then he catches himself: “Sorry, kids.”
Beto O’Rourke’s Mission-style home in the El Paso neighborhood of Sunset Heights is the site of a famous 1915 meeting between Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa and U.S. general Hugh Scott. While renovating it, O’Rourke had a wrought-iron fence around the property removed, save for a few feet of it around a pistachio tree. In late February, he came home to find Republican protesters live-streaming video and asking why he still had a fence, mimicking Trump’s remark that politicians like walls when they’re around their own homes. “I said, ‘Come up with me and I will take you to our front door,’ ” he recalls. “ ‘This is just decorative fencing.’ ”
“Why do you have walls in your house?” they retorted. “Why do you have a door?”
Behind the door, in the O’Rourke living room, a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf contains a section for rock memoirs (Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, a favorite) and a stack of LPs (the Clash, Nina Simone) but also a sizable collection of presidential biographies, including Robert Caro’s work on Lyndon B. Johnson. Arranged in historical order, the biographies suggest there’s been some reflection on the gravity of the presidency. But there’s also some political poetry to it, a sense that O’Rourke might be destined for this shelf. He has an aura. Most places he goes in El Paso, he’s dogged by cries of “Beto! Beto!” Oprah Winfrey, who helped anoint Barack Obama in 2008, practically begged him to run at an event in New York City at the beginning of February.
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?
“There’s something that happens to me,” he says, “or that I get to be a part of in those rooms, that is not like normal life. I don’t know if that has ever happened to me before. I don’t know if that would happen again.”
At 46, O’Rourke is only a couple of years younger than former rival Ted Cruz. But part of the excitement, and the content of his potential candidacy, is generational. Whereas Obama is from the tail end of the baby boom, Beto O’Rourke is quintessentially Generation X, weaned on Star Wars and punk rock and priding himself on authenticity over showmanship and a healthy skepticism of the mainstream. He came of age in a world of crumbling taboos over personal revelation, which has clearly peaked with Donald Trump, whose relentless Twitter habit has basically set the table for O’Rourke’s open-book style. Whether onstage or on Facebook Live or in person, O’Rourke has a preternatural ease. That openness is part of what he loves about campaigning. “I think that’s the beauty of elections: You can’t hide from who you are,” he says. “The more honestly and directly you communicate to people why you’re doing this, the way in which you want to serve them, I just think that the better, more informed decision that they can make.”
If the message is honesty, the medium is, patently, social media. O’Rourke speaks admiringly of Bronx-born congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, with whom he shares some overlapping political convictions but also a talent for the sort of viral disclosures and vignettes, delivered on Twitter or Instagram, that are disrupting national politics. “She does not seem to me to be afraid of making a mistake, or not saying it perfectly,” he says, “and in the process says the most important—I think some of the most important—things anyone can be talking about right now, and she’s freed herself from fear.”
A candidate of honesty and basic decency, à la Jimmy Carter, is in high demand among a lot of Democrats looking for optimal results in 2020, as is that sense of generational shift that powered Democratic campaigns dating back to John F. Kennedy (whose Profiles in Courage is in O’Rourke’s library). But O’Rourke’s radical openness can also look like naïveté, as with his Instagrammed teeth-cleaning, which was quickly clipped, isolated from its context, and made to look ridiculous. Skeptics question whether O’Rourke’s political transcendentalism can sustain the meat grinder of a national election. In a Democratic primary, he will not have the bogeyman of a Trump or a Cruz from which to draw voter energy. He is decidedly not the street fighter many Democrats crave. And in a zero-sum world, his astounding run against Ted Cruz in last year’s Texas Senate race, historic as it was, was still a loss.
O’Rourke is acutely aware, too, of perhaps his biggest vulnerability—being a white man in a Democratic Party yearning for a woman or a person of color, a Kamala Harris or a Cory Booker. “The government at all levels is overly represented by white men,” he says. “That’s part of the problem, and I’m a white man. So if I were to run, I think it’s just so important that those who would comprise my team looked like this country. If I were to run, if I were to win, that my administration looks like this country. It’s the only way I know to meet that challenge.
“But I totally understand people who will make a decision based on the fact that almost every single one of our presidents has been a white man, and they want something different for this country. And I think that’s a very legitimate basis upon which to make a decision. Especially in the fact that there are some really great candidates out there right now.”
O’Rourke is careful to pay homage to progressive icons, crediting Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren with advancing the national conversation on health care and consumer protections, but sells himself as something slightly different: a youthful uniter, willing to listen and learn from the most recalcitrant right-wing voters and work with Republicans. “If I bring something to this,” he says, “I think it is my ability to listen to people, to help bring people together to do something that is thought to be impossible.
“My sense is, following some success that I had in Congress, and working with Republicans to actually get things signed into law, including both President Obama and President Trump’s administrations, that I may have an ability to work with people who think differently than I do, come to a different conclusion that I’ve come to on a given issue, and yet find enough common ground to do something better than what we have right now.”
A few days before Trump arrives, while meeting with students at the University of Texas at El Paso, O’Rourke compares the battle against Trump to “every epic movie that you’ve ever seen, from Star Warsto The Lord of the Rings. This is the moment where we’re going to win or lose everything.” O’Rourke likes to think in such mythic terms. As he quipped on the campaign trail, he named his son Ulysses because “I didn’t have the balls to call him Odysseus.” But in a private meeting with Barack Obama last November, the former president had asked Beto O’Rourke to consider if he had a clear path to the White House. Could he deliver Texas? Michigan? Pennsylvania? Wisconsin?
“I don’t have a team counting delegates,” O’Rourke says, again invoking a politics not readily accessible by reason. “Almost no one thought there was a path in Texas, and I just knew it. I just felt it. I knew it was there, and I knew that with enough work and enough creativity and enough amazing people, if I’m able to meet them and bring them in, then we can do it.
“That’s how I feel about this,” he says. “It’s probably not the most professional thing you’ve ever heard about this, but I just feel it.”
After dueling rallies in El Paso last February—O’Rourke’s “March for Truth” versus Trump’s “Finish the Wall”—Trump was quick to declare his crowd sizes larger and deem O’Rourke an unworthy failure. But Trump’s choice of El Paso for a rally had already created a story line, giving new relevance to O’Rourke and his ideas. His vision of the border—and for America, too—is rooted in the El Paso he grew up in. Before 9/11, the Texas border with Mexico was essentially open. In 1986, his father, Pat O’Rourke, an El Paso politician, told Bill Moyers on CBS: “When I was six and seven years old, I didn’t know I wasn’t a Mexican. When I was a kid, I’d get on the streetcar and go to Juárez and go to the cine, the movie, over there. That’s my community. These people are my friends, they’re my neighbors.”
Nowadays, Beto O’Rourke seems to have embraced his father’s local globalism. But he spent much of his youth trying to escape the influence and legacy of Pat O’Rourke, before returning home to embrace his heritage and redeem his father’s political failures. When I first met O’Rourke, he showed me a framed snapshot of his father standing atop a mesa, a denim-wearing southwesterner who looked a bit like Jimmy Buffett, bald with blond locks and a wild-man grin. An avid outdoorsman and runner, Pat O’Rourke ran a series of small border businesses, or maquilas, that drew on the cheap labor in Juárez. They all failed. What consumed him was politics. O’Rourke became county commissioner in 1978 and, after building a new jail in the 1980s, won a race for county judge (in Texas, a management job rather than a courtroom role). He had married into relative wealth, to Melissa Williams, whose family owned the high-end furniture store in town, Charlotte’s. The O’Rourkes were among the first in El Paso to install a swimming pool.
Pat O’Rourke was a garrulous carouser and a bit of a showboat, a fixture at the Cincinnati Bar & Grill, where local pooh-bahs gathered to debate and drink. (Beto O’Rourke would later use the same restaurant as his informal think tank when he first ran for office.) He came under scrutiny for using government funds to outfit his office with furniture from his wife’s store, and in 1983 he became embroiled in a controversy over a powdery substance—possibly cocaine or heroin—discovered in a condom found in his Toyota Land Cruiser. A sheriff’s deputy destroyed the evidence before it could be analyzed, the incident was investigated by the D.A.’s office, and the ensuing uproar, known thereafter as “Rubbergate,” became front-page news. The controversy tarnished his reputation, but it didn’t dampen his enthusiasm. He became an avid supporter of the Reverend Jesse Jackson during both his 1984 and 1988 runs for president and once held a reception for Jackson at the O’Rourke home. (Young Beto posed for a picture with Jackson, which he still displays in his home.)
Pat O’Rourke was popular with everyone but his son, with whom he clashed from an early age. “My dad was very critical and had very high expectations, without a lot of the details filled in,” says O’Rourke. “It was ‘I expect you to achieve greatness in grades, in athletics, in whatever you do.’” (Beto O’Rourke has two younger sisters, Charlotte and Erin.) When he failed math one semester, “my dad essentially stopped talking to me,” he says. “He made it clear that I embarrassed him. That was just the most profoundly painful thing I had experienced up to that point.”
O’Rourke’s mother tried softening the tension, but Beto felt like an appendage to his father’s public persona. His dad once bought a tandem bicycle and entered them in races without asking him. “I hated it, because it involved a lot of yelling at me, like, ‘Quit leaning to the right, goddammit!’ ” he recalls. “And then just harrowing, just racing through an intersection and he’s got the brakes and the steering and all I can do is just pedal my balls off and hope that we don’t die.”
O’Rourke escaped into early computer chat rooms and made two close friends, Arlo Klahr and Mike Stevens. They drew comic books, read underground fanzines, wrote poetry, skateboarded, and, inspired by the Clash, took up guitar and went to local punk-rock shows. They became devotees of the Washington, D.C., record label Dischord, co-founded by Ian MacKaye, a punk firebrand who influenced a generation of disaffected suburban youth. “I have so much reverence for him and he means so much to me in my life,” O’Rourke says of MacKaye. “He really did represent this super-ethical way, not just of being in a band, or running a label, or putting on shows, but of just living.” (The punk ethos, Ian MacKaye tells me, is for “people who can’t figure out how they’re supposed to fit into society. And I think in many ways they’re the right people.”)
Beto O’Rourke was desperate to escape El Paso. “I wanted out,” he says. “I wanted out of the house. I wanted away from him and his shadow.”
His father tried directing him to the New Mexico Military Institute, but O’Rourke instead applied to a prep school in Virginia called Woodberry Forest, on advice from his grandfather through marriage, Fred Korth, a former secretary of the navy in the Kennedy administration. As soon as he arrived, O’Rourke felt profoundly alienated from the preppy Southern boys and instead made friends with music-heads and international students from Turkey and Korea. “We were the weirdo table,” he said. “We were the rejects who just did not fit in culturally, money, social status.”
Source: Vanity Fair