2020, Politics

Beto Than Advertised

Has everyone been a little too hard on O’Rourke?
July 2, 2019
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(Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

If one doubts the dominance of media narratives, try praising Beto O’Rourke at a dinner party. One provokes trills of scorn–he’s shallow, callow and insubstantial, the epitome of “white male privilege.”

How does the chorus know this? They just do. But not, it transpires, through firsthand research, let alone a comparison of his policy positions with those of his presumptively more substantive competitors.

Rather, their scorn parrots the shallow snark in articles headlined “The Hubris of Beto O’Rourke“; “The Astonishing Disappearing act of Beto O’Rourke“, “Beto’s Long History of Failing Upward“, and, most telling, “How the Media Fell Out of Love With Beto O’Rourke.” Here, as elsewhere, the lemmings of media tweet their groupthink until they’ve separated a virtual army of followers from their instinct for critical thought. 

Does this sound harsh? Consider, then, the synchronized follies of 2016, wherein television gave Donald Trump an open microphone worth $3 billion before the first primary; a cacophony of reportage pilloried the Clinton Foundation while bypassing Trump’s counterfeit charity; and credulous commentators hyperventilated about his intuitive genius and transformative rediscovery of “populism.” All while invoking journalistic decorum to avoid the one obvious reality that truly mattered: a profound personal pathology—the one organizing principle for all his behaviors—that rendered Trump far too sick to be president.

So how, one might ask, did O’Rourke—the political comet of 2018—attract this tsunami of scorn by running for president but a few months later? Unlike Trump, he did not relentlessly reveal himself as a racist, sexist, emotionally unstable ignoramus irretrievably entrapped in his own dystopian inner landscape.

Instead O’Rourke personified something that, apparently, is far more disqualifying: He was a fortunate white guy whose lapses, such as they were, became the linchpin of a stereotyped storyline that ruthlessly redacted everything else.

Consider the media’s bill of particulars:

First, a post-defeat road trip chatting up ordinary Americans while he publicly mused over whether to run for president—a hegira rendered unforgivable because he could afford gas and lodging without drawing a paycheck while, shockingly, leaving his wife at home with their kids.

Self-indulgent? Perhaps. Still, more charitable observers might take this as evidence of one of his abiding traits—a genuine interest in people which distinguishes him from Donald Trump and a large slice of his political peers.

No matter. “Beto’s excellent adventure drips with white privilege,” wrote Nia-Malika Henderson, calling it “a luxury no woman or even a minority in politics could ever afford.”

Really? Have Barack Obama’s early travels been forgotten so quickly? Has that avatar of white privilege, Jack Kennedy, evanesced in the mists of time? Is the spiritual journey of would-be President Marianne Williamson the gladsome apotheosis of female empowerment?

But never mind, for there was worse to come. 

O’Rourke’s penchant for using social media backfired, remarkably, in his dentist’s chair. O’Rourke posted this visit on Instagram as one of numerous interviews he conducted with locals on life alongside the Mexican border.

A CNN reporter poached a snippet from the Instagram post showing O’Rourke with a cleaning tool in his mouth. This nanosecond snatched out of context inspired tidal waves of journalistic ridicule, evoking the mass media hysteria when Dan Quayle misspelled “potato.” Or was it “potatoe”? Sometimes I forget. Whatever, that extra “e” was really, truly important. As, obviously, was O’Rourke’s moment of dental indiscretion.

But his ostensible gravest offense came wrapped in a Vanity Fair cover story which, regrettably, served as his media rollout. Incautiously, he enthused, “Man, I’m just born to be in it,” voicing the inner thought that has impelled anyone who ever ran for president from Teddy Roosevelt to the aforementioned Ms. Williamson.

But here was O’Rourke, caught, it seemed, in the act of being a self– regarding white guy who deserved a thousand shards of scorn. Sniped the Daily Beast: “Reacting to losing to Ted Cruz by running for President is like failing to land a role in a community theater program and deciding to take your talents to Broadway.”

In this age of historical illiteracy, one must forgive contemporary journalists for overlooking the candidate who, after losing his Senate race in 1858, became president 1860. But one need not imbue O’Rourke with Lincolnesque gravity to note that he served three  terms in Congress, whereas the Great Emancipator clocked a modest two years one decade before running for president. It’s enough to be grateful that Lincoln, gripped by immodesty, did not leave the field to Stephen A. Douglas and the two Johns, Breckenridge and Bell. 

O’Rourke has apologized for the remark, explaining that he meant to express a calling to public service. But the indissoluble poison within was that his presumption of fitness reflected his whiteness – and that no woman of color would receive such attention. 

“What about Stacey Abrams?” I often heard. On that level, I get it: Abrams is exceptionally smart, politically gifted and, more than arguably, lost her contest in Georgia to race–based voter suppression.

But does any of that truly bear on O’Rourke’s own qualities? In any event, Abrams has hardly been starved for attention: She is widely marked down as a potential vice president, has seized a major national platform, and, even now, is considering her own late-breaking race for president.

If she wants to run, she should. And, if she does, she can feel reasonably secure that no one will suggest that her defeat is disqualifying, or that leadership in the Georgia State Assembly does not suffice as credentials for running. 

But perhaps O’Rourke’s worst misstep is the one that, understandably, is least mentioned: kicking the tripwire of the media’s own self-regard. How? By slighting the national broadcast media in favor of smaller town-hall events. As strategy, one can question this—Mayor Pete has prospered, it often seems, by living on our screens. But the media attention lavished on Buttigieg does double duty as self-adoration—nothing pleases the bigfoots of television more than obeisance to their manifest importance.

O’Rourke is paying the price. Reporters who cover him note the gap between the dismissive national media coverage and what they see on the ground: O’Rourke draws large crowds, goes deep into policy, and takes questions to the point of exhaustion. Vanity Fair quotes one such reporter:

“[I]f you are in the DC or New York press and you aren’t getting on a plane, he is not talking to you. He is not coming to your greenroom and studio. That pisses people off. Mayor Pete… just has a greenroom goodwill that Beto doesn’t have at this point.”

How else to explain the disproportionate condescension heaped on O’Rourke? Despite this, the New Yorker reports:

O’Rourke, unfazed, carries on with his upbeat, heavily scheduled, literally hard – driving run. By mid–May, according to staff, he had driven more than 6000 miles, through 14 states, held more than 150 town–hall meetings, visited 32 college campuses, and answered more than a thousand questions.

Yet, the New Yorker judges, “A media consensus seems to have formed that he is a handsome lightweight, an entitled child of privilege who has ‘failed up’ all his life.” 

Examples proliferate, ever more nasty and gratuitous. The Daily Beast labeled him a “manchild.” Based on her “unscientific poll asking every woman I see,” Margaret Carlson reported that O’Rourke reminds them of “the worst boyfriend ever had.” Another seer wrote: “My sense is that Beto O’Rourke doesn’t want to be president as much as he wants to be an indie movie about a guy running for president.” Kathleen Parker dismissed his entire campaign as “a youthful folly.” 

So what does all this truly say about O’Rourke? Perhaps that his relentless recourse to social media exposes him to the infinity of derision that metastasizes within. But it seems better to ask what it says about the marriage of social media to journalism – the endless hall of mirrors from which too many pundits launch the glib soundbites, those quotable snippets of print, intended for the febrile followers addicted to the constant stimuli through which Twitter excites their ever-twitchy nerve ends. 

Says an observer whose father ran for president: “There’s a difference between journalism and piling on to candidates for sport/retweets, and not enough folks realize that.” A former South Carolina legislator who supports O’Rourke nails the press pack: “[I]t feels like they have cheapened the overall profession because they want a lot of likes and re-tweets on Twitter. Reporters want to be woke on Twitter and get their 15 minutes of fame. It’s devalued journalism.”

Viewing O’Rourke in this light, one can conclude that he is not the dilettante his antagonists in the media portray, but an earnest, even gifted, candidate unprepared to deal with the contagions which afflict too many of its members.

In fact, O’Rourke’s actual life holds considerable interest. But a skewed storyline has pureed it into a slipstream of superficiality: His life is an unbroken record of failing upward. His somewhat desultory and occasionally disorderly youth defines him. His relentless quest for knowledge and experience bespeaks an unmoored soul; his bent for self-reflection is self- absorption in disguise. His early public life is notable chiefly for his coziness with the fossil fuel industry and his father-in-law, a real estate developer. One would think he rose in politics despite himself. 

Hardly. 

After a post-graduate stint bouncing around New York City, he returned to El Paso, started a successful business, and settled into the sustained if good-humored seriousness that has marked his life since. True, he married into a wealthy family. But he was always an engaged enthusiast who wanted to better his hometown. And his public career was marked by tirelessness, dedication and a gift for listening.

Discovering he was good at politics, he ran for City Council and won. He held weekly town halls. He became a crusader for civic improvement. His most fraught episode was supporting a redevelopment plan that was highly controversial, not least because it displaced poorer residents. But he also took gutsy and controversial stands: advocating legalized marijuana, denouncing the war on drugs as a train wreck for Mexicans and Americans alike, and fighting to extend health benefits to unmarried workers and their single-sex partners.

In 2012 he entered Congress by outhustling an eight-term congressman endorsed by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama—without paid staffers. Advised by Democratic leadership to raise money by courting lobbyists, he responded by refusing PAC money. By his third race, in 2016, he took 86 percent  of the vote.

Running for the Senate against Cruz, he eschewed standard-issue caution. Asked whether NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem were disrespecting the armed forces, O’Rourke said no, commencing a four-minute riff which incorporated the history of the civil rights movement—and went viral, sparking his rise to national attention. 

Less noted is that he ran as an unabashed progressive in a red state: advocating for reproductive rights, a $15 minimum wage, universal health care, repealing marijuana laws, and addressing climate change. In the heart of gun country, he said: “I do not believe that weapons of war designed for the sole purpose of killing people effectively and efficiently in as great a number as possible, belong in our streets, in our schools, in our concerts, in our churches—in our lives. 

He unequivocally embraced immigrants and immigration: “The right thing to do is legalize America. Standing outside a facility for immigrant kids separated from their parents, he said firmly that “this is not America.”

It seems odd, therefore, that this run is now dismissed as a passing exercise in ephemeral charisma. As a presidential candidate, he continues to be good on the stump—for multiple reasons. Congressman Kathleen Rice says that he is “a substantive guy—but the thing that sets him apart is he listens to people.” O’Rourke, opines Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, is “an artist at work… the least calculating person in the race.” 

 He doesn’t talk about himself much. Writes the New Yorker: “O’Rourke can be strikingly self-critical for a politician. He often says ‘I don’t know’ in answer to a question, and always wants to hear more from anyone who knows more than he does. He tells college students that they are  ‘already the leaders.’ His manner, for all the structural privilege he enjoys, is the opposite of entitlement; he never seems to smugly know anything. This can be disarming—or disconcerting. It is also, I think, part of why live crowds tend to love him.”

Though O’Rourke has begun propitiating national media, it’s not his favorite thing. He told the New Yorker: “The town halls, the issues, the travel, the endurance, I love all that.” What he doesn’t enjoy is “the 30 members of the press, in your face, at the first event, at the second event, at the third, and day after day, asking almost nothing about anything we just experienced together in that room, in that coffee shop or that tavern or in that home, but things that may have been popping up on the news that day, or things I may have done 35 years ago…” 

Frustrated, he added: “Because this woman has just told me that her daughter spends $444 on her prescription, and I’m thinking that through as I’m leaving—like, how do I get her a better answer.” 

 If that makes O’Rourke different than Kamala Harris or Pete Buttigieg, who often seem encased in their own self-possession, why is that bad? 

Nor, when examined, is O’Rourke any less substantive than they—or Biden, whose discussion of issues is too often mired in his own past. Indeed, compared to anyone but Elizabeth Warren, O’Rourke has more than enough to say. Reports the New Yorker:

O’Rourke’s platform is to the right of Sanders and to the left of the Democratic establishment. Healthcare, of course – universal, guaranteed. Universal pre-K, better teacher pay, lower student debt. Immigration reform, dreamers protected, asylum laws respected, paths to citizenship. Paid family leave, equal pay for women. Criminal – justice reform. End partisan gerrymandering, enact same-day voter registration and a new Voting Rights Act. Renewable energy. Economic democracy. A living wage.

Here throw in strengthening unions, expanding apprenticeships, investing in rural broadband, legalizing marijuana, and expunging records of drug convictions. At the same time, unlike some of his rivals, O’Rourke is too smart to glom onto superficial litmus tests like ” single payer,” “free college for all,” and “abolish ICE”—all Electoral College landmines.

He was the first candidate with a comprehensive plan to combat climate change. Instead of embracing the gauzy generalities of the Green New Deal, O’Rourke proposes to invest $5 trillion over 10 years to update infrastructure and speed up innovation to battle climate change; enact a “legally enforceable standard” to get to zero emissions by 2050; marshal resources to aid communities already facing extreme weather; stop new fossil fuel development on public lands; and spend $200 billion to develop new technologies to meet his zero-carbon goal. 

In general, environmental groups welcomed his plan. Not so Clyde Haberman, an alumnus of the New York Times who, at age 74, has apparently discovered the intoxicants of Twitter. When O’Rourke hiked through Yosemite National Park as part of the rollout, Haberman tweeted: “And the point of this is… what? Let’s go hiking with O’Rourke?”—entirely ignoring the simultaneous release of his environmental blueprint.

Further, O’Rourke has released a plan to improve the lives of veterans, a major focus of his tenure in the House: ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and spending the money saved on veterans; modernizing the VA health – care system and increasing funding for medical research; increasing support for women and LGBT veterans; and helping veterans succeed upon leaving the military. 

When Trump threatened tariffs against Mexico to dramatize his posturing on border issues, O’Rourke called for increased aid to Central America “to ensure that no family has to make the 2000 mile journey.” He added that these tariffs would jeopardize America’s “most important trading relationship” while damaging farmers already buffeted by Trump’s trade war with China. 

This embodiment of white privilege is forthright on issues of race, lamenting “the disparity in wealth accumulation between white American black America.” He has a comprehensive plan to protect LGBTQ rights under federal law while making it easier for those fleeing discrimination other countries to seek refuge in America

So what makes him inferior to his younger cohort of competitors – say, Harris, or Buttigieg? Surely not substance, or some compelling rationale for running. 

Harris has yet to define what she truly believes, other than that she should be president – in furtherance of which, unlike O’Rourke, she imprudently proposes to eliminate private health insurance. Mayor Pete has political near–perfect pitch, a blend of keen intelligence and personal grace. But the police shooting in South Bend has refocused attention on his own modest credentials as mayor of a small city.

Nonetheless, the media’s instant analysis after the first Democratic debates hewed to its prior narrative. O’Rourke was swiftly adjudged to be shallow—though he set himself apart by rejecting single-payer healthcare, and trying to distinguish between a humane border policy and combating human trafficking. In contrast, the commentariat praised Buttigieg and, particularly, Harris. Yet the speed-dating debate format spot lit the superficial: their considerable performance skills, not their presidential policy chops let alone the ability and prudence to assemble a broad coalition of voters the Democrats will need to beat Donald Trump

  Indeed, Harris stumbled once again over her confused positioning on single payer health care. During a CNN town hall in January, she unequivocally proposed abolishing private health insurance—a problematic stance that other candidates, including O’Rourke, have carefully avoided. A day later, after much criticism, a spokesman said that she was open to plans which allowed Americans to keep their existing insurance. 

Yet in Thursday’s debate, she responded to a question from Lester Holt—“who here would abolish their private health insurance in favor of a governmen-run plan?—by raising her hand. After the debate, she claimed to have misheard the question. Perhaps so. Still, at the least, this bespeaks a puzzling imprecision over a critical issue—one on which purple states may turn in 2020. But given the fixed storyline that Harris was Thursday’s big winner, the media seems likely let it slide.

And O’Rourke? No doubt he must sharpen his debate performances, lessen his rhetorical dependence on the anecdotal, and, yes, court the national media. But as Democratic strategist Jess McIntosh notes, “Beto is still this incredibly charismatic candidate with good ideas who electrifies people.” 

At one dinner party, my mention of O’Rourke struck home. After near-unanimous resistance, a guest close to Barack Obama said that Obama considered O’Rourke the most talented candidate in the race. Obama should know.

Perhaps it’s too late—O’Rourke is way down in the polls, and the field is crowded. But as a GOP consultant observes: “There’s one thing the press loves more than a hot new thing, and that is a comeback.”

True enough. There is nothing dearer to the media than shaping the narrative of a presidential campaign—and finding a new storyline when the last one grows stale. It would be a form of rough justice if the same mentality that has put O’Rourke down helps him rise again.

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and serves on the board of the Renew Democracy Initiative, a bipartisan group dedicated to defending the principles of liberal democracy at home and abroad.