It’s not easy to get Beto O’Rourke to speak disparagingly about anyone. I’ve tried. He will condemn divisiveness, injustice, bad policies, inequality, and the corruption of American politics by corporate money. He believes our democracy is in danger. He’s running for the Democratic Party’s 2020 Presidential nomination, so these are not unexpected themes, and yet O’Rourke, who is tall and spare and deep-voiced, delivers them with unusual earnestness. He admits that the line that sparks the most reliable applause from his campaign crowds ends with the phrase “defeat Donald Trump.” But he doesn’t use it much. The big problems—climate change, health care, immigration, hyper-partisanship—didn’t originate with Trump, after all. O’Rourke regularly invokes a vision of national unity as the only way forward. “All of us have a seat at the table. All of us matter,” he says. “I want to show up for everybody.”
What, you may wonder, does that mean? Texas got a preview of this vaulting ambition, this post-partisan show-up politics, when O’Rourke challenged Ted Cruz for his U.S. Senate seat in 2018. No Democrat had won statewide office in Texas since 1994. O’Rourke, who is a youthful forty-six, was an obscure three-term congressman from El Paso, a border town far removed from the halls of Texas power and wealth. He vowed to visit all two hundred and fifty-four counties in Texas, and he did, usually driving himself. “We went to places so red you could see them glowing from outer space,” he says. “Places that went ninety-seven per cent for Trump. Nobody had bothered to visit those people before. I learned so much. If you want to serve people, you gotta listen to them.” He live-streamed his travels on Facebook. He never hired a pollster or a political adviser. He refused donations from political-action committees and corporations. And the campaign gained traction. Volunteers started liking, sharing, leafletting, knocking on doors.
The world beyond Texas took note after a video clip from a town hall in Houston drew forty-four million views in a couple of weeks. O’Rourke got an audience question about N.F.L. players taking a knee during the national anthem. Was that not disrespectful to members of the armed forces? “My short answer is no, I don’t think it’s disrespectful,” O’Rourke said. Not a practitioner of the sound bite, he then gave a four-minute response that soared through Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Edmund Pettus Bridge, through Taylor Branch’s book “Parting the Waters” and Rosa Parks. He placed the N.F.L. protests in that civil-rights tradition, an effort to call attention to violence against black youth today: “I can think of nothing more American than to peacefully stand up, or take a knee, for your rights, anytime, anywhere, anyplace. Thank you very much for asking the question. I appreciate it.”
For many Americans feeling battered by Trump, it was an introduction to an eloquent new politician. Small donations poured in; the campaign raised, in the end, nearly eighty million dollars, the largest amount in U.S. history for a Senate race. Ellen DeGeneres invited O’Rourke on her show, as did Stephen Colbert. Celebrities lined up to endorse him—LeBron James, Lin-Manuel Miranda. And he managed to give Cruz a scare on Election Day, losing by less than three percentage points and receiving more votes than any Democrat ever had in Texas. Turnout among young people was up five hundred per cent. The down-ballot effects were dramatic, as Democrats flipped two House seats, made gains in the state legislature, and swept the cities. Seventeen African-American women won judicial races in Harris County, where Houston is situated.
The logic of following a near-miss Senate campaign with a run for the Presidency is not immediately obvious. There is, after all, another Senate seat, currently occupied by John Cornyn, up for grabs in Texas in 2020. But O’Rourke had serious momentum, as well as prominent fans. As he considered a run, Oprah Winfrey practically begged him on national television, “What’s it going to take for you to say yes?” In a straw poll conducted in December by MoveOn.org, O’Rourke came in first among potential Democratic candidates, beating out Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. He decided that this was the year. His campaign raised more than six million dollars on the first day, a record. His early rallies in Iowa and New Hampshire were raucous and packed.
Since that initial rush, however, O’Rourke has steadily sunk into the morass of a race with nearly two dozen candidates. His standing in the polls has tumbled to sixth place. 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. While O’Rourke has been assailed for a variety of flaws—gaffes, inexperience, tactical errors—Pete Buttigieg, the thirty-seven-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has displaced him as the fresh young face. O’Rourke, unfazed, carries on with his upbeat, heavily scheduled, literally hard-driving run. By mid-May, according to his staff, he had driven more than six thousand miles, through fourteen states, held more than a hundred and fifty town-hall meetings, visited thirty-two college campuses, and answered more than a thousand questions.
I asked O’Rourke if his emphasis on “everybody,” on a restored social comity, didn’t serve to mask some of the hard realities of a polarized country. We were driving—that is, he was driving—in a rented minivan from Sioux City, Iowa, to Storm Lake, seventy miles east. Two aides tended to their phones in the back seat. It was a foul night, cold and rainy, thick fog. O’Rourke did not dispute the premise: there wasn’t always a win-win to be had.
A stark example occurred to me. In Austin, before an O’Rourke rally, I had encountered five white men milling in the shadows of a deserted bank. They were carrying American flags, Texas state flags, and AR-15 rifles. Their leader, a big guy with a big beard, said they were from a group called Open Carry Texas, and, yes, their weapons were loaded. They were “Second Amendment absolutists” on their way to O’Rourke’s rally. “Like most Democrats, he probably thinks the Constitution is a living, breathing document that needs to be updated,” the big man said. “I don’t agree.”
In fact, O’Rourke supports universal background checks for gun sales and a ban on the sale of military-grade weapons. In the car, I pointed out that if he got his way on those laws, the Open Carry Texas dudes might not view it as a win-win.
He laughed softly. “Right, yeah—they come see me in El Paso with their guns.” He sounded almost fond of them. Once, he said, they were protesting outside a meeting. “So we invited them in and gave them the microphone. Said, ‘Hey, ask whatever question you want, make your case in front of everybody. We all could stand to learn something. Let’s hear it.’ And we had an exchange, listened civilly, politely. And one gentleman, one of the protesters, came up to me afterward and gave me his card. Said he didn’t agree with me about anything but he was impressed we were there and we listened to him. If folks say, ‘You want to take our guns,’ I say, ‘No way. Keep that AR-15. Continue to use it responsibly. You know what you’re doing with it. I just don’t think we need to sell any more into our communities.’ ”
So the gun guys had left the meeting liking O’Rourke better. But would that matter when he tried to pass background checks? Or, to pick a broader example, if O’Rourke threatened the interests of oil companies, as basically all the Democratic candidates do, would a polite exchange help solve matters? Our energy future is a bruising fight, a T. rex power struggle, with the public interest opposed to the private interest.
An animal flashed in the fog, startlingly close. “Raccoon,” O’Rourke said. “Had a ring tail.” With the weather, we had slowed to a crawl, but O’Rourke was done for the day, so it didn’t matter—no me importa, as he would say, in the pocho border mix that he habitually speaks. Starting that morning, he had appeared at a tavern in Carroll, a diner in Denison, and a college in Sioux City, met hundreds of Iowans, answered dozens of questions, grinned for hundreds of selfies, thanked everybody for coming out, for welcoming a West Texan and teaching him so much about Iowa. At the college, he had dealt with an anti-immigrant heckler—this was, after all, the congressional district of Steve King, the most vehement xenophobe in the House of Representatives.
For all his easygoing inclusiveness, O’Rourke sees this political moment in fairly apocalyptic terms. As he put it, “We are under a mother of a pressure test right now. Our structures, our institutions, the rule of law.” He frames his decision to run for President now, rather than later, as a matter of generational responsibility. He and his wife, Amy, have three school-age children, and he says that he fears their judgment. In a packed taquería in Manchester, New Hampshire, I heard him declare, “I don’t want my kids looking back at us forty years from now and saying, ‘Who were those pendejos?’ ”
The O’Rourke children go to the same public schools their father did. In the interim, though, El Paso has changed. When O’Rourke’s father, Pat, went to El Paso High, you got punished for speaking Spanish. When Beto was in school there, he got forty-five minutes of Spanish instruction a day. Now his kids get half their classes en español.
Born Robert Francis O’Rourke, Beto got his nickname as an infant—it’s the local shorthand for Roberto, Alberto, Humberto. His mother, Melissa, used to own a successful furniture store that her mother had started. She went to a Catholic school for girls that, she told me, had boarding students from the Mexican interior. Pat O’Rourke was an El Paso county commissioner and then the county judge. He was theatrical and gregarious, but Beto recoiled from the politician’s glad-handing life. He was quiet and bookish, and thrilled when he found faraway new friends in online discussion forums—an early version of the Internet. He joined a progressive hacker group called the Cult of the Dead Cow. He got into punk rock, particularly the D.C. hardcore scene—straight-edge, earnest punk, not the nihilistic New York seventies stuff. There was a small punk scene in El Paso, and O’Rourke dived into it. But he fled his home town as soon as he could, first to a prep school in Virginia, then to Columbia, where he co-captained the heavyweight crew team and majored in English lit.
For a few years after graduation, he stayed on in New York, working as an art mover, a proofreader, a part-time nanny on the Upper West Side. He was living with friends in a funky industrial loft in Brooklyn, playing music, writing songs and stories. But he felt adrift. To the surprise of everybody in his world, he moved back to El Paso. He worked in his mother’s store, played bass in his old band, Foss, which toured the West—strictly D.I.Y.—and released a couple of records. The band folded, or morphed into other bands, and O’Rourke started, with a loan from his parents, a Web-design company, Stanton Street Technology Group, which prospered. He also started an online newspaper, Stanton Street, and found better-than-decent reporters and writers. El Paso had long suffered from a brain drain—ambitious kids didn’t stick around. O’Rourke talked friends from New York into moving there. One of the paper’s most popular columnists was Pat O’Rourke. Pat had retired from politics, after a failed attempt to switch from Democrat to Republican, and taken to riding around the country on a recumbent bicycle, writing drolly about his travels for his son’s paper. He died in 2001, after a car hit him in New Mexico. The paper folded in 2002.
Beto’s relationship with his father had not been easy. “Pat wasn’t mean, but he pushed him hard,” Melissa recalled. He expected great things of his son, she said, and privately wished he had studied law or economics or business, not literature. Beto felt the weight of the loans his parents had taken out to pay for college. After Pat’s death, or even slightly before, Beto seemed to switch tracks. “He was never this outgoing, ‘Hi, buddy!’ sort of person,” his mother said. But he began to throw himself into El Paso civic life, volunteering on political campaigns and nonprofit boards. Melissa was struck by a gesture that her son made, his hand tapping his chest, while speaking in public—it was pure Pat. Beto and two friends ran for city council on a reform slate and won.
O’Rourke had wandered into something that he was good at. His council district included both well-to-do neighborhoods on the heights, where he grew up, and old river-plain barrios by the border, where people lived far below the poverty line. He held weekly town halls. He became a passionate advocate for the city. El Paso is eighty per cent Latino, and it forms, with Ciudad Juárez, just across the Rio Grande, what amounts to a sprawling binational metropolis. The two sides compete—El Paso lost a lot of industrial jobs to Juárez after NAFTA took effect, in 1994—and also work together closely. Each year, more than seventy billion dollars in trade crosses the six bridges linking the cities, along with some fifty million people, many of them daily commuters. El Paso is a latter-day Ellis Island, O’Rourke likes to say, full of immigrants and, not coincidentally, one of the safest cities in America.
O’Rourke met Amy Sanders on a blind date that he steered to the Kentucky Club, a venerable bar in Juárez where the margarita was allegedly invented. Sanders, who was born in Chicago and grew up near Santa Fe, had roots in El Paso. Her grandfather was a lawyer there and her father, William D. Sanders, had gone to El Paso High. William Sanders later became a big-time real-estate investor—the Times called him “the Warren Buffett of the real estate industry.” Amy Sanders went to Williams College, and afterward moved to Guatemala for a year to teach. When she and O’Rourke met, she was teaching at a private school in El Paso. He immediately started selling her on the city as the greatest possible place to settle down. They were married in 2005.
Her father didn’t like him at first, O’Rourke told me, which was upsetting. William Sanders was El Paso’s most illustrious native son, and he had come back to town, late in his career, and started investing on both sides of the border, which boosters like O’Rourke took as a big vote of confidence in the city. O’Rourke worked to earn the older man’s respect, and eventually seemed to succeed, although Sanders continues to hold politicians in low regard. He is usually described in press reports as a billionaire; Forbes reckons his fortune at closer to five hundred million. “If I ask him how it’s going at Verde,” O’Rourke said—Verde Realty is one of his father-in-law’s recent ventures—“he always says, ‘Interesting. ’ That’s it. He’s super private.”
O’Rourke’s youth had its louche episodes, and his political opponents, in El Paso and elsewhere, have mined it exhaustively. At the Cult of the Dead Cow, in the days of dial-up, did he learn to steal long-distance service? He did. As a teen-ager, did he produce, under the alias Psychedelic Warlord, jejune poems and stories, including one whose narrator enjoyed running down children with a car? He did, and he professes to be mortified by that work now. And did he write, as an undergraduate, a pan of a Broadway show that included disdain for actresses “whose only qualifications seem to be their phenomenally large breasts and tight buttocks”? Guilty. “I am ashamed of what I wrote and I apologize,” he told Politico.
O’Rourke excels at the Twitter-age practice of “owning his mistakes,” though not every error is easy to own. In 1998, he was arrested for drunk driving after a collision west of El Paso. He condemns himself for it (“there is no excuse”), and regularly uses the story as an example of race and class privilege. His parents made bail and the charges were dismissed after he paid a fine and completed a diversion course. “I’m grateful for the second chance,” he says. Someone with fewer resources would not have got off so lightly. He denies that he tried to leave the scene that night, though a witness quoted in the police report says he did. This, as they say in court, goes to character.
Did his father’s political connections help launch O’Rourke’s political career, as is sometimes said? Not really. Did O’Rourke come from a local Anglo élite and benefit all his life from being a white man? Inarguably. Did he marry into a wealthy family? Indeed. Did his father-in-law co-found a business organization called the Paso Del Norte Group that came up with a downtown redevelopment plan which threatened to displace eighteen hundred residents of poor neighborhoods? Yes. Did O’Rourke, then new on the city council, support the plan? Yes. Did he recuse himself from votes related to his father-in-law’s effort? Not at first. Eventually, reluctantly.
But the plan comported with his ambitions to turn El Paso into a vibrant city, and he felt certain that barrio residents would end up in better housing and have more jobs. He went door to door and held town halls to try to persuade people, and then seemed stunned when he was accused of betraying them. For some of his poorest constituents, this consultation came too late. O’Rourke felt vindicated, in part, when the affected neighborhoods helped reëlect him anyway, and then the whole project was put on seemingly permanent hold by the recession of 2008. The downtown business district had been revitalized—Art Nouveau office buildings renovated, new restaurants and clubs and bars opened, chic hotels built. But barrio activists are still fighting a proposed sports arena in a beleaguered neighborhood called Duranguito, and, though O’Rourke was out of office by the time that plan passed, they haven’t forgotten his role in the earlier struggle. They showed up at his official Presidential-campaign launch in El Paso at the end of March, carrying black banners that read “Gentrification Is Violence” and “O’Rourke, You Broke Duranguito, Now Fix Duranguito.”
I talked to elderly residents of Duranguito about their battle to hang on to their homes. Romelia Mendoza said that she had no intention of selling. If they wanted to build this arena, it would have to go around her casita. Antonia Morales, who is ninety-one, lamented the destruction of an outdoor market that had been across the street for as long as anyone could remember. There were construction fences everywhere. It was clearly a conflict zone—residents versus the city. David Dorado Romo, a historian, is a spokesman for the barrio holdouts, though not a resident himself. He still blames O’Rourke, at least in part, for the neighborhood’s plight. “You used your charisma, your pretty face, to push this very ugly gentrification,” he said to me. He was still hoping that O’Rourke would speak out, now that he had a national platform. “During the Senate campaign, we were told, ‘Be quiet, he has to beat Cruz.’ And we get it—anybody is better than Cruz. But he never speaks up for us.”
When I raised these criticisms, O’Rourke noted that he does not support the construction of the arena in Duranguito. But he praised Romo’s activism and scholarship, and agreed that he hadn’t listened carefully enough to his constituents in the barrio. “At the outset, I really didn’t do my job,” he told me. In any case, he continued to throw himself into the community. The first time he ran for Congress, in 2012, he knocked on sixteen thousand doors, by his count. He was challenging a sixteen-year incumbent, Silvestre Reyes, a former Border Patrol chief who was supported by Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. Reyes, O’Rourke contended, had a cynical, outdated view of the government’s war on drugs. O’Rourke held liberal social positions, including a then radical belief that marijuana should be legalized; he had co-written a carefully researched book analyzing the failures of U.S. drug policy. But he was also seen as pro-business. He received significant financial support from El Paso businessmen, including Sanders, and some local Republicans crossed the line to vote for him in the Democratic primary, helping him nip Reyes in a five-way race. In 2016, the last time he ran for Congress, O’Rourke won eighty-six per cent of the vote.
In early April, O’Rourke was at Cronk’s Café, in Denison, Iowa, talking to the people whom he hopes to serve as President. Many of them looked like folks back home, which is to say, Latino. Standing beside me, jammed behind TV cameras, was a bullnecked fellow named Esteban Martinez. He told me that he had been minding his own business in Harlingen, Texas, in 1996, when recruiters for I.B.P., a major meat packer, came through town, trying to lure workers to Iowa. Martinez bit, then fell in love with a girl in Denison, and was now working at the Smithfield Foods plant, with kids in high school. Denison, population eight thousand, is about half Latino. It even has a Spanish-language newspaper. “It’s a good place,” Martinez said. And it was good to see another fronterizo here running for President.
O’Rourke stood in a wide doorway, addressing two packed rooms at once. In a setting like Cronk’s, he has presence to burn, and it wasn’t hard to see what the early excitement was about. He rocked through a regional version of his stump speech, sprinkled with Spanish, that drew laughs here, applause there, but mostly rapt silence. He speaks in long, long sentences, which he organizes with a repertoire of hand gestures—karate chops, a raised index finger, imploring open hands, table sweeps, a fist shaken at an unthreatening angle, a palm to his chest. It looks as if he’s conducting ungainly music, but he usually brings his sentences home, phrase by baritone phrase.
Like any performer, O’Rourke reads the room. His set speech can be short, leaving more time for questions, or it can build, hitting all the high points, piling up the cheers. He kept it short at Cronk’s. Children in cages are not who we are. Climate change—our greatest challenge, our Second World War. Scientists say we only have twelve years. End the war on drugs, private prisons, cash bail. Reverse this concentration of wealth. “You with me?” They were.
O’Rourke uses Texas to bracing effect when he’s in the North. You haven’t seen voter suppression till you’ve seen how they do it in Texas. New Hampshire heads nod. Dead last nationally in voter turnout—till we improved that in 2018. He quotes an old rancher whose home town lacked electricity back in the thirties. Under the New Deal, electricity came, “and my daddy was a Yellow Dog Democrat for the rest of his life.”
What he doesn’t do is demonize Republicans. “We don’t need any more name-calling,” he said in Denison. We need to “pull out the full potential, the talent, the genius, of every American.”
O’Rourke also doesn’t talk that much about his six years in Congress. It wouldn’t necessarily help him if he did. Critics note that he voted with Trump thirty per cent of the time. At an event in Wisconsin early this year, he told the crowd, “Outside of Texas, people say, ‘Is he really a Democrat? I think he’s a closet Republican.’ I don’t know where I am on a spectrum, and I almost could care less. I just want to get to better things for this country.”
O’Rourke, to be fair, was in the minority throughout his years in Congress. If he wanted legislation that he wrote to pass, he had to find Republican co-sponsors, which he did for some bread-and-butter bills—strengthening cross-border trade, improving ports of entry, increasing access to health care for veterans. Mostly, though, he focussed on constituent service. He joined the Veterans’ Affairs Committee—El Paso has a large Army base, Fort Bliss—and the Homeland Security Committee, where he could work on border issues. He held town halls every month—by Facebook Live if he couldn’t get home. “He never missed one,” according to H. W. Sparks, the executive director of the local Veterans Business Association. The V.A. health-care system in El Paso was in bad shape, particularly for mental-health care. Wait times to see therapists stretched into months. O’Rourke found himself personally recruiting psychiatrists and psychologists to move to El Paso. “I’d call them and say, ‘You’ll love living here, and your help will be so deeply appreciated.’ And we eventually filled most of the spots. Got the wait times way down.”
O’Rourke gained a reputation for being quick with social media, and the first national attention he got came by way of symbolic, media-savvy gestures. In 2016, after the mass shooting in the Pulse night club, in Orlando, O’Rourke joined a sit-in on the House floor, hoping to force Republicans to bring gun-control legislation to a vote. House Speaker Paul Ryan called a recess, which shut down C-Span, turning the sit-in invisible. O’Rourke live-streamed the protest with his phone, and C-Span picked up his feed.
The following year, he and Will Hurd, a Republican congressman from West Texas, were touring V.A. facilities in San Antonio. Their flight to Washington was cancelled by bad weather, so they rented a car and drove. O’Rourke recorded twenty-nine hours of the trip with his phone and put the video on Facebook Live, where it ended up getting hundreds of thousands of views. The congressmen talked politics, ate fast food, sang Johnny Cash, and later won a Prize for Civility in Public Life from Allegheny College. Not everyone was charmed by O’Rourke’s casual bipartisanship, though—particularly not after he declined to endorse Hurd’s Democratic opponent in the next election, and Hurd won.
O’Rourke also got a reputation for failing to cover his own behind. As a freshman, he was one of only four Democrats in Congress to vote against sending military aid to Israel during the 2014 Gaza war—“a war that has cost more than a thousand civilian lives already, too many of them children,” he explained. He was hammered, publicly and privately, by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobby. Jim Moran, a veteran Virginia congressman, tried to explain O’Rourke’s reasoning to Connie Bruck, of this magazine. “I wanted him to switch his vote,” Moran said. But he wasn’t able to find O’Rourke, which probably didn’t matter, “because—as shocking as it may be—he’s in Congress solely to do what he considers to be the right thing. I’m afraid he may have a tough race in November.” O’Rourke boycotted a speech by the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, in Washington the following year. He later went on a tour of Israel (with J Street, AIPAC’s liberal competitor), which did not seem to fundamentally change his view of the conflict. Somehow, he was reëlected.
Not all his votes, to be sure, were courageous. O’Rourke, who now speaks urgently about eliminating our dependence on fossil fuels, voted in Congress to lift an oil-export ban and to expedite drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. He told me he believed then that the U.S. petroleum industry was more environmentally responsible than its foreign counterparts, but that he would vote differently now. He also voted for a bill that would make it easier for cop killers to get the death penalty—legislation known as the Thin Blue Line Act, and widely seen as a police retort to Black Lives Matter. He now says that he doesn’t believe in capital punishment, and that his vote was a mistake. But this happened in 2017.
O’Rourke’s riskiest move in Congress was bailing out of the money chase. When he arrived, Democratic leaders told him exactly how many hours of each day to spend in a boiler room dialling for dollars. He understood why, particularly for the party out of power, a new member’s first job was to keep his seat, while the whole team clawed toward a majority, and at first he did his bit. Then he didn’t. Still, when he ran for the Senate, in 2018, he out-raised Cruz two to one, relying entirely on small donors.
The troubles with O’Rourke’s Presidential campaign started before the campaign. After the loss to Cruz, he went into a self-described “funk.” Although people were urging him to run for President, he had told a “60 Minutes” interviewer in November that his family couldn’t take it. “We spent the better part of the last two years not with each other, missing birthdays and anniversaries and time together,” he said. “I’m not running in 2020.”
The counter-argument came not just from Oprah and MoveOn.org but also from Cruz’s campaign manager, Jeff Roe, who praised O’Rourke as “a phenom.” (This was after his candidate had won.) Roe added, “He is in a league of his own in the Democrat Party. And if he doesn’t use that to run for President, then I don’t know what he’d do with it.”
After Christmas, O’Rourke took a solo road trip to think things over. He rambled through five states, staying in motels, talking to seemingly everyone and blogging about it at Medium.com. Some readers compared his writing to Kerouac’s, some to Steinbeck’s. It was a celebration of the people he met, and arguably a mite pretentious. (On a meeting with students at Pueblo Community College: “Something so raw and honest that you want to hold on to it, remember every word . . . a flow between people.”)
The trip was also a reckoning with himself. What should he do next? As such, it annoyed a lot of readers, especially women. Amy was home with the kids, again. He was off communing with himself—and America, of course. One began to hear more about not just white privilege but also the singular privilege of being Beto O’Rourke.
His social-media presence, previously an asset, began to have mixed results. On Instagram, he streamed video of himself getting his teeth cleaned, hoping to focus on the hygienist, the daughter of a Mexican immigrant; people focussed instead on his teeth. A parody Twitter account called Not Beto’s Journal skewered the tone of his road blog: “This is a campaign for America. For everyone in America. For everything in America. This is a campaign that stands for everything. For anything. For all the things. For America.” When O’Rourke passed through New York: “Grabbed a cab near Times Square. The whole world right in one place. Sudhir, my driver, asks me where we’re going. I reply ‘you tell me, my friend.’ ”
O’Rourke said that he made the decision to run after long family discussions. In the end, everybody wanted him to do it. Even the kids seemed to understand what was at stake. Democracy. The planet. He semi-announced his candidacy in a cover story in Vanity Fair. The article was flattering, but the quote on the cover was problematic: “I want to be in it. Man, I’m just born to be in it.” Angsty deliberation had become entitled declaration, and even that was soon distorted. (I mentioned O’Rourke to an Australian editor. “Oh, is that the guy who says he’s born to rule?”) He’s been publicly regretting the remark since.
But his official campaign launch was in friendly territory: El Paso, on a sunny morning, in the streets of an old commercial district. Veronica Escobar, the new congresswoman for the area, and an old pal of O’Rourke’s, gave him a rousing introduction, calling him “a son of the border.” O’Rourke and his family took the makeshift stage with one of his favorite songs—the Clash’s “Clampdown”—blasting over concert-calibre speakers. There were thousands of people, many of them dressed in black-and-white Beto merch, both official (“Beto for America”) and unofficial (“Beto Days Are Coming”). There were lots of campaign signs and American flags, lots of kids on shoulders. A young woman near me wore what looked like a MAGA cap, until you read its message: CHINGA TU MADRE TRUMP. The real MAGA caps, and other protesters, including the Duranguito crew and anti-abortion activists, had been banished to a distant side street.
O’Rourke’s kids—Henry, eight; Molly, ten; Ulysses, twelve—looked appropriately abashed. Their mother gave a poised speech, with a huge grin. “Listening is what gives Beto strength. It fuels him,” Amy said. A woman standing next to me gasped. “I’ve never heard her voice before,” she said. It was not difficult to picture this family in the White House.
O’Rourke gave a passionate speech, much interrupted by cheers that could have been heard in Mexico—the border was only a few blocks away. In fact, at that moment, hundreds of people, detained migrants, were languishing in a jerry-built cage underneath the Paso del Norte International Bridge. This crowd hardly needed to be reminded of the abuses occurring around them. In December, Jakelin Caal Maquin, a seven-year-old girl from Guatemala, had died in U.S. custody after being transported from the New Mexico desert to a hospital in El Paso. Trump took it upon himself to accuse her father of failing to give her enough water. That was false. She had died from a bacterial infection, and her father had thanked the American first responders for their efforts to save his daughter. If one believed in Hell, one might wish its torments visited on Trump for his comments about this girl and her father alone. O’Rourke mentioned Trump once in his El Paso launch speech.
The crowd was chanting, “Beto! Beto!” A huge-voiced man behind me was bellowing, “Viva Beto! Viva El Paso!” O’Rourke’s windup was as good as I’ve heard. Then he was off to the airport for launch rallies in Houston and Austin.
The woman next to me, the one who had gasped when Amy O’Rourke spoke, had a big, bright homemade poster hanging from her neck, with a heartfelt text extolling love and acceptance. (“Equal rights for others does not mean less rights for YOU.”) Her name was Yvonne Orozco-Martell. Her mother had turned her on to Beto. Now she followed him on Instagram. She loved what he had to say about unity. Of his speeches, she said, “I like the fact that he doesn’t seem prepared. He shoots from the hip, says what he feels.” (Trump supporters, too, are always saying that they like how he shoots from the hip.) Orozco-Martell deplored Trump—no surprise. That week he had been threatening to close the border with Mexico. It was an empty threat, obviously, but wait times on the Juárez side immediately shot up. Her husband worked in a warehouse and some of his co-workers, stuck at the bridge, had arrived four hours late for their shifts. Now they were in trouble. “The company doesn’t care,” she said. Her husband supported Beto, too, even though he couldn’t vote. He was a Mexican citizen.
That night in Austin, it was cold and windy and felt like a rock concert. A sexy soul band warmed up the crowd, which numbered maybe ten thousand, beneath the illuminated wedding cake of the state capitol. The singer, in a canary-yellow tracksuit, shouted, “Are we woke? We are woke!” Alex Jones, of Infowars, patrolled the perimeter, bellowing incomprehensibly through a bullhorn, and deep chants of “Trump! Trump! Trump!” rose from the darkness. The O’Rourke supporters strategically ignored them.
The mayor of Austin spoke. “Beto brought us back from the despair of 2016,” he said. “All he had was a car, a fire in his belly, and Facebook Live. It was like in the movies, when the army seems defeated, all dead on the battlefield, and then one guy rises. Oh, he’s alive! And the battle resumes. That was Beto.”
O’Rourke came onstage in a black fleece. These screaming people were his people. He applauded them. “What you did in 2017 and 2018 was nothing short of a miracle,” he said. Pointing to the capitol, he added, “You literally changed the composition of this state legislature.” The stage was surrounded by people, like a boxing ring, and O’Rourke turned and turned as he spoke, projecting in every direction. When he warmed up, he unzipped his fleece, then tore it off—he was sweating, even though it was bitterly cold—and when he went to roll up his sleeves, there was shrieking of a particular titillated kind. He grinned. But he was just getting started. I had noticed a little rock-and-roll hop he sometimes does when speaking vigorously. In Austin, it wasn’t subtle. He might as well have been playing an electric guitar as he charged the floodlights in every direction, almost leaving his feet to hit the big notes. I’ve never heard a political crowd roar louder. He bellowed, “Are you with me?” The “YES!” was deafening.
Scenes like these seemed to worry Trump. In February, he travelled to El Paso for what many saw as the kickoff rally of his own 2020 campaign. This came just after the thirty-five-day government shutdown that failed to pry from Congress the money Trump wanted for his border wall. He clearly still sees the border as his signature issue, and in El Paso he repeated false claims about crime and the wall that even Dee Margo, the city’s Republican mayor, was moved to debunk. O’Rourke addressed a simultaneous rally, held less than a mile away, with his upbeat anti-wall message. Both drew big crowds, but Trump, inevitably, insisted that his was bigger. Three months later, he was still bringing up the size thing unprompted. In Florida, in early May, he declared that O’Rourke had drawn only five hundred and two people in El Paso. He himself drew more than thirty-five thousand, he said.
This is an instructive contrast. Nobody, and I respectfully mean nobody, goes to Trump for the facts. They go for the entertainment, the fun, the inclusion, the angry release. Perhaps they agree with him, perhaps they don’t. A Latino activist in El Paso told me that he had gone to hear O’Rourke that night, and was horrified to see his entire extended family, from both sides of the border, go to hear Trump instead. He understood, though. You knew what Beto would say. You never knew what crazy shit Trump would say. People go for the transgression.
I think Trump was worried that O’Rourke, who had nearly pulled off the impossible against “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz, might be a phenomenon, not subject to the normal laws of political gravity. He, Trump, was such a phenomenon. In 2015 and 2016, he rose straight past sixteen Republican rivals, nearly all of them more qualified than he was. Could O’Rourke bottle lightning like that on the other side?
So far, O’Rourke has basically tried to re-create his Senate campaign. It ran on a “distributed organizing” model, borrowed from Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign, which gives volunteers open-source digital tools and trusts them to work with minimal supervision. But, scaling up for a national campaign, it was highly unlikely that O’Rourke could ignite the same prairie-fire enthusiasm—especially with so many other progressive candidates in the field, and with no Ted Cruz to focus the minds of supporters. Sanders also had a road-tested campaign, better organized than his 2016 version, and a solid head start. On the last Saturday in April, his team held forty-five hundred house parties simultaneously. No other campaign could match that.
The digital fund-raising operation that financed O’Rourke’s Senate run was back in gear. But his announcement video was unaccountably bad. It was three and a half unmodulated minutes of him and Amy sitting on a couch, Beto speaking into the camera, Amy silent, smiling, adoring. Not a hit in O’Rourke’s target demographic. On the campaign trail, he recycled an old favorite remark, intended as self-deprecating, about how Amy was raising the kids, “sometimes with my help.” This did not play, either. Even Amy complained that it sounded “flip.” Beto, chagrined, promised to retire the quip. The rollout was turning into an apology tour.
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 entitled; 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.
“He’s my guy,” Christy Watson, a schoolteacher, said at a rally in Marshalltown, Iowa. “I feel like he shares my values on a lot of things. I like how he carries himself.” Watson was flanked by her mother and her teen-age daughter, who were both also settled on O’Rourke. Joan Kitten, a nurse-practitioner in Fort Dodge, said that she picked O’Rourke even before he got to town. “The first time I saw him, on Stephen Colbert, I thought, He’s going to be our next President.”
Nearly everybody’s first question about him was, Can he beat Trump? “He’s nice, he’s energetic, but is that enough?” That’s what Ted Cozart, a retired history teacher, wanted to know, after a rally in a high-school gymnasium in Charleston, South Carolina. The rally had been rousing. “But the people who come here on a Saturday morning are diehards,” Cozart said. “These aren’t the people he needs to convince.”
I couldn’t tell if he meant white people. We were in a black neighborhood, and the majority of the state’s Democrats are black, but it had been a fairly white crowd. “We need a broader base,” Cozart, who is black, said. “We need to pull in alienated Republicans, and there are a lot of those here.” Now he was definitely talking about white people. “Trump’s disrespecting the military, with John McCain, and they don’t like that.”
Cozart’s grown children, Kim and Christopher, were equally well disposed yet equally skeptical. Kim said, “I’m personally not going to vote for someone just because he’s a nice guy.” Like a growing number of political pundits, the Cozarts wanted to hear more concrete policy proposals from O’Rourke. “We have such a great field of candidates,” Ted said. “I need to know what he’s going to do.”
In early April, I watched a rapid-fire series of candidates—O’Rourke, Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Julián Castro, Jay Inslee, Kirsten Gillibrand—address a crowd of labor organizers and other activists in an old theatre in Washington, D.C. O’Rourke seemed, in that company, very tall and boyish and suspiciously glamorous, slightly out of place. He lingered too long over the rote syllables of “serve you as President of the United States of America.” He seemed slightly buzzed on his own rhetoric.
O’Rourke’s platform is to the right of Sanders and to the left of the Democratic establishment. Health care, 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.
O’Rourke has areas of depth that he doesn’t often show—the drug war, rural broadband, the border. When I pressed him about the current border crisis, he described what he considers the only long-term fix—increased aid to Central America—in a way that showed thorough knowledge of U.S. policy in each country in question. But in speeches he can seem like an anti-wonk. He takes pride in trying to answer the question he is asked, rather than the question he would like to be asked, and I have not seen him flaunt his knowledge of the issues onstage. It’s as if he thinks it’s uncool to be a know-it-all.
On the campaign trail, O’Rourke remains relentlessly positive, sometimes even lauding his primary opponents, such as Warren, who has an unmatched range and depth of policy proposals. His sunniness also helps neutralize the “oppo research” videographers who seem to show up at every event; America Rising, a conservative group, has some two hundred trackers following Democratic politicians on any given day. On rare occasions, O’Rourke allows himself to express anger or disgust. In a riff on immigration, he criticized Trump for warning that undocumented immigrants were going to “infest” the country: “I might expect someone to describe another human being as an infestation in the Third Reich; I would not expect it in the United States of America.”
In the primaries, O’Rourke is most vulnerable from the left. He agrees broadly that, in this new Gilded Age, capitalism must be saved from itself, but he is not prepared to call for the breakup of Amazon and Facebook and Google. In Congress, he voted with Republicans on two rule changes that weakened the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Senator Warren’s beleaguered brainchild. Occasionally siding with the banks may be uncontroversial in Texas; not so in the Democratic primaries. Even the Club for Growth, an anti-tax association that works with Republicans, has attacked him from the left: the group produced a TV commercial about his alleged depredations in Duranguito, suggesting that he was, if not driving the bulldozers himself, then at least secretly working for his father-in-law against poor barrio residents.
One of the many “purity questions” that Democratic hopefuls have to answer is whether they are ready to abolish ICE—Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the bane of the undocumented and their families. I put the question to O’Rourke. “No,” he said, emphatically. Like other liberals, he is regularly accused of wanting “open borders.” I’ve heard him take audience questions with that premise, which he gently corrects, saying, “We’re raising three kids half a mile from the Mexican border.” But he thinks a militarized border is exactly wrong—the frightened, crude response of national leaders with no feel for the thing itself. After 2006, when the federal government began fortifying the border through the city with a towering new wall, El Paso became slightly less safe, O’Rourke contends. He thinks that much of the six hundred and fifty miles of fencing built in subsequent years has been a mistake. He’s been outspoken about ICE abuses, under both Obama and Trump, but he has also worked closely with border law enforcement. Reform ICE, yes; abolish it, no, at least not without an alternative ready. Certainly end the kinds of ICE raids that devastate towns in the Midwest, far from the migrant trail.
Another threshold question for the Democratic field is, of course, climate. In late April, O’Rourke made a surprise announcement: he was proposing a ten-year, five-trillion-dollar program to combat climate change. He unveiled this ambitious plan in Yosemite Valley, with waterfalls thundering, on Facebook Live. The current benchmark is the Green New Deal resolution, put forward by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey, which seeks zero net emissions by 2030; O’Rourke’s proposal has the same goal, with the deadline twenty years later. Depending on your perspective, this can seem admirably realistic or infuriatingly slow. The plan was hailed by Greenpeace and the League of Conservation Voters, and panned by the youth-led Sunrise Movement.
That evening, on MSNBC, Chris Hayes plied O’Rourke with friendly questions about the plan. His answers had a hortatory, soapbox quality, as if he were still trying to be heard over waterfalls, or not quite comfortable in the give-and-take of a televised interview conducted via satellite. O’Rourke was barely seen on national television in the first two months of the campaign, turning down nearly every interview request in favor of face-to-face encounters with the public. This was a major tactical mistake, especially with such a huge field. In a national contest, the race is not in coffee shops; it’s on TV.
During those same two months, Pete Buttigieg made dozens of appearances on national television. Mayor Pete will do seemingly any interview and do it well. In mid-May, he went on Jimmy Fallon’s show to gamely deliver talking points while the house band played a slinky groove. The crowd loved it. When Buttigieg began to make his move, in March, O’Rourke had reached double digits in an average of national polls. Buttigieg quickly passed him. He has a glittering résumé for a small-city mayor, and a gracious manner on TV. The news media adore him, and he drove the news cycle, at least for a couple of weeks. Fifteen days after the mayor of Austin hailed O’Rourke as the Democrats’ battlefield hero, he endorsed Mayor Pete. O’Rourke began to slip in the polls, behind Warren, who is moving slowly upward, and Buttigieg and Kamala Harris, who has surged intermittently since a bravura announcement in January.
In late April, Biden finally announced his candidacy, concentrating his fire on Trump. He promptly broke O’Rourke’s record for one-day fund-raising, and his polling lead increased, leaving Sanders some twenty-five points behind. O’Rourke’s poll numbers sank to six per cent. Biden, who for the moment appeals to the broad center of the Party, particularly to older voters, has shown how many of his rivals are gathered in a relatively narrow slice of the ideological pie.
For O’Rourke, the only good polling news lately came from CNN, in early May. A poll matching the top six Democrats in hypothetical races against Trump showed that any of them, except for Warren, would win. O’Rourke won by the largest margin, ten per cent. A ripple of hope passed through his campaign: maybe O’Rourke really was the centrist candidate that America wanted. In the following weeks, his numbers kept falling, to as low as two per cent.
In mid-April, I asked O’Rourke how he thought the campaign was going. This was during a rare break from roadwork in Iowa and New Hampshire. We were in his living room in El Paso.
He welcomed the question, he said. He was usually too busy campaigning to step back. “It has not gone as well as I would have wanted it to, in terms of my performance with the press,” he said. “That’s on me, a hundred per cent.”
On the other hand, he was encouraged by the people he was meeting in the early primary states. “They take this stuff really seriously,” he said. “They’re super invested in it, and asking good questions, and bringing good ideas to the conversations.”
The O’Rourkes live in a century-old Mission-style house, a stone’s throw from Interstate 10. When I had pulled up earlier, Amy and Henry were playing catch in the small front yard. Now the kids were charging around, their dog, Artemis, was licking my knuckles, and the sun was going down. One wall of the living room was all bookcases, with a creditable collection of vinyl on the bottom shelf.
I was there to talk about the campaign, but the conversation kept going walkabout—a German TV series about the Weimar Republic that he and Amy had just watched, a Chinese film I saw, a frightening new book on climate change. O’Rourke, describing his experience both in Congress and on the campaign trail, said, “You’re always aware of how much you do not know, and how many things you want to get smart on.” This statement—the mix of humility and ambition—struck me as pure O’Rourke. His curiosity is weirdly unbounded, like a belief system in itself. When I confessed my near-total ignorance of China, he said, encouragingly, “Right on.”
The odd thing is how unfinished O’Rourke seems in public—not nervous but porous, always looking for enlightenment, or contrary ideas, or a problem he can either solve or take under advisement. His attachment to do-it-yourself campaigning has often been attributed to his punk-rock past, and there is a common thread of the homemade, the cult of authenticity. And yet there is nothing transgressive about O’Rourke’s politics. His vibe of gentle respect is, if anything, more New Age than punk.
He still reminisces fondly about visiting the reddest towns in Texas. “I love it,” he said, that afternoon at his house. “Amy and I spent so much time in Amarillo and in Abilene, and in smaller counties that were traditionally Republican and whose residents may feel that Democrats don’t care about them.”
Amy, who had joined us, confirmed. But those were the old days, 2018. Now they needed to ramp up. This was fifty states, not one. And campaigning in remote Republican counties, I thought, didn’t actually make much sense in a Democratic primary. Beto had just hired an Obama veteran, Jen O’Malley Dillon, as his campaign manager. She was moving, with her family, to El Paso. He was about to hire another Obama person, a specialist in delegate counting. Amy admitted that it made her nervous: “You fear that they’re going to want your campaign to look like those that they’ve run.”
Beto said that he had been talking to a “communications person”—a speechwriter. “I don’t think I’ve ever read a speech,” he said. “I’ve definitely never looked at a teleprompter, or whatever the glass is called—”
“Yeah,” Amy said. Teleprompter was right.
But would Beto be able to let go of the wheel for this campaign? Stop driving himself everywhere, diving into crowds in one-stoplight towns, relying on his phone and social media to get out the word? Perhaps even start taking direction from professionals, spending more time in TV studios?
O’Rourke campaigns the way he does because he believes in it. He wants to feel something (even if it’s only respectful disagreement), to have a breakthrough, to be led as much as he leads. But the evidence is piling up that this approach will not work on the national level, at least not this year. To have any chance, he must turn to television, where empathy, careful listening, and voracious curiosity are not the coin of the realm.
Recently, O’Rourke has started making that turn, appearing on news shows and morning shows, becoming the last top-tier candidate other than Biden to hold a CNN town hall—an influential new format. He does not look especially comfortable with what TV hosts keep calling his “reboot.” But he was commanding on CNN, with a stage to pace and a full house at Drake University, in Des Moines. Taking questions from the audience and from the host, Dana Bash, he gave polished and comprehensive answers on impeachment, immigration, reproductive rights. He limned a post-Trump American vision that drew waves of applause. He even wore a coat and tie.
This was hardly selling out. O’Rourke is running for President, not city council. Still, being center stage, having all the answers, does not seem to be where his heart lies.
“The town halls, the issues, the travel, the endurance, I love all that,” O’Rourke told me in his living room. What he did not love, particularly not while coming off the contact high of a rally, was “the thirty members of the press, in your face, at the first event, at the second event, at the third, and then day after day after day, and asking almost nothing about anything that 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 thirty-five years ago, none of which . . . ” He threw up his hands. “Because this woman has just told me that her daughter spends four hundred forty-four dollars on her prescription, and I’m thinking that through as I’m leaving—like, How do I get her a better answer?”
O’Rourke folded his hands. “So I think I’m learning the rhythm of that,” he said. ♦