Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke’s first few days as a presidential candidate reminded me how much we miss the great talent of Tom Wolfe.
Wolfe had an amazing, profound capacity for looking beneath the glitter, the fakery and the hypocrisy that defines much of our culture. Wolfe’s 1970 publication of “Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers” challenged the political correctness and hypocritical posturing of the liberal elites.
Wolfe would have loved O’Rourke. He would have understood from the opening moments of the “Beto Bandwagon” the “me-centered” nature of O’Rourke’s existence.
I must confess the evolution of O’Rourke since losing a Senate race to Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in November has surprised me. It was clear O’Rourke was a champion of the left. Like the narrowly defeated Democrats in Georgia and Florida, he seemed to have gained more stature from defeat than the vast number of Democrats who actually won their election races.
However, I thought O’Rourke would take his $80 million donor base, his charm, and his remarkable nationwide name-ID (especially for a defeated candidate) and develop a thoughtful moral cause larger than himself.
For the first few days after O’Rourke’s loss to Cruz, I compared his position to that of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln had served one term in the U.S. House of Representatives. O’Rourke had served three terms.
When Lincoln ran for the Senate he lost narrowly to the incumbent, Stephen Douglas – just as O’Rourke lost narrowly to Cruz. However, in those days, voters elected members of the state Legislature, who then elected U.S. senators.
But the parallel between O’Rourke and Lincoln seemed to collapse after Election Day.
Lincoln shrewdly understood that his candidacy had to be about a cause much larger than himself. The Lincoln-Douglas debates were published and widely read among Republican activists. Lincoln emerged as a very thoughtful critic of slavery and a leader of moral stature.
Lincoln’s speech at Cooper Union on Feb. 27, 1860 was widely reprinted verbatim in northern newspapers, solidifying his position as a moral and thought leader (Harold Holzer’s book “Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President” is one of the best books on leadership and strategy I have ever read).
I assumed O’Rourke would recognize that his donor base and name identification were only a springboard – that he would have to define a moral cause large enough to justify an outsider nomination and election to be president. I was wrong.
First, we had “Beto the Traveler.” As one reporter commented, it was like watching Jack Kerouac creating “On the Road” as a 21st-century search to find yourself. As Beto wandered from town to town, it almost looked as though the great leader from Texas was seeking meaning in other people and other moments. It was the opposite of Lincoln’s composed, disciplined, mature approach to leadership.
Then we got the maximum liberal establishment buildup. Vanity Fair gave O’Rourke the full magazine cover launch with photos by Annie Leibovitz (nothing says “establishment approval as an icon” better than a Leibovitz photo shoot). In the glowing, fawning Vanity Fair article, we learned that O’Rourke had a “near-mystical experience” during a major rally in his Senate race.
This all-out media launch set the stage for O’Rourke’s modest announcement to Vanity Fair that “Man, I’m just born to be in it.” He later clarified that it was the presidential race and not the presidency, but it was still a telling comment.
Unlike Lincoln, for whom the cause was freedom and the Union, the O’Rourke candidacy is all about O’Rourke.
This vacuous lack of moral and historical meaning may explain the windmill effect of O’Rourke’s arms waving non-stop. Apparently, he believes if he waves at you enough, you won’t notice what he is saying, which is vacuous and without definition in any serious way.
O’Rourke may be the most charismatically empty candidate since Robert Redford played “The Candidate” in the 1972 movie of that name. Like Redford, O’Rourke has lanky good looks, is pleasing to watch for a lot of people, and has a “Kennedy-esque” feel.
In the age of the Kardashians, O’Rourke may be the perfect candidate. He is in because he is in. He should lead because he likes to lead. We should applaud and watch in awe because that is our role.
Somehow, I doubt this will work.
It is true O’Rourke will raise a lot of money (he apparently beat Sen. Bernie Sanders’ first-day donations by a small amount). However, as Govs. John Connally and Jeb Bush can report, winning the money sweepstakes and the nomination are two very different challenges.
In a field of nearly 20, arm-waving and immense self-confidence may not be enough.
My hunch is we will look back on the announcement week as the high-water mark of the O’Rourke campaign, and then it will be “bye bye Beto.”