Beto O'Rourke acts like our political savior, but no one is 'born to run' for president

Algernon D'Ammassa
Beto O'Rourke acts like our political savior, but no one is 'born to run' for president

Fetch the smelling salts and pick me gently off the floor: Beto O’Rourke is running for president.  

In the least surprising development of the 2020 Democratic Party primary, O’Rourke finally declared his candidacy on Wednesday after four months of buzz.

The former El Paso City Council member and three-term congressman may have lost his bid to U.S. Senator Ted Cruz last November, but in so doing he cultivated an aura of celebrity, social media aptitude and fundraising prowess that persuaded enough of the Washington political establishment, political commentariat and, at last, himself that he is made of presidential timber.

Instead of pursuing a promising career in the United States Congress, O’Rourke now joins a crowded primary field where his rivals will be fellow Democrats, not Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. It seems like a loss of talent where there is a need, but that is his choice.

Beto's money quote is all about himself

The long-anticipated declaration was scooped when Vanity Fair magazine’s profile story went live Wednesday, complete with a handsome cover photo by Annie Leibovitz showing O’Rourke on a dirt road in jeans and a crisply ironed shirt — looking better, to be honest, than many professional print models.

Demócrata Beto O'Rourke participará en las primarias a la Casa Blanca de 2020

On the cover was the money quote from his interview with Joe Hagan, the quote confirming the mythical sunrise of inevitability painted around Beto’s run: “I’m just born to be in it.”

The full quotation from the interview demonstrates a crucial ambivalence embedded in U.S. political culture:

"The more he talks, the more he likes the sound of what he’s saying. 'I want to be in it,' he says, now leaning forward. 'Man, I’m just born to be in it, and want to do everything I humanly can for this country at this moment.'"

The problem here is that personal destiny and public service are different notions. They are not entirely incompatible, but it is not healthy for secular, republican democracy when we confuse dreams of destiny with the humility of studious, principled governance.

Americans expect narcissism from presidents

We do not — no, we do not — need a political savior. We need well-prepared, serious, dignified and ethical people willing to work unglamorously on behalf of those they represent.

We also need more representatives who have struggled financially, recently in their lives, and know first-hand how life actually works for those working for wages or operating independent businesses, relative to the number of wealthy and well-to-do who are more than sufficiently represented.

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Such humble ambition conflicts with the demands and expectations of presidential campaigns.

You do not have to be crazy to run for president, but a touch of grandiosity and a soupçon of narcissism are qualities we have come increasingly to expect of candidates.

A psychological study published in 2013 found that “presidents exhibit elevated levels of grandiose narcissism compared with the general population, and that presidents’ grandiose narcissism has been rising over time.”

It may be the increased scope and pressure of presidential powers, plus the necessity of outrageous amounts of money to compete, reward candidates more for charismatic personality traits than intellectual or moral clarity. When presidential candidate Donald Trump criticized his primary opponents for exhibiting “low energy,” he was astute.

Reflection, sound judgment and solid governance are much less exciting, and have little correlation to fashion, looks or personality. Thus, the voter is starved for policy substance.

The campaign websites of several candidates — including Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker, and Julian Castro at this writing — offer beautiful photographs and testaments to the candidates' biographies and personal qualities, along with fundraising appeals; but far less on issues or policy.

Perhaps they, too, are “just born to be in it.”

Algernon D'Ammassa is Desert Sage at Las Cruces Sun-News, where this column originally appeared. Follow him on Twitter @AlgernonActor

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This article originally appeared on Las Cruces Sun-News: Beto O'Rourke acts like our political savior, but no one is 'born to run' for president