Somewhere in Texas, filed on the fly by a glossy-magazine correspondent, and totally not as a parody written by Jim Geraghty — “It’s all about vision,” Beto O’Rourke tells me, standing tall upon the Texas prairie, or brush, or whatever this high hilltop area is supposed to be called. We’re watching the sun set in the west. “Sometimes you look out at this country, and the awesome potential of it all is just so blinding. It can make your eyes water. You see flares and flashes and lights moving around, and it just becomes like something of an epiphany, a message from someplace I can’t explain, and it just feels good.”
For several minutes I’ve been staring at the sun with O’Rourke, the second day of several days of following him around as he hints, flirts, alludes, suggests, and finally decides that he’s running for president. O’Rourke has been discussing the darkness of the Trump years, the enlightenment that the progressive political agenda can offer, the illumination that removing border fencing would provide, and the radiance of the Green New Deal.
The photographer who is traveling with me wants to get the light of the sunset to reflect in O’Rourke’s eyes just right, so the former congressman and I stare directly at the setting sun for 15 minutes. We’ve burned our retinas pretty badly, and all I can see is a series of blurry shapes floating around. But O’Rourke shakes it off, as he is already booked for a series of events in the evening, and he is running, in every sense of the word.
The responsibility of leadership weighs on O’Rourke’s sweaty shoulders like a pile of heavy metaphors. He’s sweating less than he did in summer, when his sweat dropped down like rain upon a parched prairie — as so many droplets of hope. Back then, O’Rourke was running to save the soul of Texas, to stand up as a representative of his people and all the state’s Latinos against the dangerous tide of white nationalism represented by incumbent Republican Ted Cruz.
[Editor’s note: Wait, “his people”? Isn’t Ted Cruz Cuban American? And isn’t Beto O’Rourke Irish American? Correspondent: I meant metaphorically.]
O’Rourke is now in the driver’s seat, literally, at the wheel of his Toyota Tundra, and the engine revs like a well-oiled machine, much like the network of supporters and volunteers and staffers who have been hanging around awaiting for the “go” signal and who are now assembling in the form of a campaign.
[Editor’s note: Wait, doesn’t a Toyota Tundra get “up to 15 miles per gallon” in the city and up to 19 on the highway? I thought this guy was worried about climate change. Correspondent: Of course that kind of truck is an environmentally conscious consumer choice, it’s called a “Tundra,” duh.]
O’Rourke is a man in a hurry, fueled by caffeine and Whataburgers, always on the move — even when his Tundra comes to stop signs. He’s the physical embodiment of momentum — lanky mass and constant velocity, refusing to be slowed down by critics or partisanship or the argument that he needs to wait his turn or observe posted speed limits.
We zip through an intersection on the yellow of the traffic light. Well, it was yellow for part of the way. O’Rourke is in the middle of a monologue about the blind obliviousness that grips so many Americans, how they’re so focused on media-generated minutiae that they can’t see what’s happening right in front of their eyes. The pedestrians jumping out of the way of the oncoming Tundra yell “Run! Run!” in what is clearly a sign that they’re yearning for O’Rourke to run for president.
“We need to bring the American people a new sense of optimism,” O’Rourke says. “Without optimism, we’re never going to be able to deal with the fact that within eleven years or so, climate change will be irreversible and we’re all gonna die. The economy’s never been worse, the border wall is architectural fascism, Trump’s Twitter feed turns people into Nazis, there’s never been a greater need for optimism.”
O’Rourke’s first stop is an empanada and kale-smoothie shack — literally bringing the Tundra to a stop against the wall of the shack. As O’Rourke drove up to the scene, waving with one hand and taking a selfie with the other, controlling the steering wheel with one knee, the assembled crowd parted like the sea before Moses. They leaped and dove to the ground as the Tundra approached, almost prostrate with reverence for the presidential candidate. As in that biblical story, they have faith that a tall leader will lead them to a promised land.
Standing before a crowd — a teeming crowd, a sprawling crowd, a ballooning crowd — at the empanada stand, Rourke talks about how career politicians have loused everything up, and how he spent six years on the El Paso city council and the past six years in Congress fighting against career pols. He talks about the inequities in America’s justice system, and how he’s seen that problem close up and firsthand. He talks about how only in America could the son of a judge and furniture-store owner grow up to be on magazine covers and sit on Stephen Colbert’s couch.
At one point, during a typically honest answer, O’Rourke blurts out the word “balls.” The crowd swoons upon the word — so blunt, so direct, so homespun, so American. It’s light years away from the crude ranting of the current president. From O’Rourke, profanity is like poetry, illuminating, elevating, stirring the souls of the audience and perhaps the very soul of the country itself.
Then we’re off and running again, back in the Tundra, headed across town at top speed. “I don’t understand why everyone keeps comparing me to the Kennedys,” O’Rourke says. “Jack, Bobby, Patrick, I don’t know where it comes from.” He pauses, thoughtfully, as he hits the brakes to avoid ramming into a guardrail as we cross a bridge. “I just tell people that we shouldn’t ask what our country can do for us, and that we should be asking what we can do for our country. I mean, if not me, who? If not now, when? Everything you get done begins with the decision to try.”
I point out that it’s mostly Democrats who are making the Kennedy comparisons and that maybe he should just accept the associations out of party loyalty.
Beto turns his head and looks at me with a penetrating, cerebral stare: “Sometimes party loyalty asks too much.”
A local Democratic activist named Wilhelm screams in enthusiasm as O’Rourke’s Tundra speeds by him, skidding to a stop for a rally-voter-registration-event party at a local theater. The marquee reads “BETO O’ROURKE IN CONCERT TONIGHT.” The candidate shakes his head and smiles.
“Oh, those guys! I told them not to do that.” He goes to the trunk and removes a case containing a bass guitar, wires, and a portable amplifier. “Lucky I just happened to bring this.” It’s a remarkably lucky coincidence, one that suggests something else is at work in O’Rourke’s effort, some sort of higher power guiding him to these sorts of magical moments.
[Editor’s note: Or, you know, his advance team.]
Inside the theater lobby, O’Rourke is mobbed by supporters. He stands up on a table so everyone can see him, and when he decides that isn’t enough, he stacks a table onto other tables to make an even higher platform. He tells the enthusiastic fans around him that he’s still not high enough, and they commence building a small pyramid of tables. O’Rourke stands on the third table, bumps his head on the ceiling, and then steps down to the lower table.
“I’m born to be in it, and that’s what democracy is all about! That’s what Washington and Jefferson and Franklin fought for!” The crowd cheers. Indeed, I nod, the predestined selection of our rulers because of the circumstances of their birth was exactly what drove the spirit of the American Revolution.
Within a few minutes, O’Rourke is on stage, shredding like Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards, and Stevie Ray Vaughn. After the set, fans ask him to sign campaign posters, T-shirts, a pig mask, a sheep onesie, and a floral-pattern dress. We’re supposed to move on to the next event, but the crowd is begging O’Rourke to do some skateboard tricks, and somehow, improbably, O’Rourke just happened to have left his skateboard in the trunk as well.
Back in the car, I ask O’Rourke what he thinks his best attribute is.
“I think it is my ability to listen to people,” O’Rourke answers. I ask him for examples of where it helped him in Congress. He lists off the concert-tour dates and cities of his rock band Foss from the summers of the early 1990s. It’s possible that O’Rourke’s ears are still ringing from the concert, but his answer is still illuminating, a hint of a suggestion of an illustration of the promise of the change to come. Rock concerts are cool, and Donald Trump has never done anything so cool as thrilling an audience by singing.
[Editor’s note: Wait, didn’t Trump sing “Green Acres” at the Emmys?]
It’s the promise of coolness in the Oval Office again, a future so bright we have to wear shades. To get the obligatory “to be sure” paragraph, I reach out to a grizzled veteran Texas political consultant.
“You do realize that every bit of O’Rourke’s persona, image, and message is designed to get you to write glowing profile pieces like this one, right?” the political consultant, an irredeemable cynic, tells me. “It’s as if he had been grown in a lab to make middle-aged magazine journalists feel they’re youthful rebels again, that they’re sticking it to The Man like they’re teenagers, so you can avoid the thought that you’ve become The Man and are in fact at least partially responsible for a political culture and electorate that evaluates presidential candidates on shallow charisma and appearances instead of their policy agendas and records of accomplishment. The man wants to be commander in chief, but you’re covering him like he’s the leading man of the next big Hollywood blockbuster. He’s the Aaron Sorkin protagonist right out of your dreams.”
I nod. The consultant is partially right about Beto O’Rourke; he is the candidate of our dreams.
In a country full of doubts and anxieties that we’re getting older and our best years are behind us, that we’ve become hopeless dweebs with mortgages and kids and a 401(k), a new hope for us has ridden out of the West. Beto O’Rourke embodies the American dream — the dream that one of the cool kids who’s in a band will hang out with us, and we’ll get a snack at Whataburger and do skateboard tricks in the parking lot and use bad words and talk about going on a road trip through the western states just because we can, because freedom, man.
Rock on, Beto!