Last week I found myself trying to explain Beto to a New Yorker. I didn’t do a good job. I do better with a day to think about it, a desk, a web browser and an editor than I do trying to talk on my feet.
I was taken aback. The person I was talking to is a very old friend who also happens to be very well connected in New York. He had had dinner the night before with some names you would know from the national media world and some people who were impressive whether you’ve heard their names before or not. I think he has dinner like that every night, unless he’s at home eating pizza in front of the TV and talking to me.
Beto O’Rourke came up, because they were tossing around potential presidential candidates in 2020. He said the really famous, very liberal media person at the table asked if Beto wasn’t just some nobody, a flash in the pan who had had his chance, blown it and now would fade from view and memory.
I asked my friend what he had said to that. He said he had said nothing. He said he figured the media person was right.
You know, sometimes we forget how far away we are in Texas from the center of things. O’Rourke’s failed campaign to unseat Texas Sen. Ted Cruz loomed so large here that I just assumed everybody in the country knew the story. But there you have it.
I told my friend I thought Beto had something. He asked me what. I told him I needed to sit down at a computer with a web browser and an editor for a day and I’d get back to him.
So if O’Rourke does have something, what is it? If he is even conceivably presidential for 2020, or for 2024, I doubt it’s going to have much to do with seasoning or experience. His ideas are important, but he’s not the only one who’s got them. It will be something more.
If Beto O’Rourke is a presidential contender, it will have more to do with some magical note he is able to sound on that mystical political triangle in the sky, that crystalline perfect pitch that makes every head turn in a momentary trance.
I went back to FDR, JFK and George W. Bush. If you were an opponent of the Iraq War like me and you thought Scooter Libby, Karl Rove and Dick Cheney all should have been sent to prison for life, then Bush is going to be tough swallow for what I’m about to say.
We have to remember that FDR and JFK were both very tough swallows for the people who opposed them in their own times. For the purposes of what I’m about to say, we have to somehow snip these leaders out of their immediate contexts, lift them up off the page of history and examine them strictly in terms of their own inner qualities, if that is possible.
The thing that O’Rourke may have — that FDR, JFK and Bush 43 definitely had when they were on their game — was an ability in times of great national crisis and challenge to speak in a way that erased themselves and made the people the president. Sounds crazy, I know. But take FDR. When most of us think of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, our 32nd president, we remember him for his first inaugural speech given March 4, 1933, the “fear itself” speech.
In it, FDR said this: “If I read the temper of our people correctly, we now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other; that we can not merely take but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress is made, no leadership becomes effective.”
John Fitzgerald Kennedy is remembered best for the “ask not” speech, his inaugural address as the nation’s 35th president on Jan. 20, 1961. He said: “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans — born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage — and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.”
Speaking from the Oval Office on Sept. 11, 2001, George W. Bush, the 43rd president, said: “Today, our nation saw evil — the very worst of human nature — and we responded with the best of America. With the daring of our rescue workers, with the caring for strangers and neighbors who came to give blood and help in any way they could.”
These three passages from great presidential speeches share an interesting quality, something so subtle it could escape notice at first. In each of them, the President of the United States, the most powerful person in the world, the one doing the talking, speaking to the people from his tower of power, disappears. Poof! Hey, where’d he go?
For a moment he isn’t there. Only we are present. The people. The magical note, the thing toward which every inner eye turns, is us. These speeches strike exactly the tone that all of us can hear and recognize at once and together, because it is us. We’re it. We’re the thing.
That’s how it works. We do the work. Not the leader, not really. We have to get it done, whatever it is. Recovering from brutal poverty and failure. Facing the future. Getting over being scared. The president tells us we can do it. He points the way and blows the whistle. But then we have to go do it.
For two and a half seconds, I wish we could try to do the same thing with Trump, clip him out of the page, hold him up and look at him for what he brings to the table in terms of inner qualities. He … he … OK, I change my mind. Forget it. I’m so sick of talking about this guy. If you get it, you get it. If you’re a Trombie, you go around eating people anyway, so forget it.
If Beto brings a quality to the table that could render him presidential by 2020, it will be this same reach of voice, mind and personality that was in FDR, JFK and Bush 43 in their best moments.
I did not get the email from O’Rourke a week after his defeat in the Texas Senate race, but my wife did. She let me look at it. It may be bad manners for me to quote it here, since it wasn’t addressed to me. But, you know, if it weren’t for bad mannered journalists, there would be no journalists at all.
It’s pretty long. A lot of it is about his wife, his kids and his dog. He speaks and writes in the very informal language of his time and generation.
But in some passages in O’Rourke’s email, I think I can hear faintly the first chiming notes of the silver triangle. He says: “Future campaigns will be won, influenced by the one we built. Candidates will run who otherwise wouldn’t have.
“Some will take heart in knowing that you don’t have to accept PAC money, you don’t have to hire a pollster to know how you think or what you want to say.
“They will have seen in our campaign that there is real joy and power in being with people, all people. Republicans, Democrats, Independents. People who’ve never voted and never will. People who will vote for you, people who won’t.”
No matter what happens to Trump in terms of the Mueller probe, North Korea, immigration or almost any other issue, two years from now the country will be sick to death of being stuck on this same page, this unending wallow of cynicism and fake grandeur. We will know in our gut as the people of the United States that we need to get up, get going and get big things done.
That’s when we start listening for the note, that perfect pitch summoning us to attention. If O’Rourke is presidential, it will be because he strikes that tone.
All of that can get a little spooky, I realize. I think we’d all like to see a little something beyond the perfect pitch. Hitler had perfect pitch. We will need to know specifically what O’Rourke is pitching. The ideas are important.
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But back to that New York dinner table I wasn’t invited to. Had I been there, I definitely would have balked at the flash-in-the-pan remark. I would have said, “No, no, sorry, you really do not understand.”
The man almost turned Texas blue. People in New York can’t possibly know what that means. That’s like talking Trump into appearing in public in point shoes and a tutu (please forget I suggested that).
I just don’t think New Yorkers can even comprehend the sheer psychedelic shock of the phrase, Texas turns blue. As for specific ideas, his platform was unapologetically Gen X progressive on everything from diversity to global warming. He didn’t triangulate jack, and he lit people on fire.
None of that means he’s a serious presidential hopeful, yet. But if he becomes one, it will have nothing to do with earned political seniority. It will have some to do with ideas, a whole lot to do with magic.