It’s nine P.M. on a Thursday night and #Beto O’Rourke is trying to manage a couple of life-altering and possibly world-historical political events while also driving his family home from a Mexican restaurant. Donald Trump will touch down in O’Rourke’s hometown of El Paso in four days to hold a rally and whip up excitement for a wall along the border with Mexico. O’Rourke’s iPhone is pinging with texts asking what he plans to do about it—and also whether he’s going to run for president of the United States of America.
Henry, age eight, weighs in from the back of the Toyota Tundra.
“Dad, if you run for president, I’m going to cry all day,” he says.
“Just the one day?” asks O’Rourke, hopefully.
“Every day,” says Henry.
Daughter Molly, freckle-faced and clever, astutely observes, “The White House is going to be all wet.” Earlier that day, the 10-year-old declared cheerily, “I want to live in the White House!” O’Rourke’s eldest, 12-year-old Ulysses, named for the hero of the Homeric classic that Beto O’Rourke has said he cherishes, delivers the final word: “I only want you to run if you’re gonna win.”
For a potential presidential candidate, Trump’s visit is a gift, but one that could easily be bobbled or squandered. O’Rourke is trying to organize a counter-rally, but he is meeting stiff resistance from local activists whose big idea is to stage a protest outside Trump’s rally. “They’re insisting on their event. They just want us to come in and support,” he tells me. O’Rourke thinks a protest is exactly wrong and would play right into Trump’s hands. “I gotta think, What does his team want?” he says of Trump. “What are they expecting us to do? Some calculation went into this. So is that what they’re looking for?”
Characteristically, O’Rourke wants a more optimistic approach, one that doesn’t let the president define the terms. And so he’ll spend the next 24 hours carefully steering allies to his idea of staging an upbeat “March for Truth,” which would just happen to star El Paso’s best counter-argument to Donald Trump: himself.
And it will all work out—if he can just keep his eyes on the road. “Motherfuckers!” he says after darting into a busy intersection while ferrying the brood home from school that day. Then he catches himself: “Sorry, kids.”
Beto O’Rourke’s Mission-style home in the El Paso neighborhood of Sunset Heights is the site of a famous 1915 meeting between Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa and U.S. general Hugh Scott. While renovating it, O’Rourke had a wrought-iron fence around the property removed, save for a few feet of it around a pistachio tree. In late February, he came home to find Republican protesters live-streaming video and asking why he still had a fence, mimicking Trump’s remark that politicians like walls when they’re around their own homes. “I said, ‘Come up with me and I will take you to our front door,’ ” he recalls. “ ‘This is just decorative fencing.’ ”
“Why do you have walls in your house?” they retorted. “Why do you have a door?”
Behind the door, in the O’Rourke living room, a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf contains a section for rock memoirs (Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, a favorite) and a stack of LPs (the Clash, Nina Simone) but also a sizable collection of presidential biographies, including Robert Caro’s work on Lyndon B. Johnson. Arranged in historical order, the biographies suggest there’s been some reflection on the gravity of the presidency. But there’s also some political poetry to it, a sense that O’Rourke might be destined for this shelf. He has an aura. Most places he goes in El Paso, he’s dogged by cries of “Beto! Beto!” Oprah Winfrey, who helped anoint Barack Obama in 2008, practically begged him to run at an event in New York City at the beginning of February.
Settling into an armchair in his living room, he tries to make sense of his rise. “I honestly don’t know how much of it was me,” he says. “But there is something abnormal, super-normal, or I don’t know what the hell to call it, that we both experience when we’re out on the campaign trail.”
O’Rourke and his wife, Amy, an educator nine years his junior, both describe the moment they first witnessed the power of O’Rourke’s gift. It was in Houston, the third stop on O’Rourke’s two-year Senate campaign against Ted Cruz. “Every seat was taken, every wall, every space in the room was filled with probably a thousand people,” recalls Amy O’Rourke. “You could feel the floor moving almost. It was not totally clear that Beto was what everybody was looking for, but just like that people were so ready for something. So that was totally shocking. I mean, like, took-my-breath-away shocking.”
For O’Rourke, what followed was a near-mystical experience. “I don’t ever prepare a speech,” he says. “I don’t write out what I’m going to say. I remember driving to that, I was, like, ‘What do I say? Maybe I’ll just introduce myself. I’ll take questions.’ I got in there, and I don’t know if it’s a speech or not, but it felt amazing. Because every word was pulled out of me. Like, by some greater force, which was just the people there. Everything that I said, I was, like, watching myself, being like, How am I saying this stuff? Where is this coming from?
“There’s something that happens to me,” he says, “or that I get to be a part of in those rooms, that is not like normal life. I don’t know if that has ever happened to me before. I don’t know if that would happen again.”
At 46, O’Rourke is only a couple of years younger than former rival Ted Cruz. But part of the excitement, and the content of his potential candidacy, is generational. Whereas Obama is from the tail end of the baby boom, Beto O’Rourke is quintessentially Generation X, weaned on Star Wars and punk rock and priding himself on authenticity over showmanship and a healthy skepticism of the mainstream. He came of age in a world of crumbling taboos over personal revelation, which has clearly peaked with Donald Trump, whose relentless Twitter habit has basically set the table for O’Rourke’s open-book style. Whether onstage or on Facebook Live or in person, O’Rourke has a preternatural ease. That openness is part of what he loves about campaigning. “I think that’s the beauty of elections: You can’t hide from who you are,” he says. “The more honestly and directly you communicate to people why you’re doing this, the way in which you want to serve them, I just think that the better, more informed decision that they can make.”
If the message is honesty, the medium is, patently, social media. O’Rourke speaks admiringly of Bronx-born congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, with whom he shares some overlapping political convictions but also a talent for the sort of viral disclosures and vignettes, delivered on Twitter or Instagram, that are disrupting national politics. “She does not seem to me to be afraid of making a mistake, or not saying it perfectly,” he says, “and in the process says the most important—I think some of the most important—things anyone can be talking about right now, and she’s freed herself from fear.”
A candidate of honesty and basic decency, à la Jimmy Carter, is in high demand among a lot of Democrats looking for optimal results in 2020, as is that sense of generational shift that powered Democratic campaigns dating back to John F. Kennedy (whose Profiles in Courage is in O’Rourke’s library). But O’Rourke’s radical openness can also look like naïveté, as with his Instagrammed teeth-cleaning, which was quickly clipped, isolated from its context, and made to look ridiculous. Skeptics question whether O’Rourke’s political transcendentalism can sustain the meat grinder of a national election. In a Democratic primary, he will not have the bogeyman of a Trump or a Cruz from which to draw voter energy. He is decidedly not the street fighter many Democrats crave. And in a zero-sum world, his astounding run against Ted Cruz in last year’s Texas Senate race, historic as it was, was still a loss.