As soon as the lights fell for the Saturday premiere of the HBO documentary “Running with Beto,” former congressman Beto O’Rourke sneaked into the darkened movie theater with his wife and daughter.
The crowd spotted him and cheered. A photographer followed O’Rourke to his seat, the camera flash lighting the potential presidential candidate’s face. A woman in the third row whispered: “He’s like a movie star.”
In less than a year, O’Rourke has been transformed from a relatively unknown congressman from El Paso, running a long-shot campaign in Texas against Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, to a political celebrity who is regularly mobbed by adoring fans and urged by strangers to run for president — something that those close to him say he plans to do.
But celebrity exacts a cost, one that the documentary showed was borne by O’Rourke’s three young children. For 90 minutes on Saturday, O’Rourke was reminded in intimate detail just how difficult his last campaign was — and how grueling an even higher profile race may be — for his children.
O’Rourke gave the documentary crew full access to his family and several campaign staffers for more than a year, allowing them to gather 700 hours of footage. O’Rourke said he trusted the filmmakers to be respectful of his family and that the team was “genuinely interested in telling our story, we could feel that.”
The result was a glimpse at a wrenching reality rarely seen in the sanitized, smiling images usually put forth by candidates.
In one scene, O’Rourke’s youngest son, Henry, hid behind the couch and left a voice mail for his dad. In another, O’Rourke’s wife explained that the children started writing old-school letters to their father instead of video-chatting with him because “after they hung up on the phone . . . they were in tears and really upset.”
The O’Rourke children recounted watching two heavily armed gun-rights activists confront their father at a gun-control march. And on the night their father lost the election, the children discussed how it made them sad to watch others cry.
“I’m ready for it to be over,” his oldest son Ulysses, then 11, said late in the campaign when both of his parents were away from home several days a week.
Ulysses wasn’t the only one.
“I’m having a super hard time right now,” O’Rourke said at one point, driving himself to a campaign event. “To have like the Wall Street Journal reporter asking me 50 questions in an hour to then, right away, sit down in front of the NPR reporter and dance for a little while in front of him. And then, don’t eat, get up and go into this town hall and try to be genuine and direct with people. There’s just no time for your brain to relax and unclench and it . . .” He closed the thought with a vulgarity.
The documentary — which was co-produced by Crooked Media, a firm founded by former Obama staffers — emotionally captures the Beto-mania that swept Texas last year and profiles three volunteers who deeply believed in O’Rourke. But it also presents a less-than-fawning look at O’Rourke — a candidate who got nervous before speaking to huge crowds or debating Cruz, who lashed out at his overworked employees, who acknowledged on election night that he had often been a “giant” jerk on the campaign trail, who had a complicated relationship with his own father and nonetheless thrust his young children into the spotlight.
Amy O’Rourke said in the film that her husband first pitched the idea of running for Congress when she was pregnant with their youngest.