Ted Cruz's Senate Speech Revealed His Softer Side

No one can talk for 21 hours without revealing something about themselves. This is what the senator from Texas showed.
Jason Reed/REUTERS

During his more than 20 hours on the Senate floor, Ted Cruz had a lot to say about government and about why he thinks Obamacare will be bad for Americans. But he also revealed a lot about himself, his family, and how he wants other people to view him -- now and in 2016. No one can talk for as long as he did without exposing facts about their worldview and their self-conception that they may not have intended. In retrospect, many of the names that peppered Cruz's speech and which seemed off topic in the moment -- White Castle! Ashton Kutcher! -- are in fact part of the broad narrative of the self.

Cruz took a page not just from Rand Paul's anti-drone filibuster, but from Marco Rubio and -- with Rubio's political success and their fathers' shared immigrant history in mind -- sought to cast himself as a defender of lower-income blacks and Hispanics as well as single mothers. Cruz painted himself in the tradition of immigrant up-from-nothing strivers like his father, presenting himself as a populist despite his educational pedigree. It was a fascinating idea, since Cruz did no better with Texas Hispanics in 2012 than fellow GOP Senator John Cornyn did in 2008, and there's little evidence that the low-income minorities, particularly those in the service sector, about whom Cruz spoke have any affinity for the GOP or share his aversion to government programs. But it the worldview he laid out is one typical of immigrants, according to a recent Gallup Worldwide analysis.

"Migrants living in high-income economies are more likely than the native-born to have three characteristics that differentiate entrepreneurs from the rest: they feel optimistic even when things go wrong, they never give up, and they are willing to take risks," the pollsters wrote.

Looking at what Cruz praised in his remarks paints a fascinating picture of how the freshman from Texas views himself -- or wants people to view him. Here are the people he had kind words for:

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida

Senator Rubio is inspiring. Senator Marco Rubio is a critical national leader. When Senator Mike Lee began this fight, Marco Rubio was there from day one. He was there from the beginning, despite the protests and despite official Washington saying that he should know better than to stand against the D.C. establishment and stand for the people.

I don’t know if there is anyone more effective, more articulate, or a more persuasive voice for conservative principles than my friend Marco Rubio. His race in Florida two years ago was supposed to be impossible. I know that because I read it in the paper over and over.

Actually, many of the same people are saying this fight is impossible. They all said it with that same certitude and that same deep baritone voice: This young lad Rubio has no chance of winning this race. If it were up to official Washington, they would have been right. By every measure of official Washington, the winner of that race that would have been picked was the governor of the State. All of Washington was behind him. The only thing that was standing with Marco Rubio was the people.

When he started, he was at 3 percent in the polls. That is a condition I know well because two years later I found myself in a similar position. Yet he ran a campaign where he crisscrossed the state of Florida. He listened to the Florida people and got support from the grassroots. His victory in 2010 was a transformational moment in American politics, and it is also emblematic about what this fight is about right here.

Ashton Kutcher

Some time ago I tweeted a speech Ashton Kutcher gave. It was actually a terrific speech. It was a speech at one of those award shows where he talked about the value of hard work. One of the things I remember he said was this: In my life, opportunity looks an awful lot like hard work. That was a great message. It was a great message to young people.

Senator Mike Lee of Utah

Let me note there are many reasons why I love the senator from Utah. But very near the top of the list is the fact that when he “paraphrases” the Federalist Papers, it is darn near a word-for-word, verbatim quote.

His daughters

... I mentioned before that Heidi and I are blessed to have two little girls, Caroline and Catherine. Caroline is 5 and Catherine is 2. I love my daughters with all my heart. They are the joys of my life. I will tell you the hardest aspect of public service is not someone saying something mean about you–the press. The hardest aspect of public service is being away from those little precious angels and coming up here to DC. I tell you, it breaks your heart on Monday morning when I walk out of the house and one girl grabs one leg and one girl grabs the other and they say: Don’t leave, Dad.

Well, right now, Caroline and Catherine are both at home getting ready to go to bed, and they have both turned on the television. They are both watching C-SPAN. Now I’m going to confess that Caroline and Catherine don’t usually watch C-SPAN since there are far too few animated features on C-SPAN. But because the girls are watching, and my wife Heidi is watching with them, I wanted to take an opportunity -- an opportunity I don’t usually have when I am in D.C. -- to read them a couple of bedtime stories. They are watching right now, and if you will forgive me, I want to take the opportunity to read two bedtime stories to my girls.

Green Eggs and Ham

It was my favorite story when I was a kid and it is a story I love reading to them. I actually don’t get to read it to them often because we have a rule at home that they get to pick the books. For whatever reason, they don’t pick Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham all that often. I don’t get to read it that often because I tell them, Go pick the books you want to read, and I read to them. But since tonight, girls, you aren’t here, you don’t get to pick the book, so I got to pick Green Eggs and Ham. I love this story, so I am going to read it to you.

The movies

The other thing my dad would do, on Saturdays, he would go to movies. In fact, when I was a kid, we would go to movies all the time together. It was one of the things we loved to do together, still do. My dad used to go to movies on Saturday and he would sit there and watch the same movie in English typically three times. He would just sit there and watch it. When he first came there to Austin, he would watch a movie three times and have no idea of what was going on the first, second or third time. But then he would do it again and do it again.

The human brain is a miraculous thing. As he would watch the movie two or three times, by the second time you start picking up context, start picking up what was going on and start following the plot. By the third time he would start following it even more. So relatively quickly my father learned English.

John Edwards

Former Democratic vice-presidential nominee John Edwards used to talk about two Americas. I didn’t agree with a lot of things John Edwards said as a political candidate, but I actually agreed with that notion, and it is a tragic notion, that there are two Americas. There are two Americas, A, between the ruling class in Washington and everyday Americans, but there are also two Americas right now between those of wealth and privilege and power and everybody else.

Dishwashers and the fast-food industry

The fast-food business, that industry is being hammered. You want to talk about what a tremendous avenue for employment the fast food industry has been, particularly for the first and second job someone has. When we look at the unemployment rate of African-American teens of 38.2 percent, the fast food industry has been such a great avenue for advancement for minority teenagers.

I note I do not view that from the perspective of abstract numbers on a piece of paper. I view that from a very personal perspective, because 55 years ago, when my father came from Cuba, he was 18, he was penniless, and he couldn’t speak English. But he was lucky. He was lucky to get to America. He was lucky to be able to apply for a student visa, to be accepted to the University of Texas, to flee the Batista regime, where he had been imprisoned and tortured as a kid. By the time he was a teenager, my father had endured more than the vast majority of Members of Congress will ever experience ....

The problem is if you are an 18-year-old kid from Cuba and you cannot speak English, there are not a lot of jobs you can get. If you can’t speak English, it is pretty hard to get a job where you have to deal with customers who are going to expect you to speak English. At that point he didn’t have a lot of skills. He was a teenager. So his first job was washing dishes. He made 50 cents an hour.

Why did he get that job? Because you didn’t have to speak English. Even though he did not have a lot of skills as an 18-year-old kid, he was perfectly capable of taking a dish, putting it under very hot water, scrubbing it and setting it aside and he did it over and over.

When my father was here, he had no means of support other than washing dishes. So what he did, one of the reasons he wanted to work in a restaurant, is that restaurants would let you eat while you were working. It was one of the perks of working in a restaurant; the employees were able to eat. My father had no money for food. He barely had money to pay for a tiny little apartment. In fact, he started in the dorms, I believe, and tuition. That was it. He didn’t have money to buy food, so what my dad did is he ate at work. Since he liked to eat seven days a week, he worked seven days a week. He would go in and he only ate during those eight hours. During the eight hours he was working washing dishes, he would eat like crazy, I mean he would just feed his face. Because when he left, the next 16 hours he wasn’t eating anything, wasn’t buying food until the next 16 hours he showed up at work. That was the next time he was going to eat.

Some people may look at a dishwashing job paying 50 cents an hour and turn up their nose at it and say: Who really cares about people in jobs like that? Sometimes this Senate behaves like that. Who cares about people in jobs like that?

Single moms working in diners

Now I will know, as someone not entirely unfamiliar with receiving withering criticisms from one’s own party. There are worse things in life. I promise you that it is, in the order of things to be worried about, quite low. You know I am a lot more concerned about a single mom working in a diner trying to feed her kids than I am about whether some senator or some congressional staffer wants to run to a newspaper and say something mean about me.

White Castle

Jamie Richardson of White Castle explained how Obamacare is impacting her business .... They were opening eight White Castle restaurants a year -- I like their little burgers -- and that dropped to two. So six a year over the last 4 years amounts to 24 White Castle restaurants. No. 1, just as a consumer -- and I am a big fan of eating White Castle burgers -- that is 24 places we can’t go to get a White Castle burger. But that is not the real hardship. The real hardship is all the jobs that are lost from those 24 restaurants that didn’t open. Every one of those stores would have multiple shifts with managers, cashiers, or kids just mopping the floor. All those jobs would have been on the economic ladder toward the American dream.

No seriously, fast-food restaurants

Even within a fast food restaurant there has been tremendous opportunity for investment. Maybe you get hired mopping a floor because you don’t have any other skills or, like my dad, washing dishes because you don’t have any other skills. If you work a little while, maybe you can move over to the fries and then to the griddle. You can move to the cashier desk and learn how to count change. A lot of kids don’t know how to count change. Sadly, because of the educational challenges we have, a lot of kids don’t have the skill to count change yet. They can learn that. Then, if you demonstrate hard work, perseverance, and customer service, maybe you will get promoted to assistant manager, then manager, and then who knows.

Just a few weeks ago I had dinner with a number of franchisees who own fast food restaurants for one particular very well-known hamburger chain. I listened to their stories. I start most meetings, if they are small enough that this is feasible -- like the Kerrville small business gathering -- by asking them to go around and share an issue that is of a concern to them. I remember one gentleman, an African-American gentleman, who described exactly that path. He described how he got hired in an entry-level position at a fast food restaurant, developed skills, advanced, and then he was hired as an assistant manager and then as a manager. After that, he saved up and bought his own restaurant.

Presented by

Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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