The Beto Odyssey

O’Rourke’s teasing approach to his potential presidential run makes uncomfortable assumptions about what political charisma looks like.

Eric Gay / AP

It is not yet clear whether Beto O’Rourke is running for president. What is clear, however, is that in the course of making his decision, he has been going for a lot of runs. Head-clearing runs. Meaningful runs. In November—just after O’Rourke lost, by a slim margin, the U.S. Senate campaign he had waged against Ted Cruz in Texas—Beto shared the details of a jog he took during a morning snowfall in Washington, D.C. “I was concerned that I might slip, that the ground would be too slick,” the politician wrote, “but it was wet and grainy enough that traction wasn’t a problem. Cold but not too cold.” Later: “The sleet stinging my face, I wondered if the winds had changed too.”

Posts of this manner continued as Beto embarked on a winter road trip, Texas to Kansas to Colorado to New Mexico, meeting new people—finding new meaning—along the way. He narrated the journey in a style roughly suggestive of Hemingway, had Hemingway had access to a LiveJournal. “What followed was one of these transcendent moments in public life,” he wrote of an event at Pueblo Community College. “Something so raw and honest that you want to hold on to it, remember every word … a flow between people.”

It’s both a very old story—the political listening tour—and a relatively new one: an approach to political message-making that is inflected by the raw confessionalism of the social-media age. (“Have been stuck lately. In and out of a funk,” Beto wrote in January, teasing the trip. “Maybe if I get moving, on the road, meet people, learn about what’s going on where they live, have some adventure, go where I don’t know and I’m not known, it’ll clear my head, reset, I’ll think new thoughts, break out of the loops I’ve been stuck in.”)

The implied subject of the funk was the question of whether will Beto will join the 2020 race for the Democratic presidential nomination; its implied conclusion was that he would come back having made his decision. But the hero went forth, and then made his return, with no news to share. Oprah interviewed him in February, and he told her that he’d make his choice by the end of the month; he has yet to announce. He has planned a trip to Iowa. He has hosted a protest rally. He has dangled news, but not made it. And many of those watching this months-long and very public form of soul-searching have begun to lose the very thing that Beto’s lengthy blog posts have assumed people will have for him: patience. Politico, this weekend, summed up the general feeling like this: “The politician who built his entire persona on a thread of authenticity—crisscrossing Texas while eschewing pollsters and political consultants in his Senate run last year—is now manufacturing suspense.”

The most generous reading of Beto’s publicly teasing approach to his potential run is that he is taking seriously the commitment a presidential run demands, and that he is, at the same time, attempting to rewrite some of the staid rules of retail politics, finding new ways to connect with the public and refusing to care what the pundits might think about the effort. (A flow between people.) Here is another reading, however: In a primary that is, of its own accord, so interested and invested in finding new ways to go about old business, Beto’s approach is the opposite of revolutionary. As he superficially challenges convention, he is also ratifying regressive ideas about what an appealing candidate—what political charisma itself—really looks like.

This weekend, Beto, like several of his fellow politicians, made an appearance at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. He was there, officially, not to talk policy, as many of his already declared fellow Democrats had come to do, but to promote Running With Beto, the soon-to-be-aired HBO documentary following the candidate as he ran his senatorial campaign against Cruz. Beto was there, effectively, as a political celebrity, his lack of official candidacy helping him to avoid a full measure of scrutiny, his star filtered through the haze of manufactured mystery. Beto’s team, after his appearance at the festival, sent an email to supporters. “If you’re on the edge of your seat about Beto’s decision around a potential 2020 run for president, you’re not alone,” the note said, later adding, “There’s been an outpouring of speculation, excitement, and support from people across the country—everyone eagerly waiting for the news.”

Electoral politics are a transaction between romance and reality. And campaigning, for all that its work will eventually involve policy and Pizza Ranches, also has a way of summoning unspoken, but deeply held, mythologies. When Beto teases and winks and wanders, he is invoking old permissions, and embracing tired stereotypes. He is revealing the privileges that come, in politics as in so many other places, with being white and male and young and handsome: all the latitude you will be given, all the benefits you will be afforded in the face of any doubts.

Many of Beto’s fellow Democrats—many of them women and people of color—have spent these past months working and organizing and staffing up and reaching out and proposing bold new policies and defending them in public, projecting confidence and competence, not only because that is what politics demands of them, but also because such tight control over themselves and their message is the only narrow avenue afforded to them. They lack the luxury of latitude. O’Rourke, on the other hand, teases and takes his time, seemingly trusting his own charm, apparently understanding that the system has been built for his particular set of talents and that devoted fans will greet him on the other side of his journey. He leaves his wife at home to care for their young kids and goes out into the world, to wax poetic about the changing of the winds.

The road trip is a mainstay of literature not only because of its narrative efficiency—here is a plot that pretty much writes itself—but also because of its rich mythology. On the Road, The Road, the approximately 100,000 other novels and songs and films that take the logic of The Odyssey and apply it to the highways of the contemporary world: They are effortlessly romantic. They retell the monomyth—the hero’s journey, with occasional stops at a gas station—in ways both unique and universal. The point of such an adventure, after all, is not merely to find a path, but also to find oneself. An ego trip, made deeply literal.

The American version of that quest, however, is a romance that is decidedly not universal. Historically, the find-yourself freedoms associated with road trips have been available, mostly, to men—and mostly to white men. The Green Book existed because of that. Thelma & Louise was revolutionary because of that. To travel anywhere and feel instantly welcomed—instantly at home—is a great promise. It is also a great privilege.

In that sense, Beto’s road trip—and with it, his meandering road to a possible run for president—is precisely what he apparently intended it to be. It is a journey of discovery. A revelation. “This could never, ever be a woman,” CNN’s Nia-Malika Henderson wrote in January, in an analysis headlined “Beto’s Excellent Adventure Drips With White Male Privilege.” On Monday, following the events at South by Southwest, The New York Times pointed out the same. (“Female Democratic strategists have grown increasingly frustrated as they’ve watched Mr. O’Rourke jump on his single-speed bike, read his emotional posts from his road trip, and seen him slip into the premiere of a documentary about his Senate campaign,” Lisa Lerer reported.) As a political operative told my colleague Edward-Isaac Dovere, referring to the live-stream of a dental cleaning Beto shared in January (he used the appointment as an opportunity to interview his hygienist about her memories of growing up near the U.S.-Mexico border), “Beto had all the heat closing 2018, but he allowed that momentum to dissipate while he went on that adolescent soul journey and showed America his gums.”

The growing frustration isn’t merely a matter of double standards at play. It is also about the ideas of belonging inscribed in the notion of political candidacy. It is about the public’s assumptions of what constitutes political talent—about the interplay of innate capacities and learned skills, mingling with the rules that have been established over time. It is about which candidates will be granted the luxury of patience, and which will not. The early days of the 2020 cycle have found new—and new kinds of—candidates joining the fray, and they are changing the rules by their very presence in the game. They are demanding, both explicitly and in subtler ways, that systems be rethought, that the assumptions that have for so long informed electoral politics be interrogated. And one of those assumptions will be the foundational matter of what political charisma really looks like. Who will be assumed to have that ineffable appeal, and who will be written out of the formula? Which abilities—competence, empathy, deep intelligence, charm—will be valued in a culture that conflates the logic of political representation with the logic of fandom? The winds really are changing; the question now is which directions they’ll take as they shift.