What the Beto O’Rourke Documentary Says About Political Charisma

HBO’s Running With Beto is an apt snapshot of the 2018 Senate campaign that went viral, in part, on the promise of streamed intimacy.

Beto O'Rourke in the HBO documentary 'Running With Beto'
Charlie Gross / HBO

On the evening of November 6, 2018, Beto O’Rourke appeared before a large crowd in El Paso, Texas, to concede his senatorial race to the Republican incumbent, Ted Cruz. “I’m so fucking proud of you guys,” O’Rourke would tell that crowd, as it roared in response—a line that would promptly go viral. Before he took the stage, though, O’Rourke huddled in a fluorescent-lit hallway with his wife, Amy, and a small collection of the staffers who had helped the Democrat come surprisingly close to unseating Cruz. “I just feel very, very, very lucky,” O’Rourke said, as they gathered in their circle, “and I love you guys more than you’ll ever know. And I know I was a giant asshole to be around sometimes, and you all never allowed my shortcomings to get in the way of running the best campaign this state has ever seen.”

The huddle makes for one of the final scenes in Running With Beto, the diaristic account of O’Rourke’s senatorial bid that premiered at South by Southwest earlier this year and airs on HBO today. There is very little about the documentary that comes as a surprise—this particular story’s ending was decided that evening in early November—but here is one: The line about being a giant asshole is an exaggeration that also … kind of tracks. The central figure of Running With Beto presents, overall, as a guy who can get snippy with people when he’s stressed, or when he’s weary, or when he’s hangry. The intimacy is part of the sales pitch. Running With Beto begins with its subject pumping gas on a Facebook livestream, and this scene doubles as a declaration of intent: Beto’s candidacy is a lesson in what happens when the politics of authenticity collides with the tools—smartphones, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat—that allow for new kinds of access to politicians. O’Rourke is often trailed by Chris Evans (not that one), his campaign communications manager, who diligently streams the candidate’s every movement via a smartphone anchored to a portable tripod. Beto went viral—his run for statewide office became a national media event—in part because of these efforts. Call it gadgetprop.

Running With Beto was co–executive-produced by Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, and Tommy Vietor (otherwise known as “the Pod Save America guys”); it often has the feel of an infomercial whose miracle product is a lanky resident of El Paso. This, too, is unsurprising. What is striking, though, is the low-stakes nature of the miracle: But wait! There’s more! the film keeps insisting—and the “more” here involves Beto, in his kitchen, eating some toast. Running With Beto’s director, David Modigliani, reportedly gathered 700 hours of footage to create the roughly 90-minute film, and it would have been easy to make the whole thing a classic hagiography. Instead, the final edit includes scenes of Beto’s family lamenting his run (“It’s definitely difficult for them,” Amy O’Rourke says of the campaign’s effect on their kids; “I’m ready for it to be over,” their son agrees later on). It includes shots of the candidate himself doing the same (“They’re having to live their lives without their dad being around,” he tells the camera). It also includes footage of Beto berating a staffer for her handling of the press; and chomping on anonymously wrapped food while driving his car down an equally anonymous interstate; and sweating profusely through his shirts.

Whether those moments are indicative of simple “transparency” or of a more manufactured strain of authenticity, they are unquestionably consonant with the logic of the campaign itself. “I think what we’re selling with him is just genuineness,” David Wysong, O’Rourke’s campaign chief, says near the outset of the film. He does not seem to recognize—or at least to acknowledge—the paradox lurking in the declaration.

Running With Beto follows in the tradition of many recent political documentaries—Weiner, Mitt, Knock Down the House—but one of its most direct antecedents is The War Room, the now classic behind-the-scenes look at the running of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. Shot, by the documentarians Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker, in a verité style—and foregoing talking-head interviews in favor of a voraciously roving camera—The War Room studiously de-romanticizes the battles that are waged on the campaign trail. (Many of its scenes feature its central subjects, James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, simply looking bored. At one point, they’re shown eating popcorn out of large coffee filters that have been repurposed as bowls.) “What you realize,” as Roger Ebert put it in a 1994 review, “watching Carville and Stephanopoulos move between grand strategy and damage control, is that they are good at their jobs, and probably as honest as was possible under the circumstances. Certainly their decision to allow access by documentarians shows a willingness to be seen, warts and all.”

The War Room offers an inside look at how political charisma was industrialized for the particular affordances of the early 1990s in America; Running With Beto, in its way, does the same for its moment. The former was revolutionary in the behind-the-scenes access it both attained and provided: the wizards behind the curtain, under-slept and over-caffeinated, cannily directing the performances on the stage. Running With Beto, on the other hand, is revealing in its recognition that, at this point, there aren’t many scenes left to go behind at all. Center stage, backstage: The lines between them blur. And so do the lines between the candidate as a carefully calibrated performance and the candidate as a person.

There was once a time when politicians were distant figures who derived their power in part from their ability to argue that they were, in ways both measurable and ineffable, different from everyone else. Running With Beto—the with is the key word there—flips the proposition. The film frames the politician in question not as above the public, but rather as existing among them: If celebrity now involves a kind of ubiquity, the same is true in politics. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, making Instant Pot mac and cheese and discovering garbage disposals. Elizabeth Warren, drinking a bottle of beer with her husband, Bruce. Beto, now a presidential candidate, getting a dental cleaning and a haircut.

Running With Beto suggests the power of that branded authenticity; it also suggests its severe limitations. The documentary about the making of a political celebrity is also, at this point, a story about the unmaking of one: It airs on HBO during a moment of distinct Beto fatigue. Those soul-searching road trips. That regrettable Vanity Fair spread. That cringe-inducing campaign-launch video. That sparsely watched CNN town hall. The very legitimate criticism that Beto’s signature policy seems to be celebrity itself. Running With Beto ends on an insistently hopeful note: O’Rourke lost to Cruz, yes, but his campaign itself, the suggestion goes, energized progressive Texans for future fights. And his losing campaign launched, effectively, a presidential run. Tom Petty’s “Runnin’ Down a Dream” plays as the credits roll, and just like David Wysong’s discussion of “selling genuineness,” there is nothing ironic about the selection. It’s authenticity treated as a means. But to what end?