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.