Friends of the young Bill Clinton and Barack Obama spoke of the special glow of promise they had about them, even back in their early twenties. Angels sat on their shoulders. History gave them a wink and said, “Hey, good lookin’, I’ll be back to pick you up later.”
Robert O’Rourke? Not so much. He was just a weirdo. That isn’t my word, it’s how his friends saw him. “You’re supposed to make friends with future secretaries of state, not weirdo musicians,” one O’Rourke pal, Adam Mortimer, told the New York Times. “It’s like, wait, one of the weirdo musicians might run for president.” One contemporaneous photo accompanying the Times story about O’Rourke in his New York City years (four at Columbia University, three reenacting Reality Bites afterwards) shows him with what appears to be a food stain on his crotch, sitting between his girlfriend and a dog who is obviously possessed by Satan. The other picture has O’Rourke wearing a moustache and a ladies’ floral dress.
The former El Paso congressman’s spastic “Hey, I’m still figuring out these new hands” presidential-kickoff video, in which his upper limbs appeared to be subject to mad random yanks by an angry puppeteer, was merely the latest odd detail in the saga of Weirdo O’Rourke. It was even weirder than Elizabeth Warren’s “Greetings fellow earthlings, I too enjoy fermented malt beverages!” video. Robert/Beto is a man so apart from other human beings that he recently thought nothing of ditching his wife and three kids so he could drive around the country, alone, accosting unsuspecting dentists to help him apply Novocaine to his aching soul. He might be the first person ever to run for the White House on a platform of asking the nation to help him figure out who he is.
The source of the angst is evident: Beto is a brainless rich kid who yearned to be cool and wasn’t very good at it. He flunked out of punk. He failed as a fiction writer. He belly-flopped as an alternative-newspaper publisher. And he’s so clueless that his apartment was once robbed while he was sitting in it. At his pricey Virginia prep school (Woodberry Forest School these days carries a sticker price of $48,000 a year), he thought he “just stuck out so badly” because of the “monoculture” there, which the Dallas Morning News called “white, wealthy and southern.” O’Rourke was and is white, wealthy, and southern, so he couldn’t have stuck out much more than Miracle Whip at the mayonnaise convention, yet he was wounded and alienated. Or maybe not. He put this in his high school yearbook: “I’m the angry son. I’m the angry son.” Below that: “I owe you everything, Mom, Dad . . .” You have to pick one, though, don’t you? You can’t be a seething rebel and a dutiful child. You can’t be Kurt Cobain and Kenny G. One pose nullifies the other. Or maybe O’Rourke was even then trying to position himself as acceptable to all constituencies.
But I don’t think so. I think Robert (as he called himself at boarding school, having shed his childhood nickname because he wanted to fit in) didn’t even spot the contradiction. Hey, you’re not a phony if you genuinely don’t know who you are. O’Rourke is a guy who was trying to make it as a punk rocker at the same time he was working as a nanny. Leonard Zelig wasn’t a phony, he just had this involuntary nervous reaction that turned him fat when he was next to a fat guy or Chinese when he was next to a Chinese guy. Zelig was . . . weird.
O’Rourke did do a normal Texas thing when he started an IT business at the turn of the century, but that didn’t go anywhere. When sold two years ago, it was still worth less than $500,000. So what’s the deal with his net worth, which is estimated at $9 million? I came across this line, on Heavy.com: “Peppertree Square Ltd. Imperial Arms is a real estate company, and Peppertree Square is a shopping center in El Paso, which was a gift from his mother.” Jeez, I remember when I thought my mom was sweet for buying me a blazer. I want Beto’s mom. When Beto’s dad died, he left the boy an apartment complex worth $5 million. Also his father-in-law William D. Sanders is worth a packet. Bloomberg once estimated he was worth $20 billion.
So far, then, O’Rourke’s life story does not look like a fable about rising to meet fate’s challenge, but more like privilege and dilettantism. For years Beto tumbled down the cultural mountain — from rocker to fiction writer to newspaper proprietor to IT guy — until he hit bottom, which is the El Paso City Council. I wonder how many other Ivy League graduates who inherited shopping centers and apartment complexes were willing to serve a stretch there. Yet O’Rourke’s yearning for cool was at last being slaked, because he had managed to find the one profession in which he was hipper than most, in which managing to stay on a skateboard for ten seconds makes you Elvis. In that magical season of running against Ted Cruz, Beto, at last, was being called “a rock star.” The very thing he wanted to be in the first place!
As of this week O’Rourke is aiming to be the first president (since Abraham Lincoln anyway) whose previous career highlight is losing a Senate race. Aren’t you supposed to have at least one thing to brag about before you seek the Oval? Somehow O’Rourke became a folk hero based on . . . being more relatable than Ted Cruz. How much of an accomplishment is that? Adlai Stevenson is more relatable than Ted Cruz. And I don’t mean 1952 Adlai. I mean today’s Adlai, the guy who’s been dead for 54 years. Ted Cruz could lose a charm contest to Martin Shkreli.
Up against Cruz, Beto said some odd things, like his defense of NFL players kneeling for the National Anthem. Sure, those overpaid jerks have every right to diss the flag, unclog their noses at it, stick their thumbs in their ears and go “La, la, la, I’m not listening to this crapola.” But O’Rourke’s take was, “I can think of nothing more American.” Hang on, that’s the most American thing he can think of? How hard is he actually thinking? Just off the top of my head, I can think of two things that are more American than insulting the flag: parachuting in behind the hedgerows with the 82nd Airborne on D-Day, and tailgating off the bed of a Ford F-150 at the Daytona 500 with 50 pounds of Chick-fil-A and “Gimee Three Steps” blasting on the stereo. Oh, and I just thought of a third thing: saluting the flag. It has to be a tad more American to show respect for the primary symbol of America than to react with the kind of revulsion you might evince if you happened to be one of the guys defending Normandy from the 82nd Airborne on D-Day.
Then again, O’Rourke is the guy who says, “We’re safe not because of walls but in spite of walls.” In spite of! So walls aren’t just overrated — like America! — but actually decrease safety? They bring us danger? Maybe that’s why young O’Rourke tried to sneak under that fence at the University of Texas at El Paso physical plant. If he hadn’t been busted for burglary, he could have thrown open the gates and made the plant safer. The world’s most sensitive locations are being endangered by all those walls and fences. We need President Beto to fix that. Besides, electing him president would really help him with his lonely quest to discover himself.