Only once did I sit in a medium-sized room with Barack Obama. It was May 19, 2006, and the then-senator was speaking at a BookExpo America breakfast to promote his book The Audacity of Hope. He warmed up by noting that some people were cynical about politics. “At best we just hope it does us no harm,” he said, which was true enough. But then he kept going.
There has always been this other idea, and the idea can be described very simply. The notion that we all have a stake in each other, and that my success is directly tied to the success of my neighbors…for all of our much-vaunted individualism, there is also this sense that we are tied up in a mutual destiny, and every once in a while that sense, that interpretation, expresses itself not only in our families, in our churches…but it also expresses itself in our government, in our collective lives. And it’s that sense that propelled me in politics.
Winding down, he deployed Martin Luther King Jr.’s remark about how “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice” and said, “I look forward to working with you guys to spread the hope.”
The place went bananas. In a room full of booksellers and librarians, I was the only one not applauding. I was the only one who didn’t leap to my feet as though I had just received a life-altering revelation. As my success is obviously not tied to that of my neighbors, I am obviously not caught up in a mystical mutual-destiny tour with 300 million Americans and never have felt any rhapsodic “collective life” created by the nurturing bonds of government, Obama’s speech struck me as completely false, not to mention vapid, platitudinous and void of all meaningful content. (Tell me, at what capital-gains tax rate does the epiphany of “collective life” kick in?)
Still, a great many people were entranced by Obama’s platitudes. Giving speeches, it turned out, was the only thing he was good at. But those speeches made him president. Closely hewing to the Obama script, Beto O’Rourke reminds us that the power of a script depends entirely on the skill of an actor, and how well he fits the role. Anthony Hopkins makes a convincing King Lear. Justin Bieber, not so much.
“Let us be clear: we will not be defined by our fears or the smallness of our differences; we will instead be known by our ambitions, our aspirations and the resolve, the creativity, the service and sacrifice by which we will have achieved them,” O’Rourke says on Twitter, delivering the kind of pre-chewed pablum Obama could have delivered, and probably did. It’s possible to get excited about this kind of thing, but it takes some doing.
“Whatever our differences — where you live, who you love, to whom you pray, for whom you voted in the last election, let those differences not define us or divide us at this moment,” O’Rourke said at his El Paso campaign kickoff. “Let’s agree going forward, before we are anything else, we are Americans first.” As if anyone was saying we were Hungarians first.
The echo (ripoff?) of Obama’s 2004 DNC speech was obvious. O’Rourke suggested, as Obama did many times, that once he was in power inequality trends would reverse, without explaining how and without mentioning that inequality increased under Obama. “This extraordinary, unprecedented concentration of wealth and power and privilege must be broken apart,” O’Rourke said, “and opportunity must be shared with all.”
Obama spoke of “time to focus on nation-building here at home,” but immigration wasn’t as hot a topic then for Democrats. So O’Rourke ups the ante to, “It’s time to re-prioritize this hemisphere — those countries and people who are literally connected to us by land.” Make Guatemala great again.
These platitudes aren’t as sonorous in O’Rourke’s mouth, though. His voice lacks the timbre of Obama’s cigarette-cured tones. He doesn’t have Obama’s posture. He rushes instead of orates. He seems less like a world-historical figure in waiting than a cute neophyte. Obama was, moreover, exceedingly careful. He avoided saying anything crazy like suggesting we tear down existing border fencing in Texas or contemplate reparations for slavery. O’Rourke seems to toss out jawdroppers on the fly. He is trying not to displease any Democratic voting bloc by committing to anything much, but he has already said lots of things that can be used to paint him as an extremist in the general election. Obama was more disciplined, more aware of the nuances of political blather.
Being young and vigorous and not Donald Trump may prove enough to power Beto O’Rourke to the White House, especially if some economic shock or crisis should undermine Trump’s claims of a successful first term. And being white and male is no bar to success in the Democratic party, only on Twitter. But when it comes to political gifts, Beto is no Barack. It’s hard to overcome the sense that the great Beto O’Rourke Show is simply a tired rerun.