Magazine | April 11, 2016, Issue

A Friend in the Arena

What’s it like when a friend of yours runs for president?

It’s strange enough to have a friend in the U.S. Senate. There are only 100 of them, in a nation of 300 million–plus. To have a friend running for president is even stranger.

When Ted Cruz was elected to the Senate, I called up another friend, David Pryce-Jones, in London. He is my National Review colleague as well. I said, “Did there come a time when your classmates at Eton and Oxford began to be elected to Parliament, and serve in ministerial positions?” “Yes,” he said. “Was it strange?” I said. “Yes,” he said.

But look: When you go to Eton and Oxford, you expect your classmates to rise to the heights. They always have. And Britain is a small country, relative to ours. To have a friend become a U.S. senator and presidential candidate is . . . something.

I met Ted Cruz on the presidential campaign of George W. Bush in 2000. I had taken a leave of absence from NR to assist that campaign; Ted was a domestic-policy adviser on it. In no time, he and I “bonded,” as they say. We had many a late-night discussion at Earl Campbell’s barbecue joint and other choice spots.

Did I mention this was Texas? Austin? It was.

One of the things Cruz and I bonded over was Reagan: our admiration of. He and I were both deeply influenced by that presidency. He was in his teens; I was in my teens and twenties.

Ted’s father had been a refugee from Cuba. His son had an unusual appreciation of freedom, and an unusual detestation of tyranny.

He had been fancily educated, Ted had: Princeton University and Harvard Law School. He went on to clerk for the chief justice, William Rehnquist. At the same time, he had a scrappy, outsider’s heart.

Given his education and ability, he could have been making millions at a law firm. Instead, he was toiling on a political campaign. When I’ve noted this in the past, people have said, “Yeah, because he wanted a leg up on his own political future!” Okay. But so? If you want to do political good, it helps to get elected. Besides which, Ted was advancing, even then, ideas in which he believes. I have seldom met a person so devoted to ideas.

Ted knew a lot about the law, of course. And about domestic policy (again, of course) — Medicare Part B and all that. He knew a lot about economics, and was a big free-marketeer. He knew a lot about foreign policy, and was a hawk. Also, he was a social conservative. He opposed abortion, for example, and knew why.

Another thing: He was amazingly free of cynicism. What I mean is, he really believed in America and free enterprise and all that rah-rah stuff. Other people feel the need to roll their eyes a bit. Not Ted.

You may have heard that he is not well liked by the people around him. Well, I liked him — loved him. But it’s true: Some people found him too cocky, too brash, and too ambitious for their taste.

The older I get, the more patient I am with ambition, certainly if that ambition is directed to positive ends. I think of William Herndon on his onetime law partner, Lincoln: “His ambition was a little engine that knew no rest.”

I also think of a kid I grew up with, Jim Harbaugh. He was cocky, brash, ambitious — and hugely talented. Ted would remind me of him. I loved Jim, though he was not universally appreciated. Certainly he was envied. He went on to be a quarterback in the NFL, and, after that, one of the most successful football coaches in America — at both the college and pro levels.

But back to the Bush campaign. You know who else liked Ted? Loved him? Heidi Nelson, a whiz of an economic-policy staffer. And a wonderful California blonde. Like Ted, she had a can-do spirit. The two were married the next year.

Ted took his wedding party to the Reagan ranch. There, we gazed on the great man’s GE appliances, horse saddles, and so on. It was a totally Ted-like outing. We were in Reaganite heaven.

In the following years, he had highs, I had highs; he had lows, I had lows. Ted was as good a friend in foul weather as in fair. We talked and talked, usually late at night (though not at Earl Campbell’s). We dreamed and schemed. He would run for office, surely. I wanted to, but couldn’t see a path. At least I had the satisfaction of watching him.

In 2009, he prepared to run for attorney general of Texas. I wrote about him for the first time. In that piece, I spent a couple of paragraphs noting similarities, and dissimilarities, between Ted and the new president. I concluded those paragraphs with this: “Obama certainly rose quickly in American politics, very quickly (alas). Can Ted Cruz do the same? I don’t know, but it would be good for the country.”

For reasons too tedious to explain, the attorney-general race did not come off — because the attorney-general position did not come open. But not long after, a position came open for sure: a U.S. Senate seat.

Ted announced in January 2011. “I hope he goes to the Senate,” I wrote, “and I hope he goes further than that.” Marco Rubio had just been sworn in as a senator. I wrote, “A nightmare scenario for people like us — I’m talking about Reaganites — is that Senator Cruz and Senator Rubio compete in a presidential primary.” I was thinking 2020, maybe 2024.

Important people told Ted not to bother to run for Senate. He had no money, no name recognition, no network. There were people in line ahead of him — senior politicians — and he should wait his turn. He’d make a fool of himself if he didn’t.

Ted was confident he would win. He told me he would, over and over. And damned if he didn’t.

On Election Night, I began a blog post by quoting a Gershwin song: “They all laughed at Christopher Columbus, when he said the world was round. They all laughed when Edison recorded sound.” The song ends, “Who’s got the last laugh now?”

A left-wing journalist wrote me a nasty e-mail, saying, “Columbus didn’t say that! Your friend is an idiot!” He thought I was quoting the candidate, Ted. I was insulted on Ira Gershwin’s behalf. And wistful about a lost popular culture.

Ted announced for president a year ago. In due course, I made a disclosure: I was his friend, I supported him (while admiring Rubio, Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina, and others), and I would help him, if asked. Transparency City, as Bush 41 might say. The first contest was Iowa, as usual. I saw Ted in Des Moines a few days before.

But on the night of the caucuses itself, I was back home in New York, working — covering a performance at the Metropolitan Opera (Maria Stuarda). At intermission, I checked my phone. A friend had texted to say that Ted was looking good in Iowa. I could not quite bring myself to believe it.

After the opera, I repaired to a restaurant across the street. My friend texted me a photo of her television screen: “Cruz Wins.” Honestly, I gulped. I was numb for a moment.

It seemed only yesterday that Ted was crashing on my couch, with his cowboy boots to the side. Now he had won the Iowa caucuses? It was surreal, sobering, thrilling, and believable, all at once, if you will excuse that jumble.

At times in this race, I have been Joe Detached Journalist. But I have done a lot of living and dying with Ted. When he is maligned — as he has been — I feel it keenly. Personally. I don’t claim that he walks on water, or that the other candidates are villains. Far from it. I can be Ted’s worst critic. But I’m in deep: I am with him every step.

“You’re in the arena,” I remarked to him at one point. He is absorbing blows, and he is striking blows. He is the target of jeers and the object of cheers. I’m a mere spectator, though with a good seat.

Some of my friends and colleagues can’t stand Ted. And they are not shy about telling me. Some days, I am serene. I try to explain, defend, and persuade. Other days, I bristle, and want to growl, “Don’t vote for him then.” Whatever the day, I need to remind myself that, to the world, Ted Cruz is a presidential candidate. The fairest of game.

Obviously, the Cruz style is not for everyone. But I can say this, to conservatives (and to anyone else, for that matter): If he is president, he will do everything humanly possible to repeal Obamacare. And to prevent Iran from going nuclear. And to do other hard, vital things. I don’t know if these things can be done. But I feel sure that, if they can, Ted will do them. He will go the last mile, and beyond.

Like everyone else, he likes popularity more than unpopularity. But if popularity clashes with the right course of action, popularity will have to go. Ted would do anything — walk through fire, chew on glass — to keep this country free.

Pardon the campaign rhetoric, but it’s true.

At the moment, it looks like Ted has a steep road to beat Donald Trump for the Republican nomination. I would not bet the ranch on Ted. But I would not bet a cent against him. He has defied odds before. And no one works harder, and few work as cannily.

Say he wins the nomination and goes on to beat Hillary Clinton, taking the presidential oath of office on January 20, 2017. I will be amazed. But you’ll know what I mean when I say I won’t be surprised.

In This Issue



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