An American Son: A Memoir, by Marco Rubio (Sentinel, 320 pp., $26.95); The Rise of Marco Rubio, by Manuel Roig-Franzia (Simon & Schuster, 304 pp., $25)
Immediately after Mitt Romney clinched the Republican nomination in May, we political analysts found ourselves immersed in the veepstakes. This is essentially a gussied-up form of entrail reading, and the analysts haven’t come close to getting the Republican choice correct in 32 years. The process does, however, fill copy during the summer doldrums.
This year, much of the attention focused on the junior senator from Florida, Marco Rubio. Rubio, who pulled off one of the more spectacular “David against Goliath” campaigns in 2010 when he effectively drove Governor Charlie Crist out of the Republican party, seemed to check off many of the boxes for Romney: young, telegenic, articulate, from a swing state, and from a crucial and growing demographic. In the end, Rubio was not chosen — on that, more later — but he clearly was on the campaign’s shortlist until the end.
Perhaps anticipating the attention that would be lavished upon the senator this summer, and maybe hoping that there would be even more to come, two authors dedicated books to exploring and fleshing out the contours of the rising GOP star.
One book, An American Son, is a memoir from the senator himself. Its tale begins over 100 years ago, with the birth of his maternal grandfather, Pedro Victor Garcia. From there, we learn the (partial) story of his grandparents’ immigration to the U.S. We learn the basic details of Rubio’s childhood: his time in the south-Florida Cuban community, the years spent in Las Vegas, his love for football, and his family’s dalliance with Mormonism and return to the Catholic Church.
These are in many ways the most enlightening portions of the book, as this is where the reader develops a sense of how Rubio became who he is today. The author conveys a powerful sense of the importance of his family in his development; the portions describing the death of his grandfather and the effect it had on his family are particularly touching. Rubio’s grandfather’s feelings toward Ronald Reagan were especially important in shaping Rubio’s views; this subject is revisited throughout the book.
From there, it is a surprisingly quick read, detailing Rubio’s journey through college, the Florida House of Representatives, and on to the U.S. Senate. The book’s roughly 100 pages on the Senate race are particularly engrossing, as the reader receives a rare insider’s view of the Rubio campaign’s repeated near-death experiences and fully enjoys the comeback story.
If Marco Rubio were not a political wunderkind who apparently came within a whisker’s breadth of becoming the GOP’s vice-presidential nominee this year, this would still be a fine, even inspiring memoir. Whatever Rubio’s detractors may say, his story is in many ways a Republican version of Barack Obama’s. Obama likes to observe in speeches that his grandfather was a goatherd in Kenya, while Rubio relays the story of a grandfather who was born beneath a palm-frond roof. The reason this resonates is as simple as it is obvious: Obama and Rubio are living proof that the Horatio Alger “myth” is actually still alive and well in this country. Rubio’s memoir reminds us that, for all the stories of American decline, this country still remains a place where a family can rise from obscure roots to the highest echelons of power in a breathtakingly short period of time.
But the book ultimately disappoints in many ways, mostly because it chooses to play it so safe. Nostrums about faith and family, platitudes about big government, and carefully edited biographical presentations are standard fare for a political memoir. With a politician like Rubio, however, who rose to fame with the audacious decision to launch a primary challenge against a governor with a nearly 70 percent approval rating, a reader goes in expecting more.
The degree to which the book lacks any surprising revelations or unconventional political stances is jarring. Even on the issue of immigration, Rubio seems more interested in pleasing both sides than anything else. He calls immigration “a difficult issue” and spends a chapter giving nods to both sides’ concerns, while attempting to straddle the fence. Much of Rubio’s appeal is rooted in the belief that he can help immunize the Republican party against its supposed weakness on the issue, but the evidence from this book is equivocal at best.
The other book, The Rise of Marco Rubio, by Manuel Roig-Franzia, is shorter but more substantive. Like Rubio, Roig-Franzia begins his tale some generations back, and traces the story of Rubio’s family and his rise to power. The theme of the book is simple: Throughout his career, “Rubio’s timing has been good, his execution has been even better.”
Roig-Franzia made headlines earlier this year when the Washington Post broke the revelation that Rubio’s family had emigrated not after Fidel Castro came to power, as the senator had at times intimated, but rather before the Cuban Revolution. Unsurprisingly, Roig-Franzia spends a good portion of the book backing up this claim, in sometimes excruciating detail. By the end, the reader is left with little doubt that Rubio’s family is made up of pre-Castro immigrants. Beyond this, the book covers much of the same ground as Rubio’s, though from a more detached and less politically sensitive perspective.
It is at the same time too long and too short. At times, the reader will likely find himself flipping quickly through pages of seemingly endless minutiae and random facts. A paragraph is expended describing a young Marco Rubio’s trip to the Kennedy Space Center, a thread that is never woven back into the narrative. Four pages are spent describing Rubio’s high-school football team, and we learn the sad history of the now-defunct Tarkio College (which Rubio briefly attended).
Even the “big scoop” on Rubio’s immigration story is in many ways bludgeoned to death. Family history can be a tricky thing — my own family believed we were related to Kaiser Wilhelm II, until my research made clear we were descended from hardscrabble Prussian farmers — and Rubio doesn’t seem to have maliciously overstated his case.
All of that excessive detail might be excused, except that so many other interesting aspects of Rubio’s career are dispatched in a few sentences. Beyond the botched family history, Rubio’s shortcomings are only hinted at. Rubio’s relationships with political associates who have faced corruption charges, including now-congressman David Rivera, are also glossed over. Similarly, the political committees that were alleged to have done little work — while employing Rubio family members — are given short shrift.
At times Roig-Franzia also hints that the senator is a bit of a lightweight, which could ultimately explain Romney’s not choosing him. Roig-Franzia relays an important debate that Rubio’s colleagues hoped he would join, only to find that the binder he was studying contained draft sheets for the Miami Dolphins. In another anecdote, Rubio is stumped by Mike Allen of Politico when asked what the acronym in the AGREE Act, which Rubio co-authored, stood for. These may be isolated incidents, but the reader wonders if there are more coming.
Yet these shortcomings are overwhelmed by the book’s virtues. Roig-Franzia deftly constructs a compelling, readable narrative of Rubio’s life and career. More important, he does an outstanding job placing that life in historical context — both American and Cuban. His depiction of south Florida’s Cuban community is particularly engrossing, and leaves the reader with a sense of why that community is unique among American Latinos, especially in its political attachment to the Republican party. That attachment springs not only from the Republicans’ hardline anti-Castro stance, but also from the Cuban community’s financial success. Within 20 years of Batista’s fall, Roig-Franzia explains, there were 200 millionaires in the Cuban community, and 18,000 Cuban-run businesses.
This last point may be the critical one in understanding the promise — and limitations — of Marco Rubio. Roig-Franzia hints at this, but Republicans would do well to understand that their problems with Latino voters spring not only from cultural issues but also from economic facts. Poor Latino voters vote much as poor white voters do, and the same is true of rich Latino voters and rich white voters.
In other words, the Republican party doesn’t just need Latino faces on its ticket or a revamped stance on immigration — though these things wouldn’t hurt. What it really needs are more upscale Latino voters. Of course Rubio can do little directly to help with this.
Still, one emerges from these books with an appreciation of Rubio’s strengths that extends well beyond the demographic argument. He is, as the Miami Herald once put it, a powerful orator who can “turn an anecdote about planting trees in one sun-parched neighborhood into a reverie about the power of public service.” He emerges from these narratives as someone who can thoughtfully explain conservative ideas to average Americans in ways that recent national Republican figures have not been able to.
Americans won’t get a chance to see how Rubio performs on a national stage in 2012. If Romney loses, we will almost certainly get a chance to see Rubio in 2016. Based on the depiction of Rubio in these two books, it would probably be risky to place a bet against him.
– Mr. Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics.com and the author of The Lost Majority: Why the Future of Government Is Up for Grabs — and Who Will Take It.