Why are Americans so weary of contemporary political campaigns ― the poll-tested slogans, the meretricious negativity, the cynical scapegoating, the bellicose promises to “fight” cartoon villains? Perhaps because they starve our souls by eroding the willingness ― or even the ability ― to believe that, as Robert F. Kennedy once said, politics can be “an honorable adventure.”
But perhaps the angels of hope merely slumber within us. Perhaps we still hunger for leaders who speak to the generous people we can be and, when we are, make us feel better about ourselves and our country.
In the lead-up to this fall’s midterms, one candidate has done just that by turning Donald Trump’s racist rants against NFL protesters on their head ― not by dividing, but by delivering an impassioned defense of the right to protest that nonetheless embraced those who disagree.
Perhaps you’ve seen it; the moment went viral. It transcended generations: Young people loved it; Baby Boomers like me, who still remember Bobby Kennedy, recovered a piece of their youth.
The speaker was Beto O’Rourke, a young Texas congressman running for the U.S. Senate against the vulpine demagogue Ted Cruz. Asked at a town meeting whether he shared his interlocutor’s resentment of NFL players who kneel during the national anthem, O’Rourke provided one of our more uplifting public moments.
“My short answer is no,” O’Rourke began, “I don’t think it’s disrespectful. Here’s my longer answer, but I’m gonna try to make sure I get this right because I think it’s a really important question. And reasonable people can disagree on this issue, let’s begin there. And it makes them no less American to come down on a different conclusion on this issue, right? ... You’re every bit as American all the same.”
Having staked out common ground, O’Rourke invoked the peaceful protesters of the ’60s who made America a far better place: “Dr. King,” “those who died in Philadelphia, Mississippi,” “those who were beaten within an inch of their life crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, with John Lewis,” and, perhaps most tellingly, “those who were punched in the face, spat upon, dragged out by their collar at the Woolworth lunch counter for sitting with white people at that same lunch counter, in the same country where their fathers may have bled the same blood on the battlefields of Omaha Beach or Okinawa or anywhere that anyone ever served this country.”
“The freedoms that we have,” O’Rourke continued, “were purchased not just by those in uniform … [b]ut also by those who took their lives into their hands riding those Greyhound buses, the Freedom Riders in the deep South in the 1960s who knew full well that they would be arrested … Rosa Parks getting from the back of the bus to the front of the bus.”
Then he zeroed in: “Peaceful, nonviolent protests, including taking a knee at a football game to point out that black men, unarmed; black teenagers, unarmed; and black children, unarmed, are being killed at a frightening level right now ... without accountability and without justice.”
Voice rising, O’Rourke took his stand: “And so nonviolently, peacefully, while the eyes of this country are watching these games, they take a knee to bring our attention and our focus to this problem and ensure that we fix it. That is why they’re doing it, and I can think of nothing more American than to peacefully stand up or take a knee for your rights anytime, anywhere, anyplace.”
More startling is his disdain for standard-issue political caution.
Agree or not, this was a stunning display of political guts. And what of Cruz? O’Rourke’s comments were “wildly out of touch with Texas,” he sniffed ― managing to make America’s second–largest state as small as himself.
But what most eludes Cruz is that O’Rourke is running as an actual human being ― a feat well beyond Cruz’s capacities. The charm and drama of O’Rourke’s campaign lies in his amiable insistence on telling the truth as he sees it to anyone halfway prepared to listen.
It helps that O’Rourke, the guy, is more interesting than most. He comes from the bicultural U.S.-Mexico borderland; speaks fluent Spanish; and, though Irish, got his nickname “Beto” from what locals call their Roberts and Robertos. He went to Columbia University, worked some itinerant jobs, played in a punk rock band and started his own business. He took his future wife on a blind date to visit a bar in Mexico that claimed to have invented the margarita. They still live near where he grew up and send their kids to his old public schools.
As a politician, running from behind is all he knows. He became one of the youngest-ever members of El Paso’s city council by defeating a two-term incumbent, then entered Congress by out-hustling an eight-term congressman endorsed by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama ― without paid staffers.
Advised by Democratic leadership to raise money by courting lobbyists, he responded by refusing PAC money. When a blizzard closed the airports, he livestreamed a 1600-mile road trip from Texas to D.C. with his Republican colleague, Will Hurd, during which they talked music, issues, and took a detour to Graceland.
Instead of micro-targeting blue enclaves in his uphill race against Cruz, O’Rourke has visited all of Texas’ 254 counties, including areas so red “you can see them glowing from outer space,” as he put it. He still has no pollster or speechwriter; instead, he constantly livestreams, a sort of political high wire act.
More startling is his disdain for standard-issue political caution. He’s unequivocally pro-choice. He’s for a $15 minimum wage. He wants single-payer health care. He questions the efficacy of marijuana laws. He favors more legislation to address climate change. About gun control, he says, “I do not believe that weapons of war designed for the sole purpose of killing people as effectively, efficiently, in as great a number as possible, belong in our streets, in our schools, in our concerts, in our churches ― in our lives.”
Above all, he embraces immigrants and immigration. “The right thing to do,” he says, “is legalize America.” Standing outside a facility that houses immigrant children taken from their parents, he said firmly: “This is not America.” How will we answer, he demands to know, when our own children ask: “What were you doing when they turned those kids back from the border?”
Recalling Election Day 2016 for an audience in rural Texas, he says: “You know how [Amy and I] felt because you felt the same way. The immigrants vilified and denigrated. The lies told boldly and openly and without shame. The promise to ban Muslims and refugees and asylum-seekers from our country. Mocking people with disabilities or who are vulnerable. Making people, or trying to make people, ashamed of who they are and whether or not they fit into this, their country.”
Questioned about his candor, O’Rourke expresses faith in Texans. “I think more than wanting you to think exactly the way they do, most people want to know what it is you really think.” Confronted with a sexist line in a theater review he wrote in college, he issued a forthright apology.
As a commentator, I watch all this from a distance, reprising the lessons I think I’ve learned since RFK was shot ― be cautious; don’t hope for too much ― and think, involuntarily, “don’t shoot yourself in the foot.”
Then I read of the woman who says, “I’m old enough to remember, and he reminds me of Bobby Kennedy. You can look at him and tell he means what he says.”
O’Rourke gets it, too: “There was something punk rock about Bobby Kennedy not going where the pollsters said or where the consultants said. He was unmoored from what was safe or easy.”
Next, I think of Cruz: the dank Prince of Darkness, a self-serving schemer with the look and feel of Joe McCarthy and the oily manner of a second-tier evangelist. Even conservative columnist Matt Lewis writes, “I’d rather have a beer with Beto ― and I suspect most of my friends would, too.”
Faced with O’Rourke’s winning candor, the GOP is tapping its roster of hard-right patrons ― from the Family Research Council to the Koch Brothers ― for millions to save their odious incumbent. Desperate, Cruz plans a massive rally with the president who once ridiculed his wife’s appearance and linked his father with the JFK assassination.
Piously, Cruz intones: “The extreme left, they’re angry, they’re energized and they hate the president. I got to tell you, that’s dangerous.” And so, Cruz says, are the “liberals all over the country who desperately want to turn the state of Texas blue. They want us to be just like California, right down to tofu and silicon and dyed hair.”
Despite these parochial and patronizing alarums, O’Rourke is outraising Cruz through small donations ― and gaining in the polls. Still, Texas Republicans know how to make their own votes count ― by passing laws to inhibit voter registration and prevent young people and minorities from voting. Statewide, they haven’t lost in years.
But maybe, one remembers hoping, just maybe …
Maybe, against all odds, Robert Kennedy could have won his party’s nomination and beaten Richard Nixon. Maybe, had he lived, it all could have been different.
Maybe it still can be.
Richard North Patterson is the New York Times best-selling author of 22 novels and a member of the Council On Foreign Relations. He is a contributor to the new book Fight For Liberty – Defending Democracy in the Age of Trump, to be published Oct. 16.