The Slatest

Beto O’Rourke’s Beatnik Road Trip Through the Southwest Is Good for America

O'Rourke jogs across a two-lane road to greet a voter.
Beto O’Rourke on Election Day in 2018 in El Paso. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Potential 2020 presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke has taken to the road to find the soul of America—and maybe find himself along the way.

No, really! The erstwhile congressman and Texas Senate candidate is driving through some sparsely populated parts of the Southwest by himself, chatting up waitresses and motel managers and community college students about the future of the country, and writing about it in a literary online diary.

Ate at Del’s and as I was finishing my blackberry cobbler asked the waitress what I should see in Tucumcari. The murals, the sights on 66. And you should check out this lake, exactly 12 miles from Tucumcari on 54.

The next morning I ran. Just a couple of miles. Down 66, then through neighborhoods, past the History Museum. My leg has really been bothering me since the campaign and so I had stopped running for a while. This was my first run in more than a month. Felt good, running in new shoes.

Naturally, online wiseacres (including this one) have enjoyed satirizing O’Rourke’s account of his trip, with many pointing out that it seemed like it could have been written by Jack Kerouac, although I think that undersells its more noir-like, depressive undercurrent of helplessness, like when O’Rourke talks about trying to “break out of the loops I’ve been stuck in” or interprets an ambiguous George Saunders story as a tale of “catastrophe”:

I got back in the truck, drove on, thinking about this story I’d read the night before about a veteran who comes back home by George Saunders. I read it twice, because it was so good and also because I wasn’t totally sure that I understood what happened at the end of it. Had so many thoughts and questions about it. Not completely spelled out, not neatly defined and tied up. Wanted to talk to someone about it and maybe understand it better from their perspective. I called Kate. She saw the ending differently than I did. More of an epiphany, less of a catastrophe. 

O’Rourke has also taken some heat for an interview with the Washington Post in which he responded to a question about what should be done about a specific immigration issue with “I don’t know” and mused about the potential impossibility of ever governing the modern United States successfully:

“I’m hesitant to answer it because I really feel like it deserves its due, and I don’t want to give you a — actually, just selfishly, I don’t want a sound bite of it reported, but, yeah, I think that’s the question of the moment: Does this still work?” O’Rourke said. “Can an empire like ours with military presence in over 170 countries around the globe, with trading relationships . . . and security agreements in every continent, can it still be managed by the same principles that were set down 230-plus years ago?”

O’Rourke seems a little lost. His current affect is wishy-washy and borderline cheesy; it involves a lot of listening and urging people to be “respectful” and “decent” but no specific policy commitments. It would not be a positive development were he to continue in this mode indefinitely—to run for president on a platform of being nice and listening to other people’s ideas without asserting any practical ideas of his own.

But when is the last time a major presidential contender spent more than 10 minutes talking to a normal person without cameras or handlers present? When is the last time such a person was open about what is, according to behind-the-scenes reporting, his real indecisiveness about whether the world needs him to run for president? Does anyone out there get up in the morning, look at news, and think, damn, this country is nailing it, our system of self-government is really humming, and the reason why that’s happening is because everyone is treating each other so kindly and respectfully?

Does anyone see the border fight and refugee situation and think, I’m certain that my ideas about immigration reform, a very simple issue, are achievable and realistic? Is spending extended time in not-particularly-affluent parts of the country not what every public servant should be doing between TV appearances and donor calls and flights to D.C.? Is it not inevitable, if a politician is acting in a truly authentic way, like we always say we want, that they will occasionally be a little much, or uncertain, or confused, or even pessimistic?

Let Beto live! And if it turns out he is actually doing this all as a stunt while his big-money consultants are putting together a manipulative, shallow campaign to attain the presidency by using regular people as props, we can all justifiably bury him in an avalanche of cynical snark and go back to the regular order of business: criticizing Hillary Clinton for being too focus-grouped and robotic.