CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Three days of campaigning before large, excited audiences in Iowa seemed to justify Beto O'Rourke's presidential ambitions even as heightened media scrutiny gave his maiden voyage on the national scene the woozy feel of a shakedown cruise.
It became quickly clear that O’Rourke — who had never before set foot in Iowa, and who was anonymously booked into the various venues where he appeared as a “top-tier presidential candidate” — was not on Texas terra firma anymore.
“Life is too short to live in fear,” O’Rourke said Friday evening in front of a friendly audience at the Political Party Live podcast in Cedar Rapids. “It doesn’t mean that some things don’t scare me, I will tell you from my second day on the campaign trail running for president.”
“There’s a lot that can be terrifying about this process — leaving your kids, opening up yourself, your entire life to members of the press, as it should be, not the enemy of the people, but the best defense against tyranny,” said the 46-year-old O’Rourke. In a cover profile in Vanity Fair published on the eve of his announcement, he expressed admiration for the way U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., whose rise to national prominence was even more meteoric than O’Rourke’s own astonishing ascent, has “freed herself from fear.”
“I don’t blame people who shy away from the spotlight, who don’t want to engage at this level, but you deserve to know what I think, what I feel, the way I respond to your questions, to your observations, the way I account for the mistakes I have made in my life, and then I trust your judgment and your wisdom and you will select the best person possible as our nominee to serve in the highest position of public trust in the land,” said O’Rourke, who announced he was running via Twitter video early Thursday morning, ending months of speculation.
During the course of the hourlong podcast, O’Rourke apologized for what some thought a slighting reference when he observed in one stop after another, that his wife, Amy, back home in El Paso was raising their three children “sometimes with my help."
It might have been intended, and mostly received by audiences, as an honest bit of self-deprecation, but by Friday O’Rourke was accepting what he said was “absolutely valid criticism, and it’s constructive criticism. It has already made me a better candidate. Not only will I not say that, but I will be much more thoughtful going forward with the way that I talk about our marriage."
He also acknowledged, as he has in the past, that “white privilege” spared him from the lasting consequences he might have suffered were he not white, when he was arrested as a young man for attempted criminal trespass and for drunken driving.
Fresher was his apology for the revelation by Reuters on Friday that, as a teenager, he had been part of a legendary hacker group known as the Cult of the Dead Cow.
The Reuters story was written by Joseph Menn based on his forthcoming book, due out in June, “Cult of the Dead Cow: How the Original Hacking Supergroup Might Just Save the World.”
“Members of the hugely influential Cult of the Dead Cow, jokingly named after an abandoned Texas slaughterhouse, have protected his secret for decades, reluctant to compromise his political viability,” Menn writes. “Now, in a series of interviews, CDC members have acknowledged O’Rourke as one of their own.”
The group, known for releasing tools to allow ordinary people to hack computers running Microsoft's Windows, is credited with inventing the term "hacktivism," which describes human-rights-driven security work, according to the story.
“Still, it’s unclear whether the United States is ready for a presidential contender who, as a teenager, stole long-distance phone service for his dial-up modem, wrote a murder fantasy in which the narrator drives over children on the street, and mused about a society without money," Menn writes in the article.
The murder fantasy refers to one of a number of message board posts O’Rourke wrote at age 15 under the handle “Psychedelic Warlord.”
“There was a report that came out today that shared things that I wrote when I was a teenager, really hateful, really bad stuff,” O’Rourke said at the podcast interview. “I’m mortified to read it now. I’m incredibly embarrassed, but I have to take ownership of my words and understand how they make people feel when they read them now.”
“Whatever my intention was as a teenager doesn’t matter,” O’Rourke said. “I’ll just speak for myself. I have to look long and hard at my action, at the language that I have used, and I have to constantly try to do better.”
The audience applauded O’Rourke, who had told them that on his way over to the podcast, he had stopped by the EduSkate Board shop and the Analog Vault, where the former professional punk rock musician combed through the vinyl record collection and bought a copy of Santana III and an Asleep at the Wheel album for the podcast hosts.
It remains to be seen whether the new revelation about O’Rourke’s immersion in a more arcane and potentially ominous subculture, might transform his previous cool as a skateboarding punk into something creepier.
As Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted after the news broke: “How did the Cruz opposition research team miss this: Beto Wrote A Murder Fantasy Piece Where The Narrator Runs Over Children With A Car.”
Reuters issued a second story behind the story, noting that, “After more than a year of reporting, Menn persuaded O’Rourke to talk on the record. In an interview in late 2017, O’Rourke acknowledged that he was a member of the group, on the understanding that the information would not be made public until after his Senate race against Ted Cruz in November 2018.”
It was O’Rourke’s strong but losing effort to unseat U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz — falling short by 2.6 percentage points — that made “Beto” such a hero and household name to Democrats across the country that he could contemplate running for president after the defeat.
Awaiting O’Rourke at the densely packed Central Park Coffee Company event Friday morning in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, Sally Fager, who has family in Austin who voted for O’Rourke for Senate, said “I think my brother-in-law would say that Beto was not ready to be president,” but would vote for him if he’s the nominee against President Donald Trump.
As a friend approached Fager touting that she had just been interviewed by CNN, Fager gestured toward her husband, Jeff Fager, a foot away, and mouthed to her friend that he was in midinterview with NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea.
Explaining O’Rourke’s appeal to Gonyea, Jeff Fager said, “I think it comes from two things — his near victory in Texas, which most Democrats consider miraculous, just to be that close, and because of that, the media has given him a great deal of attention so he’s got name recognition. He’s young; he’s handsome. I think some folks feel echoes of John Kennedy. I don’t know.”
The Vanity Fair cover story, with handsome photos by Annie Leibovitz, was certainly Kennedyesque.
After a comically overstuffed house party Thursday night in Muscatine, a Mississippi River town of close to 25,000, in which O’Rourke staffers sought with limited success to kick reporters out into the bitter cold to make room for genuine Iowa citizens waiting to get in, a small retinue of reporters walked O’Rourke to his Dodge Caravan, where, per usual, he got behind the wheel.
A national reporter referred to O’Rourke’s Vanity Fair cover: "Boy, that doesn’t seem like a very humble guy. What do you have to say to that?”
“I don’t know, I haven’t read the article yet,” O’Rourke said.
“You say you’re the man for the moment. You said it’s your time,” the reporter said.
“Like I said, I haven’t read the article yet,” O’Rourke said. “All I can tell you is that I’m going to every diner, every coffee shop, every home that I can. We’ve had eight events in Iowa today, listened to those I wish to serve so I can understand things from their perspective.”
“It’s the only way I have any hope of accomplishing the job at hand and to do it with every single person, not distinguishing by party or geography or any other difference,” O’Rourke said. “So I’m for everyone, and I am willing to work for everyone.”
A large ego?
Iowans are notoriously nice, but when it comes to presidential politics they are also, by dint of their decades as the up-close-and-personal initial proving ground for presidential candidates because of their first-in-the-nation caucuses, which will be held Feb. 3, 2020, enormously savvy and disdainful of anything that smacks of bunkum.
Waiting on O’Rourke to arrive at a “meet and greet” at the Art Domestique Gallery in Washington, Iowa, on Friday afternoon, Harold Frakes, a retired educator who used to run a nearby high school for dropouts, recalled that the last presidential contender to come to this small city of scarcely 7,000 souls, was John Delaney, a former congressman from Maryland who has been campaigning for president in Iowa for two years.
“He’ll be a good also-ran,” said Frakes, whose preferred candidate, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, also has potential to make that list.
“He has no snowball’s chance of winning,” Frakes said of Delaney. “In my opinion, he talks down to people. Like he’s got a commercial running in Iowa now. `I'm going to tell you something that’s different that you never heard from a politician before. I’m going to tell you the truth.’ Well, bite me. Give me a break.”
Frakes supported Hillary Clinton in the 2008 caucuses over Barack Obama, because he thought she was best prepared to be president. He fears that O’Rourke could be another Obama, no foreign policy experience and without the political skills to get legislation through Congress.
And the vanity in the Vanity Fair profile worries Frakes.
“One of my concerns is that he has a large ego,” Frakes said. “It’s going to come back to haunt him that he said, `I was born for this.’”
But, Frakes said, “If you’re crazy enough to say you ought to be president of the United States then you’re already in a different lane than a lot of us.”
O’Rourke is 6 foot 4 and entering these cramped, expectant events he was easy to spot. But, in one venue after another, he would climb atop a chair or countertop to speak from on high in his conversationally messianic style about his mission to heal America’s great political divide.
“All I know how to do is find that common ground, work with everyone and if, as someone else smarter than I am put it to me yesterday, `These challenges that you describe, Beto, we cannot accomplish them, we cannot face them with half the country.’ It is going to have to be all of us,” O’Rourke said. “We’ve never been more divided, more polarized, more riven by partisanship. If there ever was a moment to unite us, it is now. So in this campaign you will not hear me demean or vilify another candidate.”
In his Senate campaign, which drove up turnout, O’Rourke said, “We transformed politics for the better in Texas.”
“He’s impressive,” said Richard Gilmore who with his wife, Robin Plattenberger, a retired doctor, owns and runs the gallery.
“He answered all the questions,” Plattenberger said. “He didn’t beat around the bush.”
Outside the gallery, the scrum of reporters surrounding O’Rourke were less satisfied.
When asked how much money O’Rourke, who raised $80 million for his Senate campaign, more than any U.S. Senate candidate in history, had raised since he announced his presidential candidacy, he said, “I can’t.”
When the reporter replied, “You could,” O’Rourke said, “You’re right. I choose not to.”
The reporters laughed.
At the next stop, at the Sing-A-Long Bar and Grill, which features a player piano, in Mount Vernon, a city of less than 4,000, the crowd was too large to fit inside, and about 25 people stood outside shivering, listening to O’Rourke on a loudspeaker.
Among those was Sherene Hansen-Player, who was there with the youngest of her four daughters, Margaret Player, her teeth chattering,
Hansen-Player said she regularly voted Republican until 2016, when she couldn’t abide Trump and voted for Evan McMullen, who ran as an anti-Trump independent candidate.
The family moved to Iowa from Tyler in East Texas, and Hansen-Player had watched the Senate in Texas race with great interest, was rooting for O’Rourke and thought he would pull it off. O’Rourke’s cross-partisan appeal, she said, was made for “people like me.”
“If I could vote for him, I would,” said Margaret Player 13, who got a selfie with O’Rourke as he left the Sing-A-Long to get back behind the wheel.
“I agree with everything he says,” said Margaret Player, who added that while she’s liberal, “I like that he’s more moderate,” because she believes America needs a president who the American people can unite behind.
She quoted Abraham Lincoln: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
In Muscatine on Thursday night, Hayley Buettell, 21, wearing a sash identifying her as Miss Sunset Landing, was on hand to see the man who she hopes will be the next president, just as she hopes to be the next Miss Iowa and next Miss America.
Buettell was there with her mother, Taren Buettell, who sees in O’Rourke a lot of Obama. O’Rourke described Obama on Friday as “the greatest president of my lifetime.”
Taren Buettell hasn’t picked a candidate, but her daughter has.
“He’s awesome,” Hayley Buettell said. “I like his policies and his focus on unification, and I wasn’t disappointed.”
At Friday night’s podcast, O’Rourke was asked to describe his “pathway to victory.”
“Being everywhere and running a campaign for everyone in every state in America,” said O’Rourke, who campaigned in more than a dozen of Iowa’s 99 counties Thursday, Friday and Saturday, including eight counties that vote for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016.
“No one should be taken for granted,” O’Rourke continued. “No one should be assumed to have already made their decision to vote a certain way.”
“I think running that way, without PACs, powered completely by people, having the courage of our convictions, having the humility to listen to and understand things from other people’s perspective is not just the best way to run, I think it may be the only way to win and the best way to serve once in office.”
O’Rourke also was asked what he’s reading.
“I’m reading two books,” he said. One is “The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming,” a grim account of the imminent, devastating impact of climate change, which his rhetoric suggests he has taken to heart.
“The other is a book that was written a while ago,” he said. “It’s a collection of interviews with Joseph Campbell about the power of myth and the universality of myth across cultures and civilization and it’s great. It takes me out of the immediate moment and takes me somewhere else.”