The End of Betomania
DES MOINES — Maybe Beto O’Rourke knew, on some level, that this was never quite right.
Most politicians look in the mirror and see a president. It is possible — not certain, but possible — that Mr. O’Rourke was not among these until less than a year ago, long before the punk-rock-congressman-turned-Democratic-savior became a White House also-ran.
He had lost a Senate race in Texas with dignity, no small thing, and smart people — Barack Obama people, the kind who should have known — were telling him he had what it took, what the others lacked, what the nation so desperately needed.
He started thinking. He felt “stuck,” he wrote in January, “in and out of a funk.” He drove himself around the country a little. The phone wouldn’t quit. He let the tease linger. He was coy onstage with Oprah Winfrey. It was happening. Wasn’t it? Nobody strings Ms. Winfrey along and turns back. O.K., he was doing it. But why was he doing it? He would sort that out in time.
“Man, I’m just born to be in it,” Mr. O’Rourke said, infamously, in a March cover interview with Vanity Fair, which, with the benefit of hindsight, sounds less like a boast than a bit of self-deception.
Not eight months later, he was doomed to be out of it.
Officially, the end came Friday evening, among teary supporters and stern-faced staff, at the bottom of a damp riverside hill. He spoke across from the arena where the remaining 2020 Democratic contenders would be addressing the crowd at a rah-rah candidate dinner, their teams’ cheers already audible from the street above as they filed in.
“We’re all a little crazy to be doing this,” Mr. O’Rourke told one supporter quietly, consoling all comers after giving some valedictory public remarks about staying in the fight. “In a good way.”
One by one, they approached to thank him, to hug him, to take one more picture — a grim political processional in the year of the merry candidate photo line, completed after dusk in front of six giant wooden letters, painted blue to read “NO FEAR.”
“I’m kind of sad,” said Sierra Rodriguez, 17, who had traveled from Dallas, where she worked on Mr. O’Rourke’s Senate race last year and had been volunteering on this one. “But he didn’t have a reason why it was his time to be president.”
It once seemed like this might not matter. On the first day of his campaign in March, some 200 miles away, cameras had chased Mr. O’Rourke to Keokuk, a far-flung corner of southeast Iowa — less a Democratic stronghold than a symbol of the phenomenon-candidacy he hoped to build in his image: viral but intimate, accessible but always a little inscrutable.
His generically effective calls for national unity inside an overstuffed coffee shop were carried live on cable news. A teen wore a “Betomania” button, featuring Mr. O’Rourke with a guitar. By the event’s end, he was recommending country music to the locals, promising to be back soon and driving himself to the next stop.
“I will remember this forever,” he told voters then, “every single one of your faces and what you were wearing and what you had to drink.”
It felt like the start of something. In a contest for who could best counter President Trump, who could conjure a media orbit independent of the president’s news-hogging, Mr. O’Rourke’s gift for meme-able flourishes seemed like a credible bet.
For months, he had been perhaps the hottest name in the party — the bilingual, skateboarding, puckishly profane Gen X-er who looked so much like a Kennedy that his 2018 opponent, Senator Ted Cruz, grumbled that Mr. O’Rourke’s often-fawning news coverage came with its own hair-blowing wind.
Beyoncé posed in a “Beto for Senate” hat. Willie Nelson rallied for him. LeBron James was in.
“I hope he runs,” Bradley Cooper told Ms. Winfrey in February, speaking with her onstage in Times Square just after Mr. O’Rourke. “We need inspiration.”
Despite the disappointment last November, early presidential polls were encouraging. Top-level aides were ready to join him. Rivals wondered if his relentless door-to-door approach would rule the early-voting states that tend to reward such courtship. He raised millions instantly upon his announcement, and anything seemed possible.
Reporters joked on Day 1 about the range of possibilities: Maybe they were looking at the next commander-in-chief. Or maybe he would be back home hosting a podcast by year’s end.
At times, Mr. O’Rourke seemed to be crowdsourcing his candidacy. “Thoughts? Ideas? Suggestions? Advice?” he asked high-school students on his first day on the campaign trail, adding, “I know that I don’t have all of the answers.” (He also did himself no favors that morning with an aside about his wife Amy raising their children “sometimes with my help,” before quickly expressing regret for the comment.)
In the months that followed, Mr. O’Rourke ostensibly rebooted a time or two, to limited effect. He still pledged to go anywhere and everywhere. He still led with generational uplift, particularly after a gun massacre in his hometown El Paso.
So where was the magic?
His speaking style — a hope-and-change Obama impersonation, crossed with the mid-set banter of a brooding singer-songwriter — connected until it did not.
His eagerness to please — feet tapping atop cafe counters, hands slicing the air, head held in a permanent display of attentiveness — began to grate on some Democrats who had preferred such tics when he was merely the alternative to Mr. Cruz, a Republican they loathed.
Another sensation, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, was fresher, younger, quicker on his feet, crowding the not-classically-qualified lane that Mr. O’Rourke once seemed to own.
And after criticism early in his campaign over a dearth of major policy plans, Mr. O’Rourke had, by the end, so tested the bounds of acceptable debate within the party (“Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15,” he vowed after the El Paso shooting) that some of his peers had worried that he was hurting the cause.
“We’re the first campaign to propose the boldest set of solutions to the epidemic of gun violence in this country,” he said proudly Friday night, “unafraid to confront the conventional wisdom of what was possible to say in the public sphere.”
Before long, it was getting dark. Mr. O’Rourke had said just about all he had to say. Volunteers milled about as he smiled for pictures, plotting evenings of self-care.
“Let’s go back to Omaha, go to the casino.”
“We’re definitely drinking somewhere.”
“Is everybody going to the same bar?”
Mr. O’Rourke, preparing to leave, turned to a small group of supporters he seemed to know well. “Someday,” he said, “we’re all gonna get together. Right?”
And across the street, inside the arena where those supporters had planned to chant his name that night, something had already taken their place: an oversize American flag, unfurled across their ticketed seats, to signal a campaign in memoriam.
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