By the look of him, you’d never guess that Marco Rubio played defensive back on his college football team — even if the school was the now-defunct Tarkio College, folded deep into the remotest cornfields of northwest Missouri. But he did, and on the gridiron he showed the same gift that has guided his path from downy-cheeked member of the West Miami City Commission at age 26 to the highest reaches of American politics: an unerring ability to be in the right place at the right time. No matter the play, “he was never out of position,” one still-impressed teammate told Manuel Roig-Franzia for his new book, “The Rise of Marco Rubio.”
The position that Rubio finds himself in now, of course, is in the top tier of Mitt Romney’s vice presidential prospects. Still young (if no longer downy-cheeked), handsome, well-spoken and — most important of all in today’s identity-obsessed politics — Hispanic, Rubio is presumed to have special pull with the voters of electorally crucial Florida, which he has represented in the Senate nearly as long as Barack Obama represented Illinois. Not long at all, in other words — less than two years, during which he, like Obama, has carefully cultivated a following far beyond his home state that will make him all the more appealing when Romney makes the call.
Publishing a Rubio biography on the cusp of the presidential election, Roig-Franzia shows the same gift of timing. A reporter for The Washington Post, he’s a good choice to tell the story of Rubio’s life, having demonstrated last year that he knows the subject better than Rubio does. Roig-Franzia was researching the senator’s family history when he discovered documentary evidence that his parents had not fled Fidel Castro’s communist regime in Cuba but had immigrated to the United States in 1956, three years before Castro came to power.
The revelation was important — although not as important as Roig-Franzia seems to think it is — because Rubio had for years used his parents’ flight to freedom as the centerpiece of his stump speech, which drew tears and standing ovations from one audience after another and, thanks to YouTube, became a kind of political trademark. There was some evidence that Rubio should have known the story was incorrect even as he was using it to wow his audiences. Roig-Franzia’s discovery made Rubio the Elizabeth Warren of 2011.
It had two other effects, neither of them good. First, it obscured the point of Rubio’s anecdote, which was intended less to illustrate the malevolence of Castro than the beneficence of the United States as a haven for newcomers — whether immigrants, exiles or refugees — and the Rubios are an instant case whatever year they made the crossing. And second, it has evidently led Roig-Franzia to believe that he should open his book in a defensive crouch, using up far too many pages to establish that his revised version of the family lore is “irrefutable.” It won’t take long for the reader to cry uncle. Nothing slows down a narrative like verbatim transcripts of exclusion hearings of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Immigration and Naturalization Service from 1962.
Things pick up considerably thereafter, however, and the book will be an indispensable Rubio guidebook for the amateur political junkie as well as the pundit cramming for a quick hit on cable (“Well, Rachel, according to the exclusion hearing transcript . . .”). Roig-Franzia is relentlessly balanced and fair — I wish there was another way to say that — which means that neither his subject nor his many detractors will be happy. The author shows that Rubio, despite his reputation as a fire-breathing tea partyer, was a moderating influence as speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, bringing Democrats and Republicans together with the type of can-do pragmatism that makes Washington think-tankers go weak at the knees. And Roig-Franzia is happy to defend Rubio against unfair attacks from his colleagues in the press — particularly in a withering account of a hit piece aired by Univision.
In fact, the author’s fair-mindedness tends to be a problem, even for those of us without firm feelings about Rubio one way or the other. In an age when journalism is saturated with (often stupid) opinion, it will seem odd — or maybe a sign of decadence — to complain about a political writer who refuses to go further than the facts will take him. Often Roig-Franzia won’t even go that far, and I confess there were moments when I longed for the tang of a Molly Ivins or a David Limbaugh or some other sharp-elbowed partisan.
I guess there’s no “maybe” about it: This is a sign of decadence. Forget I mentioned it.
Another problem is that Roig-Franzia refuses to dig deeper. He won’t let himself guess at the inner Rubio — what makes Marco run. In a way, you can’t blame him. For all the talk about his admirable parents and grandparents, Rubio is as guarded as the average ambitious pol.
The reader will pick up hints of what kind of guy he is nonetheless. His love of football, as a spectator or a participant, is one, along with his marriage to a former Dolphins cheerleader. Driving, or being driven, to campaign events, he likes to blast Snoop Dogg at top volume and rap along. He is a daily communicant at Mass on Capitol Hill and takes his family to a Baptist church on Sundays.
Though he has shown no interest in abstract political philosophy, like an alarming number of today’s Republicans he was thunderstruck early on by Ayn Rand’s preposterous novel “Atlas Shrugged” — an adolescent fantasy about capitalist supermen that has long been adored by pimply teenage boys taking a break from “Star Trek” and video games. Every one of them thinks he’s John Galt, Rand’s hero and a terrible role model. Of course, not many of them grow up to marry a professional cheerleader.
The bigger picture in Roig-Franzia’s book is of a man built for politics and little else. Other than a brief time as a consultant and a nominal (and lucrative) association with a law firm, Rubio has spent his entire career in what professional politicians insist on calling “public service.” He’s a government guy with anti-government views, which accordingly are changeable and sometimes surprising: His stance on immigration is yogic, and he refused to join the Republicans’ Tea Party Caucus. He’s always in position, but that doesn’t mean it’s always the same position. As Romney looks over his top tier of prospects, he will surely sympathize.
Read more from Outlook:
THE RISE OF MARCO RUBIO
By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Simon & Schuster. 291 pp. $25