If Beto O’Rourke doesn’t end up running for president in 2020, he could always try writing a travel memoir in the style of John Steinbeck or Jack Kerouac.
After drawing national attention and raising over $80 million in his failed bid to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) in November, the Democrat and former El Paso congressman has reportedly been considering a presidential run. Amid rampant speculation, he set off early last week on a solo road trip that took him to five states in the Southwest and the Great Plains, writing candidly that he had been “in and out of a funk” ever since leaving Congress.
"Maybe if I get moving, on the road, meet people, learn about what’s going on where they live, have some adventure, go where I don’t know and I’m not known, it’ll clear my head, reset, I’ll think new thoughts, break out of the loops I’ve been stuck in,” he mused last Wednesday.
It’s not exactly uncommon for presidential hopefuls to hold “listening tours” on which they travel through the heartland and seek out conversations with everyday Americans in bars, restaurants and college lecture halls, much like O’Rourke has. But what is unusual is O’Rourke’s decision to document his journey with lyrical, introspective blog posts that seem to invoke Bruce Springsteen or the beat poets and which have been derided as “emo” and reminiscent of the blogging platform LiveJournal in its heyday in the mid-2000s.
Along with tales of meeting potential voters — the owners of a small Kansas motel, the members of a community college’s wind energy club — O’Rourke’s stream-of-consciousness writings have featured reflections on driving in the fog, jogging through puddles caused by snow melting on the side of the road and feeling self-conscious about being the only stranger in a small-town bar. In his Jan. 16 dispatch from outside Tucumcari, N.M., he wrote:
Drove out to the lake the waitress had told me about. Had it all to myself and some ducks. Found some crab claws. Maybe left by a bird. Walked out on a pier. Looked out, took some pictures. Leaned over, scooped up water and washed my face. Picked up beer cans that someone had left and were blown into the bushes. Later learned that it’s called Ute Lake. Formed by damming the Canadian River.
In a two-hour interview with The Washington Post earlier this month, O’Rourke “boomeranged between a bright-eyed hope that the United States will soon dramatically change its approach to a whole host of issues and a dismal suspicion that the country is incapable of implementing sweeping change,” The Post’s Jenna Johnson reported. He also revealed that he had few clearly defined policy stances — answering “I don’t know” when asked what the United States should do to address the issue of immigrants overstaying their visas and calling for a conversation about issues such as U.S. involvement in Syria or the “Green New Deal” proposed by a coalition of congressional Democrats rather than offering an opinion of his own.
O’Rourke’s blog posts on the publishing platform Medium, meanwhile, don’t sound anything like the formulaic (and often ghostwritten) political memoirs typically put out by presidential hopefuls. A typical paragraph from a post that he wrote last Thursday after leaving Bucklin, Kan., for instance, could easily be pulled from an MFA graduate’s short story collection:
As I took my seat at one of the few tables that had been cleared and cleaned, she said our special today is an open faced roast beef sandwich, mashed potatoes and green beans. She said it in such a way as to suggest that this was what I was going to order. I ordered the special. It was brought out within a couple of minutes by a young woman, perhaps her daughter.
On Twitter, O’Rourke has been compared to “a 10th grader trying to imitate Kerouac” and “every guy from every writer’s workshop ever,” and his literary inclinations have inspired plenty of jokes from political commentators. “Is Beto running or working on a small press short story collection?” Osita Nwanevu, a staff writer at the New Yorker, wondered recently.
O’Rourke’s frequent use of short, fragmentary sentences, evocative descriptions of rural America, and insistence on including mundane details about charging his phone or ordering blackberry cobbler at a diner have inspired satirical imitations in Texas Monthly, left-leaning news outlet Splinter and the conservative Washington Free Beacon. An anonymous Twitter account parodying his distinctive and easily mocked writing style, @BetosBlog, has gained more than 8,000 followers since it was created last Wednesday.
Some find O’Rourke’s diary-style entries grating. In an essay titled “Beto’s excellent adventure drips with white male privilege,” CNN senior political reporter Nia-Malika Henderson argued that a female candidate could never get away with Instagramming their trip to the dentist, failing to answer basic policy questions, and blogging about their feelings while drifting around the country and trying to get out of a funk.
Still, there’s been plenty of praise for O’Rourke’s skills as a writer — and his apparent authenticity. “Beto O’Rourke’s Beatnik Road Trip Through the Southwest Is Good for America,” Slate declared, arguing that while O’Rourke seemed somewhat adrift and was vague on questions of policy, there was something refreshing about seeing a top potential presidential contender talking to prospective voters without any handlers present and candidly admitting to feelings of indecisiveness and uncertainty. Likewise, the comments on O’Rourke’s Medium posts have been largely positive, with readers thanking him for making the effort to talk to people in rural America, offering suggestions for his itinerary and begging him to run for president.
“Loving your posts, Beto,” read one of the first comments on his most recent update. “It’s a refreshing change from the genre of the traditional politician’s autobiography into something of a listening-tour-self-discovery-road-trip-grassroots-campaign.”
According to Politico, O’Rourke is scheduled to appear on Oprah Winfrey’s “SuperSoul Conversations From Times Square” on Feb. 5, and political observers have been mining his Medium posts for subtle clues about whether he’ll take the opportunity to announce that he’s running for president. Last week, Vox’s Matthew Yglesias pointed out that O’Rourke’s travels so far had followed Google Maps' suggested route from El Paso to Des Moines. But on Thursday, O’Rourke left Kansas and headed west toward Colorado instead of continuing on to the home of the Iowa caucuses, making an additional stop in northern New Mexico before returning to El Paso in time for the Women’s March on Saturday.
It’s unclear whether O’Rourke plans to return to the road — he’s made a point of not announcing any of his plans in advance. But in his last dispatch from his trip, which was published Monday night, the pervasive melancholy that haunted his early entries was nowhere to be found.
“Beautiful,” he wrote. “Big open skies, no traffic, no fog.”