The presidential hopeful aims a sly grin at the camera. He’s a relatively young Democrat. The image, of a former congressman now out of work, evokes not Beltway corridors of power but simple roots. He’s outdoors, dressed in jeans. A truck is nearby. The family dog is in the frame, another touch of down-home domesticity.
The picture, splashed on the cover of next month’s Vanity Fair, features Beto O’Rourke, and accompanies a long cover story that lit up the Internet on Wednesday. Taking readers inside the former congressman’s will-he-or-won’t-he ruminations about running for president after losing a 2018 Senate campaign against Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), writer Joe Hagan’s piece ends suggesting a definitive yes. That suggestion was confirmed early Thursday, when O’Rourke officially announced he had entered the 2020 race.
But eagle-eyed sleuths on the Internet were more curious about the cover portrait. As some pointed out, the image bears an uncanny resemblance to a 2007 magazine cover of John Edwards, another presidential hopeful, then featured on the now-shuttered Men’s Vogue. Sly grin. Outdoors. Jeans. Truck. Family dog.
Both magazines are owned by Condé Nast. Both pieces were penned by Hagan. And both photos were taken by famed photographer Annie Leibovitz.
The deja vu did not stop there. As The Washington Post’s David Weigel pointed out, O’Rourke’s pose on the Vanity Fair cover — hands parked in his back jean pockets while wearing a simple button-down shirt — evoked another political figure: Ronald Reagan, when the 40th president was featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1981.
If anything, the correspondences prove that when it comes to presidential iconography, there’s a limited set of images that tend to be recycled again and again. The Leibovitz snaps of Edwards and O’Rourke also show a lot about what each man hope to communicate to voters.
But more than just images link O’Rourke’s 2020 bid with Edwards’s ill-fabled 2008 campaign. Both men were at different stages in their lives and came from different backgrounds — O’Rourke is a 46-year-old punk-rock-loving former El Paso city councilman and U.S. representative, while Edwards was then a 54-year-old “son of a mill worker” who became a successful trial attorney and U.S. senator.
But the similarities between the two men are also striking, as close reading of Hagan’s two pieces illustrate.
For one, like Edwards, O’Rourke is trying to use failure as a platform for the White House. Going into 2008, Edwards was not only out of the Senate, but he was coming off defeat as the vice presidential candidate on John F. Kerry’s 2004 Democratic ticket.
Similarly, O’Rourke’s bid to unseat Cruz — a long shot that ended with the intensity of a liberal tent revival — also resulted in a loss, and O’Rourke is similarly out of Congress.
And like Edwards, O’Rourke is facing a Democratic field crowded with bigger names. Edwards was eventually elbowed aside by the forceful contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
O’Rourke enters a field of a dozen candidates, with the likes of Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) having more years in the national spotlight than him.
But what links both candidates most strongly is their essential pitch to voters.
As Hagan portrays in both profiles, and Leibovitz captures in both photographs, Edwards and O’Rourke are both defining themselves as normal figures who stand out among the known quantities and partisan hacks that populate Capitol Hill.
There, the two candidates break off in different directions.
Edwards defined his “normal” as essentially blue-collar. He emphasized his Southern upbringing and roots in poverty. But those same qualities that attracted some to Edwards also ultimately turned voters away, mainly because the persona did not connect as authentic. The blue-collar base Edwards calibrated himself to emulate didn’t buy into the candidate.
As Hagan’s piece this week shows, O’Rourke is telegraphing normalcy as well, but one that is defined differently: not the working-class striver but the Generation X young father and husband trying to do the right thing. Like Edwards, the appeal is double-edged: Detractors have already read O’Rourke’s earnestness as naivete.
Whether there’s enough of an electorate that will respond to such an image remains to be seen.
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