Beto O’Rourke does not know whether he wants to run for president. He does know where he thinks he’ll find the answer: behind the wheel. In a series of posts on Medium, Mr. O’Rourke has detailed his somewhat aimless recent travels — seeing sights, thinking thoughts, dining with strangers — in a confessional style uncommon among presidential contenders.
Supporters have cheered his transparency and willingness to appear vulnerable. Skeptics believe the entries have reinforced a caricature of Mr. O’Rourke as a politician with his head in the clouds. (“Skateboarding man-child,” the columnist George Will sniffed recently.)
Below is his Medium post from Jan. 16, and an annotated look at what he might be trying to say:
A lot of big trucks rolling down Pancake Blvd and there aren’t any sidewalks. Gloomy early morning sky in Liberal Kansas. Snow melt on the side of the road where I’m running. I find a vacant lot to cut through to another street, also busy and without sidewalks. I finally get to a smaller road that goes past a mobile home park, then a small subdivision, and out into corn fields to my right and empty fields to my left.
Mr. O’Rourke is establishing his preferred visual quickly: He is on the road. It’s where he’s been most comfortable as a candidate, hitting each of Texas’s 254 counties during his 2018 Senate run and capturing minutiae — usually by live-stream, not blog. But the history goes deeper. “He loves him a road trip,” said an ex-girlfriend, Katherine Raymond, remembering a few from college.
I was in Tucumcari yesterday. Trying to learn more about the town that my great-grandparents lived in more than a hundred years ago. James O’Rourke, son of Irish immigrants, and Anna Lloyd who immigrated to the U.S. from Wales. According to the 1910 census they lived at 1710 Second Street.
I stayed at the Motel Safari, one of these classic Route 66 motels. Mid-century everything. I talked to the owner for a bit. He moved from Tennessee and away from corporate life. Starting over.
It’s hard not to see parallels here to Mr. O’Rourke’s own past. His professional arc has frequently been an exercise in starting over: Adrift in New York City years after graduating college, he returned to El Paso. Restless in business, he tried politics. Unsatisfied with a safe House seat, he set off on a long-shot Senate bid.
Giving himself to this hotel that he bought a couple years back. Hasn’t taken a break in more than a year, but is going to close down for the month of February, spend some time back in Tennessee. Take a break, come back stronger.
Mr. O’Rourke is plainly trying to do the same. He has spoken often of the exhaustion that has lingered well after his Senate campaign ended. If he is to seek the presidency, now is the moment when he hopes to recharge.
Ate at Del’s and as I was finishing my blackberry cobbler asked the waitress what I should see in Tucumcari. The murals, the sights on 66. And you should check out this lake, exactly 12 miles from Tucumcari on 54.
The next morning I ran. Just a couple of miles. Down 66, then through neighborhoods, past the History Museum. My leg has really been bothering me since the campaign and so I had stopped running for a while. This was my first run in more than a month. Felt good, running in new shoes.
Have been stuck lately. In and out of a funk. My last day of work was January 2nd. It’s been more than twenty years since I was last not working. 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.
The subtext here is more like text: Mr. O’Rourke is, by his admission, in a bit of a rut. It’s an uncommon admission for someone weighing a White House run.
After breakfast at a diner down from the Safari, I drove over to Mesalands Community College. Met this amazing young man named Dylan, originally from Washington state, who had traveled from Amarillo to Tucumcari carrying his belongings, water and food in a wheelbarrow. He’d seen the wind turbine that stands in front of Meslands, inquired within and soon enrolled. He’s now the president of the student body and was my guide for the morning.
He introduced me to the instructors, the head of the wind energy club, and his fellow students. I learned about how they are learning. Had a chance to introduce myself, asked questions about the program they’re in, about Tucumcari, about where they’re originally from. About how what they’re doing fits into the larger picture — climate change, economic opportunity, infrastructure investment. How it fits into their picture — the job they’re looking for, the purpose they want, the opportunity that’s opened up for them. What it’s like to climb that high, to use a wrench for the first time in your life, to know that you’re on a track and that there’s a destination.
A younger Mr. O’Rourke — and perhaps the present-day version — might envy the students’ sense of direction. Casting about for professional purpose after college, Mr. O’Rourke said he fell into the deepest depression of his life.
Learned about pump storage, battery technology, the role that production tax credits have had in making New Mexico a leader in wind energy production.
What do they make after graduation? Wind techs start off making $19–23/hr though not uncommon for some to make six figures within the first year. They graduate from the program and are hired. Students I met had traveled from throughout the southwest to come here. It’s a good program and leads to a solid, highly paid job.
Jan. 19, 2019
Aug. 31, 2018
Nov. 26, 2018
Everyone I met was proud. Really into what they were doing. The instructors, the staff, the students. Dylan came across as a born leader — confident, humble, thoughtful and full of purpose.
Outside as we concluded the tour of the campus I looked up and imagined the courage it takes to climb out onto the face of these giant turbines, 250 feet up in the air. I said goodbye to Dylan, Jose, Brandon and the others.
As politicians go, Mr. O’Rourke is hardly unique in name-checking the locals he encounters. But he is among the more prolific. His town hall events last year frequently began with a lengthy recitation of people he met, where he’d met them and what he ate in the towns where he met them.
I drove to 1710 Second Street. It’s now a First National Bank parking lot. Went to the Tucumcari library to see if I could find anything about James and Anna and what was going on in 1910. I didn’t, but saw a book the community had put together honoring those who were killed in World War II. At the reading table a group of older men were gathered, talking politics, in Spanish and in English. Seemed to be a regular get together. Those jokers in Washington D.C. Why didn’t Hillary do this? Or that? And Trump!
Mr. O’Rourke’s uncle remembered him once musing about how nice it would be to run a kind of gathering spot for political dialogue. “I want to have that burrito store,” the uncle, Brooks Williams, recalled Mr. O’Rourke saying once. “I want to have that place downtown where politicians come in and talk.”
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.
Drove to Dalhart. Ate at the Grill. Was last there in August of 2017. Green chile cheeseburger. The table over asked if I was Beto. We talked about the campaign, about Dalhart. Talked about the livestock show they were on their way to.
Dropped in at the VA clinic to say hello to the team there. I had visited in 2017 and they’d really made an impression on me. A staff of two and a visiting doctor take care of veterans from a huge area — including parts of Texas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Kansas and New Mexico.
They seemed well and I got back in the truck, drove on, thinking about this story I’d read the night before about a veteran who comes back home by George Saunders. I read it twice, because it was so good and also because I wasn’t totally sure that I understood what happened at the end of it. Had so many thoughts and questions about it. Not completely spelled out, not neatly defined and tied up. Wanted to talk to someone about it and maybe understand it better from their perspective. I called Kate. She saw the ending differently than I did. More of an epiphany, less of a catastrophe. We were cut off by bad service and finished the conversation by text later in the day.
In a recent interview, Mr. O’Rourke, an English major at Columbia University, detailed some pieces of literature that had made him think through the years: Greek tragedies (“the Greeks got me, man”), a Proust work (“man, it was powerful”) and the autobiography of Woody Guthrie.
I got to Goodwell and right away saw the sign for Oklahoma Panhandle State University on my left. Turned in and met Teri who was waiting for me. I had decided that morning that I’d stop in Goodwell and we’d reached out to see if anyone would like to meet. She showed me to a lecture hall where there were about 40–50 students and faculty.
We talked about everything and anything that anyone wanted to talk about. First question: Why in the world was I in Goodwell?
It’s on 54, and that’s the road I started on in El Paso. Never been to Goodwell and wanted to see what was here and who lived here and what they were thinking.
We talked about healthcare. About war and veterans. We talked about the border and immigration and Dreamers. We talked about corporate influence in politics, PACs and election finance. We talked about how hard it is to afford college. A recruiter for OPSU told me about the anxiety she encounters among kids in high school who don’t think they’ll ever have the money to come here.
Listened to a young woman who is studying to be a teacher, wants to teach kindergarten. Asked me how we improve the chances for children of color who are suspended and expelled at up to five times the rate of white children as early as kindergarten. Someone else asked about the criminal justice system and the disproportionate number of black men and women behind bars.
Critics of Mr. O’Rourke have at times rolled their eyes at his tendency to identify problems without always proposing firm solutions. This was rarely an issue in his Senate race, when Democrats were so united against his Republican opponent, Senator Ted Cruz, but could be a problem in a presidential primary.
We talked about bringing the country together. Talked about national service, more young people finding purpose and common cause with their fellow Americans helping to rebuild the country — serving in whatever capacity helps to make this country stronger — infrastructure and public works, blazing and keeping trails into the wild, serving veterans and supporting teachers in the classroom. Being together, working together, for this country.
A young woman asked, how do I make a difference in any of this? I said run for office. Hold town hall meetings. Bring people together, over coffee, over beer, ask your elected reps to show up and be part of the conversation. If they don’t, organize to get their attention. But whatever we do, let’s do it together. Listen to each other, be respectful, decent, kind. Invite those who don’t agree with you and try to see it their way for a minute. Make this democracy work by being as engaged as you possibly can. Otherwise we’ll lose it.
Here is the core of Mr. O’Rourke’s appeal to supporters: His common-cause pitch is a temperamental (and generational) contrast to President Trump.
The meeting broke up, and I had a chance to talk to some of the people who stayed after. The gentleman who’d asked me about corporate money in politics introduced me to his wife. She was wearing a rainbow-colored wig. She explained her kids pick out the wig she’ll wear each day. She’s fighting cancer right now. She wanted to tell me about how fortunate she feels to be able to get the care that she needs. Because she has friends without insurance who go without, completely. And friends who have insurance but are fighting the insurance company at the same time they are fighting their cancer. Missing treatments as they fight for the care they’d been paying for in their premiums. I was moved that she’d tell me about her life, about how she feels about what’s happening to others. I could tell it wasn’t easy, maybe there was some hesitation in being so open. But I was glad that I could stay as long as anyone wanted to stay and talk.
I left and it was dark. I drove to Liberal. Thought about continuing through to somewhere else but then was hungry and getting tired. Found a small motel, the Southwinds and pulled in. As he was taking care of another customer in front of me, the owner looked up and said “You look like the guy who ran for senate in Texas!”
We talked for a while, he told me about his family and then called them in from a living room that was connected to the front office. His son was about to get on a train to go back to college in Kansas City. Come to KC, that’s where it’s at! His cousin was in from Sugar Land. I asked how much a room was and he said it was nothing. I thanked him and drove across the parking lot to park in front of room 29. I took my suitcase in, a clean, comfortable room.
I would like Beto O’Rourke to negotiate all my future hotel stays.