The media giveth, and the media taketh. Democrat Beto O’Rourke hardly turned his star status into a run for the presidency before a sour tone crept into news reports about him.
“The heavens part. The light shines down. The rise in the oceans begins to slow,” columnist Maureen Dowd of The New York Times exaggerates. The normally and slightly less devious, but mostly much more interesting Jack Shafer of Politico believes that the Democratic candidate rather resembles the man he wants to banish from the White House.
“Think of him instead as a semigogue, a temperate politician who exploits the naiveté of the mob with his hollow yet passionate appeals to goodness, light and possibility. A demagogue traffics in fear. A semigogue peddles hope. A demagogue hoses gasoline onto a fire. A semigogue pours milk or maybe a craft brew. A demagogue bangs the table with a closed fist. A semigogue talks with fluttery hands,” Shafer wrote.
The recent attention on the latter is Donald Trump’s doing. Asked about O’Rourke’s candidacy he said, “I’ve never seen so much hand movement. I said, ‘Is he crazy or is that just the way he acts?’ Unkind, rude and politically meaningless — but you have to give it to Trump, after that remark, it was difficult to pay attention to what O’Rourke said if you watched him on TV, that is how much attention those hands suddenly drew.
Now, what the man says is usually nothing special, Shafer thinks. “Like most pop lyrics divorced from the music, O’Rourke’s speeches — given in that weirdly hypnotic poetry-reading voice — die when read on the page.” And there, he believes, the candidate from Texas shares a similarity with Trump, and with Barack Obama.
Writing columns about a candidate is easy, the real work in American political journalism is, of course, done by the reporters who follow a candidate. As soon as O’Rourke officially announced his candidacy, it became relevant to weigh every word on a gold scale and to dig up every possible misstep from the past, and to then ask for comments from voters and competitors.
And whether they believed it to be really serious or just annoying, it does mean that the sun already shines less steadily on O’Rourke’s candidacy. This question especially seems to arise: Is this fresh, young candidate as modern as he pretends to be?
For example, is presenting oneself as a candidate in a video with a wife smiling adoringly at him something that is done today? And can you still get away with jokingly saying that she has raised the kids “sometimes with my help?”
But maybe even more instructive about the type of candidate the Americans get with O’Rourke is how he responded to that criticism. That joke was “ham-handed,” he admitted immediately. “Not only will I not say that again, but I’ll be more thoughtful going forward in the way that I talk about our marriage,” he continued.
At the same time, he also apologized for writing from his high school days including, among other things, a fictitious story about running over children. He now finds it horrible. “Whatever my intention was as a teenager doesn’t matter, I have to look long and hard at my actions, at the language I have used, and I have to constantly try to do better.”
In that respect, he differs from Trump. If Trump is caught making statements that seem impossible, he sometimes denies having made them, even if the remarks are caught on tape. At other times, he defends and reiterates his remark.
This outright lying while his supporters let him get away with it, may be unique to Trump. But in his unabashedly telling it the way it is, the current president of the United States is probably much more modern than the charismatic young politician who wants to be the next president.