Beto in El Paso
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Beto, the Cameras and El Paso

There is a video from just after the shooting in Texas, a video that features Beto O’Rourke and a survivor of the El Paso shooting. They are standing in a field with trees behind them and there are police officers nearby, shifting their weight and looking deliberately away from the former congressman and the survivor. The survivor says something and pushes the palm of his hand into the corner of his eye, he is wiping away a tear. But it’s too much, and he sets his hand over his face. O’Rourke asks “And are you able to see a counselor or therapist?”

The man breaks down, he weeps, “It’s too much, El Paso was great.” There is a yellow police tape between them that seems to evaporate as Beto pulls the man in for a hug, and you see them grow steady. Beto offers the man a card with his personal cell phone number. Beto never looks at the camera.

On the day before that video was recorded, President Trump wrote on Twitter that O’Rourke “is embarrassed by my last visit to the Great State of Texas, where I trounced him, and is now even more embarrassed by polling at 1% in the Democrat Primary.” He added that the Texan “should respect the victims and law enforcement and be quiet!”

There is a classic quote, one of the few not-yet-outdated remarks that Hemingway made, that courage is defined as “grace under pressure.” That quote is 90 years old, pulled from Dorothy Parker’s profile of the writer in The New Yorker on November 30, 1929, but it’s still fair.

And the deep grieving of a nation puts a hell of a lot of pressure on politicians. We learn in those moments whether they can operate with grace.

President Trump, unsurprisingly cannot display grace under pressure. Maybe he could as a bankrupt businessman, but as president, he flails around like a wounded rodent. As America grieved, Trump spent his time attacking his political foes on Twitter. He visited victims in hospitals but then complained online that those visits weren’t being properly appreciated. He attacked the mayor of Dayton as she was trying to console her city.

After the shooting, the campaign trail bruised along, with the candidates and reporters moving into Iowa for the state fair. But Beto stayed in El Paso.

It’s hard to take Beto seriously. He is, after all, a man who announced his presidential candidacy on the cover of Vanity Fair. But perhaps that’s because we never saw him in a serious moment. And though we’ve seen him on the opposite end of an argument with Trump, this was the first time that they were both cut bare, and we were able to see what’s beneath the shimmer of the politician. Beneath Trump, it seems there are only more boyish tweets yet to be published.

After the shooting, the campaign trail bruised along, with the candidates and reporters moving into Iowa for the state fair. But Beto stayed in El Paso.

There is of course, the catch; the political play. In a statement, his campaign said that “Beto is staying in El Paso to support his hometown that was the target of a terrorist attack…now more than ever, this country needs the honest leadership Beto continues to demonstrate—and that is why he is running for president.”

Beto will not win the presidency and if he’s serious about “honest leadership,” he’ll take the advice of every single political junkie and drop out of the presidential race and instead try to unseat Texas Senator John Cornyn.

Among the themes of the American politician, is the defining moment that reveals their character. In the policy memoirs that they author each election season, our politicians explain their reason for entering this sphere. Frequently, that moment is invented, not to sell books but to sell the storyline of the author. But there are times after they enter that sphere when we see them defined.

We have a very limited sense of the past and we will remember only a few names. And those names will be the characters who revealed their true nature.

The idea of “grace under pressure” does not deal with the soundbite, it does not deal with the half-minute back-and-forth of the candidate and the CNN anchor, it deals with the deeper compulsion of the individual, with the character that is exposed.

Consider Rudy Giuliani after 9/11. In that moment, he was the rock of New York City, and we deemed him “America’s Mayor.” But Giuliani is now a caricature of an half-successful political operative. Instead of fighting for the healthcare of 9/11 first responders, he abandoned them to the federal government, where they were treated with mild attention until this year when Congress finally passed a law ensuring their health benefits for an extended time.

Consider Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Around the nation, citizens called for Congress to return from their August recess to at least talk about gun control and maybe even pass a bill but McConnell offered only a watery statement saying that he spoke to the president about gun control and then asked a few committee chairs “to reflect on the subjects the president raised within their jurisdictions and encouraged them to engage in bipartisan discussions of potential solutions to help protect our communities without infringing on Americans’ constitutional rights.” McConnell is a very skilled politician and being a very skilled politician sometimes requires putting political victories before American lives. The Senate Minority Leader said that he would not call Congress back from their recess.

Under pressure, Richard Nixon turned into a neurotic freak until he was chased from the Oval Office. Winston Churchill is a cult figure because of the manner in which he behaved under pressure; a pressure that was felt by his entire nation.

Our gun crisis is no World War II, but it is a moment in the narrative of our nation that will be studied when it is either eventually solved or deserted. They will talk about the main tragedies as locations—Columbine, Parkland, Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, El Paso—and they will talk about the figures who rose and fell in those tragedies. But we have a very limited sense of the past and we will remember only a few names. And those names will be the characters who revealed their true nature during our darkest moments.


Alex Thomas
Alex Thomas
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