So Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman who almost defeated Ted Cruz for his U.S. Senate seat, is running for the Democratic nomination for president and has everyone in a tizzy.
Is Beto — no one calls him O’Rourke — the great Democratic hope or is he just another jejune (that was the word one New York Times poster used to describe him) pipe dream?
He is said to have an aw-shucks style and no substance, although he certainly has plenty of positions on the issues. He is said to deliberate too much before he speaks, to have no experience (echoes of President Barack Obama). He is said to have led a reckless youth (President John F. Kennedy). He is said to have married money (as have many men). He is said to have made a thoughtless remark about the wife minding the kids (ditto).
He is said to be many things and one thing more: Even his enemies — and he has them — admit he is charismatic.
Charisma is difficult to define even as it is easy to recognize. The word comes from the Greek meaning “gift of grace.” The charismatic are indeed gifted by God. They draw you in and not just by their physical attractiveness, although there is something about Beto that reminds people of another nicknamed, boyishly handsome pol — Bobby Kennedy. (They even share the same first and middle names, Robert Francis.)
Charismatic people not only pull you in; they keep you there. They convey the sense that what you are and do matters, that we’re all in this together, that what this is is something larger than ourselves from which we will derive great benefits.
This is not necessarily a good thing. There are charismatic people like Mahatma Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and then there are charismatic figures like Adolf Hitler and President Donald J. Trump who suck people into the black hole of their own megalomania.
It’s time to acknowledge the fact that all the PowerPoint presentations and position papers in the world are not going to defeat Trump. And that is why the complement of Democratic candidates — from the quartet of female senators to the curmudgeonly Bernie Sanders — is not going to succeed. They may have ideas, even great ideas, although the ultra-progressiveness of some might scare off the coveted white suburban moderates.
But none of these people are charismatic. (The one person who does have charisma and is not running is Stacey Abrams, who built an Obama-style coalition in her failed bid for the Georgia governorship.)
We need that coalition. We need to be reminded of Obama and Clinton, Bill, not Hillary. We need the Kennedy-esque. We need a touch of Bobby.
We need someone who can bridge the cerebral with the visceral. We need a wow factor, because only a wow factor is going to do it.
We need Beto.