Former Democratic congressman and presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke posts journals of his life, his thoughts, and his travels; only some of those make it to the web. We’ve imagined one that got lost along the way. Welcome to the Beto Diaries.
Dear Diary, What a year, I say to Ruth Anne, the waitress at this small-town Kansas diner. Fruit or toast, she replies. I’ve just ordered the pancake platter. A short stack for a tall politician. The most popular breakfast plate in the whole county, the menu claims. I guess I still want the Midwestern American to find me relatable. But none of that matters much anymore.
I rest my hand on the Formica tabletop and lean back into the vinyl seating of the four-person booth I now occupy alone. I find the familiar squeak of the retro seating comforting. Pffffeeeft. Pfffeeeft. Fabrikoid, an artificial leather manufactured by DuPont in the early twentieth century, is as American a fabric as King Ranch leather and Levi’s denim. How many of our countrymen and women have placed themselves into a booth like this one and heard that sound emanating from their lower halves?
I’m proud of myself for developing this metaphor until I remember that as of Friday there’s no crowd, no mailing list, no campaign staff to inspire with it.
This may be my last entry for a while, Diary. Campaign’s done for. I set off from Des Moines two days ago. Just me, my truck, and Sir Ian McKellen narrating the Odyssey audiobook I downloaded from Audible.com. Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns, driven time and again off course once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy. Sir Ian’s dulcet tones describing both Odysseus’s journey and my own. Was this presidential primary my Trojan War? Or the Calypso to my Senate campaign? And what spoils have I to bring home to Penelope and Telemachus other than discarded Beto banners, buttons, and bumper stickers?
We spent so much time getting the typeface to look just right. Now I worry I’ll never be able to enjoy Whataburger spicy ketchup again. It’s time to take this triple-meat Whataburger off the menu.
They didn’t have Whataburger in Iowa. And the Dairy Queens didn’t have steak fingers. But we made do. I had a Pretzel Haus Pub Burger at a Culver’s in Iowa City with one of our volunteers once. Joe, his name was. Like Strummer? I asked the first time we met. Sure, Joe said. He didn’t listen to The Clash much. Thought himself more of a Buzzcocks guy. Ever fallen in love with a presidential candidate you shouldn’t’ve?
If I stopped neither the truck nor the tape, Sir Ian and Homer could get me as far as Tucumcari, New Mexico. Just a half-day’s drive from home. But sirens called me off my course. They took the form of roadside advertisements for Madison County’s famed nineteenth-century bridges. Not walls, the sirens sang. Never walls.
I turned southward, coming to a stop at Hogback Bridge Road, one of the six covered bridges that still stand. There were originally nineteen. I turned off the ignition just as Zeus sent eagles down to warn Penelope’s suitors out of Odysseus’s home. All were dumbstruck, watching the eagles trail from sight, whispered Sir Ian. People brooding, he said, deeply. I get that.
These Bridges of Madison County once inspired their own work of classic literature. I remember the movie version. Who couldn’t? Clint Eastwood. Meryl Streep. Two soulmates separated by time, space, culture, and custom. The divide between them impassable. Yet a rickety, wooden bridge, put in place a hundred years before, painted snow-white and chili-pepper-red, creates a path. A channel. An artery. A connection. However tenuous and temporary, two fellows meet, and neither one will ever be the same.
Connection is how I got into the situation in the first place, I thought to myself as I twirled blades of Kentucky bluegrass between my fingers and marveled at Hogback Bridge. I connected in all 254 Texas counties. I connected with Vanity Fair subscribers. I wanted to connect the federal government to citizens’ AR-15s. But the divide between me and Democratic primary voters proved impassable. The rickety, wooden bridge that was my campaign was like one of the twelve Madison County bridges that didn’t survive the twentieth century. And me, on the banks of an Iowan river, watching the decaying wood rush downstream, eventually to meet up with Martin O’Malley, John Edwards, and Howard Dean in the Gulf of Failed Presidential Candidates.
But back in the diner, I talk to Ruth Anne. Connecting. For the first time in over two years, I’m not talking to a voter. I don’t need anything from Ruth Anne but my pancakes, and some syrup, since there isn’t any already on the table. But when she refills my coffee she calls me “hon,” so I ask her how her day is going. Her feet hurt, but she’ll be able to sit some after the lunch rush. You know what, Ruth Anne, my feet hurt, too.