The Politics of Beto and Amy O’Rourke’s Marriage
Beto’s campaign for president has put his marriage in the spotlight, showcasing a relationship that is at once the most modern and most traditional of any 2020 candidate.
Story by Ben Terris
The Washington Post
His head was still in the clouds.
“I read Amy this passage last night from the best interview I’ve ever read,” he said. “It’s about myth and different religions. And it said, much the way your unconscious and subconscience . . . sorry . . . I’m saying both of these words wrong.”
He turned to Amy for help.
“Your subconscious,” said Amy, who like Beto is thin and angular but whose tawny hair is not yet streaked with gray.
“Okay, yeah, the same way your subconscious is the author of your dreams,” Beto said, leaning forward to rub his bare feet — which elicited a slight groan from Amy. “In that same way, your will is the subconscious author of your life.”
Beto took a breath. Amy, as if watching her favorite television rerun, offered a flat smile.
“At the end of your life,” Beto continued. “You can see a line, and there’s a story, a narrative that only makes sense at the end. Somebody had to author that; it’s not a series of accidents.”
This rumination on fate had come from “The Power of Myth,” a book-length interview between Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers. It was typical reading for Beto. Before he ran for Senate, he reread “The Odyssey,” the epic poem about one man’s voyage home to his wife. Then, like now, Beto had decided to set out on a journey in the opposite direction, one that would separate him for weeks on end from his family.
For most of history, it’s been a given that a man would set out to fulfill his destiny, and that a woman would take care of the home — from Penelope to the last aspiring first lady from Texas, Laura Bush. Today, though, those rigid gender roles and hardened ideas of family life have shifted. Scores of female candidates are running for president, backed by potential first dudes. There’s Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who has never been married, and the mayor of South Bend, Ind., Pete Buttigieg, who’s married to a man.
Then, there’s Amy and Beto. They are at once the most modern and most conventional of the families running for president in 2020. They are pioneers of social media, broadcasting much of their lives in real time; affluent, white and traditional — the political equivalent of “The Truman Show.” They captured the hearts and minds of the left in their 2018 run for the Senate, but now, Beto won’t call himself a progressive. Amy, before putting her career on the back burner for her husband, ran a charter school.
Critics are asking whether Beto has benefited from having a rich father-in-law, and paint him as “privileged”; the kind of bro-philosopher who would take an emo road trip away from his family to try to decide if he’d like to spend more time with them or run for office; and the kind of presidential candidate who would have his wife sit, silently gazing at him, for the entirety of his 3 1/2-minute announcement video.
In truth, even though Amy is fully on board, this isn’t the life she would have chosen.
She recently finished Michelle Obama’s “Becoming.” Like Michelle, Amy says of being first lady, “I wouldn’t put it on the list of things that I’ve ever aspired to.”
Chief among the concerns: The Senate run had been hard on the three children, especially their eldest, Ulysses, who at 12 is old enough to remember a time before Congress, a time when his father was around a lot more often. (By Beto’s own admission, while campaigning in Iowa, he is only “sometimes” helping raise the children, a comment that Beto later told reporters Amy had found “flip” and asked that he “treat it seriously.”)
In life, there are no choices bigger than who you want to be and who you want to be with. For Beto and Amy, the choice to be together seemed easy. The second choice was harder: Who did they want Beto to be and what would that make him to Amy and their kids?
Democrats, too, have a decision to make about what this would-be first family represents in a crowded field: something old or something new? A vision of the future or a reflection of the past?
Before Amy and Beto decided to run for president, before they were married or even born, Amy’s dad took Beto’s mom out on a date.
It was 1970 when Bill Sanders picked up Melissa Martha Williams in his Porsche and sped 45 minutes from El Paso to Radium Springs, N.M., for a double date with one of his friends.
Melissa can’t remember the second woman who joined them, but she remembers Bill’s friend clearly — his handsome face, large forehead and even larger personality; how he, too, drove a Porsche.
His name was Patrick O’Rourke, and less than a year after that first meeting, Melissa would marry him, and the two would be on their way to having their first child, Robert Francis. They’d call him Beto for short.
“So that’s how my parents met,” Beto said. “On a date with Amy’s dad.”
Cosmic coincidence? A parable about the insularity of the moneyed class? Fate? Whatever led to this encounter would eventually lead to Beto and Amy.
Bill Sanders moved out of El Paso, got married to a woman who raised their five children while he was mostly away making so much money that he’d be called the “Warren Buffett of real estate.”
Beto’s dad would stick around, climb the local political ladder and make jokes that if Melissa had only played her cards right, Beto could be Bill Sanders’s son.
But Beto was stuck with Pat, who for better or worse ended up shaping the man he would become while Amy — nine years younger — would become a “carbon-copy” of her stay-at-home mom.
After a punk-rock sojourn in New York City, Beto returned to El Paso and came to resemble his father: ambitious politician, devoted cyclist, caring but occasionally distracted dad. They hadn’t gotten along early in Beto’s life — Pat was hard to please, and Beto didn’t especially love trying to please him.
Pat’s political career had been derailed in the 1980s when cops found a condom filled with white powder in his Toyota Land Cruiser. He claimed it had been planted by his enemies, and though he was never charged, his reputation never fully recovered.
When Beto came back to Texas in 1998 and started an online alternative newspaper, Pat began filing travelogues from long cycling trips. The two were getting along for the first time in a long time.
In 2001, Pat was killed on his bike by a passing car.
“Pat O’Rourke is dead,” Beto said at his funeral, “but he’s alive in me.” Two years later, the man who had never wanted to be a politician growing up decided to run for El Paso city council.
Around the same time, Amy came to live in El Paso.
She was born in Chicago but grew up on a ranch outside of Santa Fe. Her father was often gone, traveling for work, leaving her mother to look after Amy and her four siblings. She had high expectations for her children, which Amy met in the classroom and on the tennis courts.
Amy was a born competitor, playing to win in everything she did, from varsity tennis, to family board games, to bobbing for apples at a college party. (Later in life, on the heels of Beto’s defeat in the Senate race, even friends who knew she didn’t care for political life weren’t surprised to see her jump back in; she hated losing that much.)
She went to Williams College with dreams of working in education and raising a family; moved with a boyfriend to Guatemala for a year to teach English, break up and move back to the states.
Amy’s family had relocated to El Paso, so she did, too. And her aunt had just the young man, also recently single, to set her up with.
Amy and Beto crossed the border, to Juarez, and ended up at a bar called Martino’s, where they drank martinis and laughed about how they both had big noses. A Mexican crew filming a commercial in the bar tried to get the couple to kiss on camera, and Beto got them out of it by saying Amy was his sister.
He proposed on April Fools’ Day, four months after they’d first met. It seemed appropriate. That’s how Amy knew him then and even now — impulsive and puckish: He told her on one of their first dates that he planned to name his first son Ulysses (which they did, about a year after marrying, followed by a Molly and a Henry). He dubbed their dog Roosevelt before realizing that the dog was a girl (who now goes by Rosie).
And then there were the pranks: the remote-controlled cockroach in the kitchen, the “Psycho”-style scares in the shower. One time, according to a friend, Beto collected an especially verdant turd from one of their kids’ diapers and put it in a bowl, telling Amy it was avocado. (Neither would confirm this, though Beto did allow it sounded like something he’d do.)
They had big ambitions, but they were local. Amy helped start and run a charter school in El Paso, and Beto made a name for himself as an up-and-comer on the city council. Politics and family didn’t always mix. Beto got in hot water for supporting a real estate development proposal that may have benefited his father-in-law — later, Bill and some of his associates became some of Beto’s earliest boosters, despite their conservative bent — and Amy initially shot down Beto’s national political aspirations. It wasn’t what she’d signed up for.
“I want you to like going to sleep with me, waking up, walking the dogs, cruising the city on cruiser bikes,” Beto had written to Amy on the day she first moved in with him 14 years ago. “Listening to music, making dinner for friends, sitting in the backyard with the dogs, reading books on the roof, drinking wine on the front porch. . . .”
How does the life they envisioned then compare to the life they’re choosing now as Beto runs for president?
“Well,” Amy laughed. “It’s completely contrary to it.”
The O’Rourkes live in a spacious, hacienda-style house in El Paso’s Sunset Heights. In 1915, shortly before Pancho Villa invaded New Mexico in the Battle of Columbus, the Mexican revolutionary general is believed to have met with American forces in this very house for what amounted to failed peace talks.
Amy and Beto bought the house in a state of disrepair and restored it under Amy’s direction. Today, it’s filled with children’s sneakers, bicycles and basketballs; shelves of vinyl records and books; and a rotating cast of characters who have helped take care of the kids in Beto’s absence.
“I think Ulysses is more sensitive and doesn’t necessarily get along with Molly and Henry, and so he needs that person to look up to,” Amy said. “And if Beto is not here, we know some high school kids that he just idolizes.”
“Like Bobby,” Beto said.
The first time Beto suggested to Amy that he’d like to run for Congress, she cried. She didn’t want him to become some kind of D.C. jerk. The morning after the most recent election, the one he lost to Sen. Ted Cruz (R), she cried.
She’d surprised her friends from high school and college, the people who knew her as quiet, as someone who shunned the spotlight, by becoming a regular character on the campaign’s viral Facebook Live feed. She was there on split screen, often calling Beto for a video chat from the house with the children, or riding shotgun in Beto’s truck, or sometimes even headlining a fundraiser on Beto’s behalf.
Behind the scenes, Amy saw the pain in her kids’ eyes when their calls kept going to voice mail. (Eventually, she suggested they write their dad letters.) And the chats between Amy and Beto often felt performative, especially when they were recorded and broadcast live.
On Amy’s birthday last year, Beto called from the road, patching her in to the live stream from the living room. But connecting was hard: Beto’s voice kept echoing through the car speakers, and at times he couldn’t hear Amy over his own voice. When it came time to end the call, Amy looked into the camera and laughed.
“I don’t know how to get out,” she said.
“It’s okay,” Beto shouted back. “Stay with us!”
After losing to Cruz, Beto made Amy an offer: If she wanted, he would be a stay-at-home dad, and she could go back to work full time. She declined.
“I have figured out a way to fulfill my purpose and be the mom that I want,” she said. “And I in no way wanted him to sacrifice that sense of purpose.”
Whatever post-defeat sadness Amy felt, she was able to kick quickly; she’s always been the stable one. Beto, on the other hand, more prone to higher highs and lower lows, was in a “funk.” In January, Beto hit the road, much as his father had done before him, and drew energy from the people he met, and — on one stop in New Mexico he didn’t write about in his blog — by eating New Mexican dirt said to have regenerative powers. (He brought some home for the family to eat, too.)
Beto got dinged in the press for seeming rootless and self-indulgent.
“Absolutely, as a white man, there is so much privilege built into that,” Beto said. “But to the question of whether only Beto O’Rourke could take this road trip. . . . I just knew I needed to do it.”
The coverage also bothered Amy.
“People were saying, ‘Why can’t he get a job to support his family,’ and I was like, ‘Why can’t I be the one? I’m working,’ ” she said, noting that she still does part-time work as a consultant on education issues.
Beto had promised his family, and the country, that he wouldn’t run for president, but he felt the pull. He’d just spent the longest stretch of time with his family than he had in seven years. And while he loved taking Ulysses to baseball practice, Henry to basketball games and Molly to “destination imagination competition,” he said he could anticipate them, when they were older, asking him and Amy “what we did when we had the chance.” Maybe, he thought, another run wouldn’t be so bad.
Back in his living room after that February hike, Beto said: “It’s nuts to me that people want to take a picture with me or want to tell me a story about their family. If they want to give it to me, I’ll always take it. It’s never intrusive.”
He glanced at Amy, who arched an eyebrow.
“It’s rarely intrusive,” he said. The eyebrow remained unmoved.
“Every now and then . . .” he offered, pausing to let Amy fill the silence with more silence. “You have a different opinion.”
Amy’s moderate temperament had always made political life less appealing to her than it had been to her grandiose husband. Now, she used her moderating influence (and her political sensibilities — also moderate, according to friends) to help make Beto more appealing to voters. She’s quick to remind him how his casual profanity might rankle Texas conservatives, not least his in-laws. She’s the one who tells him to stop doing push-ups before bed because it’s keeping him awake at night and the one who Beto’s sister Charlotte said is “a good girl” and “keeps him grounded.” When Beto publicly suggested tearing down El Paso’s border wall, for example, she was the first to suggest he rein in the rhetoric.
But Amy was never going to rein him in on presidential aspirations. Not because she longed for this lifestyle but because she didn’t have a good answer when her friends asked her what had changed since 2018; if she thought it was important to get in the fight then, then why not now?
And so, Beto and Amy enter the 2020 race as something of an inkblot test.
They represent generational change but a return to the way things have been forever. They join a field of bold progressives, of women, of people of color.
Amy said she’d wondered whether the country needed another white, male president; and whether Beto’s candidacy might require her to play a bigger role on the campaign.
“I’m not interested in doing that,” she said. “It would be the political thing to do.”
But it’s all political now.