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The Axe Files
Beto O'Rourke on American Exceptionalism and Excellence, Donald Trump, Tax, The Green New Deal, Medicare for All, President Obama and Ted Cruz. Aired 7-8p ET
Aired April 13, 2019 - 19:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[07:00:00] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BETO O'ROURKE (D) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If we're not bringing the country together around our ambitions, our priorities than we will have failed, even if we defeat Donald Trump. So this cannot be about one man, or another political party. It's got to be about the country."
ANNOUNCER: Taking on President Trump at the border.
O'ROURKE: What we need is someone who will not play games or politics with people's lives or the security of this country.
ANNOUNCER: And his joinery from City Council to Congress to the national political spotlight.
O'ROURKE: I was frustrated to be honest with you that that was the--
DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Welcome to the NBA, man.
ANNOUNCER: Welcome to "The Axe Files."
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AXELROD: Beto O'Rourke, so good to be with you, here in El Paso, the historical Plaza Theater. Did your band ever play here? You ever play this thousand seat - ?
O'ROURKE: No, no, we were lucky to play a street corner or a small bar, but no, never the Plaza Theater. But it's an honor to be here with you and to be here in El Paso.
O'ROURKE: Great to be here too. Speaking of show business, right before you announced, there was this "Vanity Fair" profile of you and the headline got attention. It was a partial quote, you're saying, "I was born to be in this". What did you mean by that?
AXELROD: I found my purpose in service. So playing in punk rock bands, growing up was a ton of fund. Starting a small business in El Paso - a high-tech company in a place that you might not expect to find it, growing that business, being able to serve the small business community here was incredibly fulfilling.
But it wasn't until I was on City Council that I really felt as though I had found my calling. This is what I'm supposed to do in my life. I love being with people. I loved working on an issue, same in Congress, same campaigning across the State of Texas. So I'm unfulfilled. I feel like I'm at my highest and best use to my fellow citizens when I'm serving. That's what I meant. But I certainly didn't mean--
AXELROD: You've got a little guff for it and probably unfairly, because the whole quote was a little bit different.
AXELROD: But it seemed a little cheeky.
O'ROURKE: Right. As though I were born--
AXELROD: When you saw it, did you think that?
O'ROURKE: Yes. I was frustrated to be honest with you that that was the--
AXELROD: Welcome to the NBA, man.
O'ROURKE: Yes, that that was a quote that they chose to use. But how cool that Annie Leibovitz takes your picture and that you get to meet her at all?
AXELROD: What about the moment? President of United States is kind of a singular position. There are a lot of ways to serve. What about this moment draws you to this race?
O'ROURKE: Yes. There's no moment like this one. No set of challenges like these, some which we've had for a while and have just become worse. Immigration 30 years and counting for any kind of real resolution. You have folks in this country dying of diabetes in the year 2019, people who have insurance but can't afford their premiums or their prescriptions.
But you also have this singular existential challenge of climate that really has come into focus for me and I think for so many people in this country. And the trajectory that we're on, if not mitigated, if not drastically changed, will consume more of our communities and really the lives of the people who will succeed us on this planet.
And my premise for American exceptionalism and excellence is that you can't meet this kind of challenge by half measure. You've got to be bold and you cannot meet it with half the country - cannot just be Democrats, cannot just be Republicans.
So bringing people together serving as a Democrat in a Republican controlled Congress every day that I serve there, travelling to each one of the 254 counties of Texas, no matter how red or rural, how big and blue and urban. I found that I have an ability to at least be part of a movement that brings people--
AXELROD: Why is that so important now that the two words that you haven't invoked in your presentation are Donald and Trump?
O'ROURKE: Right. In some ways, he's the latest manifestation or the logical conclusion of this incredibly divisive politics that we have in our country. A Republican Party that unfortunately - at least those in in representative offices, has become unmoored from science, from the best traditions of the Republican Party.
But some of the problems that we're talking about are not of his causing. He's exacerbated those divisions. He's worked to make us angry and afraid of one another. But if the goal is simply to defeat Donald Trump then we will not have achieved our true priorities.
If we're not bringing the country together around our ambitions, our priorities then we will have failed even if we defeat Donald Trump. So this cannot be about one man. We are the last, best hope of earth. Not any one candidate, definitely not a political party, but the American people, the genius of this democracy, which when it works - and it's not working right now.
But when it works, harnesses the power of hundreds of millions to common purpose with common cause and then is able to convene the powers of the planets to do the same.
[07:05:00] AXELROD: Why isn't it working right now?
O'ROURKE: I think you have institutions that have been for all intents and purposes captured, corrupted by those who can pay for access and then outcomes. You have a Supreme Court decision in 2010 Citizens United that fundamentally exacerbated some of those divisions and problems.
New corporations are people and money speech corporations now, spending unlimited amounts of money. The fact that we don't make meaningful progress on the things that we care about and yet we're seeing record profits for corporations, who just got the big part of the biggest part of $2 trillion tax break at a time that we were $21 trillion dollars in debt. It invites the cynicism and disengagement and the distrust of so many of our fellow Americans.
When you add to that in a state like Texas you have, since reconstruction, you've functionally locked people out based on race and ethnicity and country of national origin from electing those who will represent them or running for office in the first place.
So we have a democracy that has some systemic failings. We have an economy that does not work for everyone. And TR - Teddy Roosevelt in the last progressive response to less concentration of wealth and power he says, "You're not going to have a political democracy if you don't have something approaching an economic democracy".
We have neither in this country right now. And in fact things are as bad as they've been in both cases.
AXELROD: I had a chance to screen this HBO documentary that's going to appear in May, and in it you said something interesting. You said Democrats - this is about Texas, "Democrats have played it too safe in this state. They've played it to middle of the road".
AXELROD: And yet your record in Congress was very moderate. And just let me run through some of these things. You voted against Nancy Pelosi for Speaker, you gave President Obama fast track authority to negotiate trade deals, which is a flare point for some on the Left.
You voted to expand the death penalty to people who attempt to murder a law enforcement officer, you you've talked about increasing the Social Security retirement age and means testing of Medicare. Are these positions going to be an albatross for you in a Democratic primary?
O'ROURKE: You know just in the list that you went through there are some that were clearly mistakes. I don't believe in the death penalty and that that was a wrong vote for me to take.
AXELROD: Why'd you take it if you don't believe in it?
O'ROURKE: Threatening the life or taking the life of a law enforcement officer is a serious issue. It should be a factor in the sentencing. But it should not contribute towards receiving the death penalty. And so there's just a clear mistake on my part. No two ways about it.
AXELROD: And I'm not asking you to go through - I mean, you - just the other day you spoke to - you were challenged in Iowa, I think, about a vote you made for that would have made easier drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. It seems to me that partly what you were doing was voting your district, is that is that fair?
O'ROURKE: I think what I was trying to do is acknowledge that - I still drive a truck with an internal combustion engine that runs on gasoline. And our energy resources right now, primarily fossil fuel based, have got to come from somewhere. And as imperfect as we are in extracting those resources, we do a hell of a lot better job than most of the rest of the world.
And so I want to make sure that our energy independence and our national security independence are guaranteed here at home. But I also want to speed the transition off of those fossil fuels to wind to solar energy. So that's my commitment.
AXELROD: But you apologized for that vote and it - you just made a pretty good case for why in the transition it might be necessary.
O'ROURKE: Yes. Well, because I think I better understand today the urgency - I mentioned at the outset of our interview. I don't know that you can meet this challenge by half measure. I think we really have to be bold.
In fact, I know we do. If we're going to ensure that our kids and grandkids, who will look back on us from the future, to the people of 2019, 2020, I want them to be proud of what we did.
AXELROD: Yes, right. O'ROURKE: There are people in this country who have been, not for years but for decades, warning about this challenge. Now many of us, myself included, have finally heard the call and we absolutely have to respond. And it is a threat just as if not more existential than that that we face.
AXELROD: How do you strike the balance between the desire for big solutions and the practicality of getting them done - The Green New Deal, Medicare-for-all? You've associate yourself with the spirit of those things, but not necessarily the letter of those things?
O'ROURKE: Yes. I think you have to identify the problem. You have to lay out the goal and you have to do everything you can, and it may sometimes be incrementally to get there. And I'll give you--
AXELROD: There's a frustration with incrementally--
[07:10:00] O'ROURKE: Sure there is. Yes. But when you allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good you may get nothing at all accomplished. So I think I've been able to demonstrate that that I've been able to work with those on the other side of the aisle. And I think I've been able to prove that that might be the only - or at least perhaps the best way to get something done. So I think trying to cram it down people's throats is just not going to work.
AXELROD: You probably saw what President Obama said overseas, his concern that the - that this sort of demand for absolutism within the Democratic Party.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, 44TH U.S. PRESIDENT: We start sometimes creating what's called a circular firing squad where you start shooting at your allies, because one of them is straying from purity.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AXELROD: Did that resonate with you?
O'ROURKE: I didn't hear his comments. But I do think we have to be as open as possible not just to our fellow Democrats, but to independents and Republicans.
What we were able to do in Texas over the last two years was made possible by going to Republican communities and listening to their concerns. That's human nature. You want to be heard.
And I think when we write people off, because they don't subscribe to the same solution that we do, then we're going to get what we deserve, which is their unwillingness to participate in the process or in our campaign.
AXELROD: Is it valuable to be from Texas or from the middle of the country rather than one of the coasts, one of the things that happened in the last election, I think, is that we all kind of retreated to our silos and didn't see what was happening on the other side of that silo. Is it advantageous for the party itself to have a candidate who does not come from a dark blue state?
O'ROURKE: In this last campaign. We were in Archer County, which you may know from Larry McMurtry, "Lonesome Dove". When I was going in the Murn's Cafe for our town hall meeting, there with 12 or 13 people, this guy pulls out a black and white photo. It's his dad with LBJ in '48. And he said that's the last time that a Senate candidate from either party came to our community.
It's been 70 years that someone had shown up and listened. We the Democratic Party have effectively functionally written off so many parts of the country. If Democrats don't go to compete, then Republicans don't have to show up and they can just bank those votes and go home. And those folks effectively are not represented, they're not heard, they don't have a seat at the table.
So whether you're from Texas or whether you're from Massachusetts or California, I think it behooves us all to show up everywhere. Write nobody off, take no one for granted.
AXELROD: Implicit in the matters criticism of the campaign in 2016.
O'ROURKE: Well I don't - I don't know. All I know is the campaign I got to be a part of in 2018 with the most powerful experience of my life. Powerful, because so many people were bought into this.
ANNOUNCER: Coming up on "The Axe Files".
O'ROURKE: he's made his bet on strong men and dictators and turned his back on our fellow Western democracies like Canada, Mexico, European Union, it's almost inexplicable.
[07:15:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
AXELROD: One of the things that really brought you to national attention was this spontaneous impromptu answer you gave to a question about Colin Kaepernick--
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
O'ROURKE: And I can think of nothing more American than to peacefully stand up or take a knee for your rights, anytime, anywhere, in any place.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AXELROD: And it was very, very powerful, but you don't have a deep relationship with the African-American community and that plays very large in the Democratic race. How do you overcome that?
O'ROURKE: I think showing up everywhere, but also showing up for everyone and it just doesn't mean your physical presence. It means listening and learning from those who've had a far different experience in life than you have.
As a white man who grew up in an upper middle class--
AXELROD: Is that about white privilege - growing up in white privilege?
O'ROURKE: Absolutely. Growing up in an upper middle class household, recognizing that some communities didn't have any access to capital - literally written out of the ability to participate in our economy. It's not something I've experienced.
And the only way I will even begin to understand it is to listen to those who've had that experience. The largest prison population on the face of the planet disproportionally comprised of people of color, learning from those who've been through that. In some cases, for possession of a substance marijuana, that's legal or decriminalized in most states of this country.
So ensuring that that everyone's story is part of the American story - the good, the bad, and the very ugly and shameful as well, and also in the way that I campaigned. And not just doing it in certain communities, if it's an all-white audience in Iowa, I'm talking about these very same issues.
AXELROD: Donald Trump, himself, he's going to play big in this race. I think 10 minutes after you made your first announcement he was commenting on your hand gesture.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, I think, he's got a lot of hand movement. I've never seen so much hand movement.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AXELROD: How do Democrats generally deal with a President who's going to be right in the middle of their primary nominating process?
O'ROURKE: Yes. I just think you stay focused on the reason that you entered the race in the first place. The people who comprise the campaign, those whom you want to serve and the people you want to deliver for.
In New Hampshire recently a woman slid across the table her receipt for her prescription medication. She says, this totals $10,000 a year. After my co-pays kick-in I'm supposed to take three of these pills a day. I take one or two so that I can stretch it out for as long as possible.
She doesn't want me responding to Donald Trump. She does want me making fun of him. She doesn't want me to descend into the petty or personal politics. She wants me to focus on making her prescription medication affordable. And so if we lose sight of why we're running and the people for whom we run, then we're going to get more Donald Trump going forward, so--
[07:20:00] AXELROD: So his caricatures kind of stick out, don't they?
O'ROURKE: Yes. He's--
(CROSSTALK) O'ROURKE: Yes, yes. Yes, he's good at that stuff.
AXELROD: Did you find yourself restraining your hand gestures after that?
O'ROURKE: Someone we - we had a house party that same day - and of course, we're going from event to event, and I haven't had time to watch the news. So I don't know that this is going on and this woman said, "Before you start, just know that I love your hands". So, yes, you just you've got to be you, right?
AXELROD: Are you going to release your tax returns? You're a person of wealth. Your wife comes from a very wealthy family. This has become an issue because the President is the first President since Richard Nixon not to release his tax returns. Senator Sanders has come under pressure because he didn't do it in the last campaign. Do you think candidates should and will you?
O'ROURKE: Yes and yes. And in addition, it should be U.S. law that every President releases their tax returns. We have a right to know how our Presidents receive their income, where there may be real or perceived conflicts of interest. We can then make better informed decisions.
By that same token, everyone running for the presidency should release their tax returns, and I will do that as well. And in fact, working with Amy and our team to get those released as soon as possible.
AXELROD: Let me ask you this. Do you think President Trump is in some way mortgaged to Russia? Why is he so reticent about calling Putin out on game - trying to game our elections and so on?
O'ROURKE: I don't know that we fully understand the answer to your question. As every American is, I'm very much looking forward to reading the full Mueller report. But his comments on that stage in Helsinki, Finland, next to Vladimir Putin--
George Will fellow pundit, a conservative one at that said "If you were concerned about collusion. The President's performance in Helsinki was collusion in action, defending Vladimir Putin who had sought to undermine our democracy".
Instead of our intelligence community and the United States, Duterte in the Philippines, el-Sisi in Egypt, Erdogan in Turkey, Kim Jong-un, who our President says he is falling in love with. So he's made his bet on strongmen and dictators and turned his back on our fellow Western democracies, so like Canada, Mexico, the European Union. It's almost inexplicable. But I want to make sure that we get to the bottom of that.
AXELROD: You had at one point had called for impeachment and then you backed off. Why did you back off?
O'ROURKE: So - I mean, I guess, to be clear, I'd never called for impeachment. I've been asked as a Member of the House of Representatives if Articles of Impeachment were before me, would I vote for them? And I said, yes.
Whether you follow George Will's logic about his attempted collusion or if you were concerned about obstruction of justice when he fired James Comey, the principal investigator, into what had happened in 2016. Or the President in the light of day, tweeting at his Attorney General Jeff Sessions to end the Russia investigation, very clear to me, that our President tried to stop our ability to understand what had happened to the world's greatest democracy.
AXELROD: So you were--
O'ROURKE: --defining moment of truth for us.
AXELROD: So you would have voted for them, but you wouldn't have brought them up?
O'ROURKE: I never shy away from a direct question, and giving it an honest answer. So when asked by a reporter that was my honest answer. I cannot help but come to that conclusion that, that the President has committed impeachable offenses.
AXELROD: And at this point that seems remote.
O'ROURKE: At this point it not only is remote, it doesn't seem in any way politically feasible. So our focus has got to be November of 2020 and then beyond that January of 2021.
AXELROD: Michael Cohen when he testified privately before the House Intelligence Committee - this has leaked out of that - said, he believed that that the President would resist if he were not elected in 2020. Is that is that a real concern?
O'ROURKE: Just know this, our current President will stop at nothing to maintain or accrue more power. Asking the government of Russia to produce Hillary Clinton's e-mails as a candidate or on election day in El Paso, Texas, which had the greatest turnout in the entire State of Texas in 2018, calling for Border Patrol crowd control exercises, in a community that's 83 percent Mexican-American.
Or sending 5,500 U.S. service members, while we're at war or half a world away, to the U.S. Mexico border at a time of record security and safety, it's not just his rhetoric it's the caging of children, it's the practices and the policies and the things that he is trying to do to undermine our democracy and our country.
[07:25:00] And so I understand just how grave this threat is that he poses. But I also understand defeating him cannot alone be our strategy. It has to be coming together around the things that we want to achieve.
But I understand the risks that we run with this President in power. And I've got to tell you, it's the reason that, despite the fact that I love being here in my hometown, and I'm so grateful that Amy and I get to raise Ulysses and Molly and Henry for as long as I can, over the next two years. I will be in Iowa and New Hampshire and Nevada and South Carolina and the other states of this country, trying to make the case that we can do far better as a country than we're doing now. This is our defining moment of truth and we cannot be found wanting.
ANNOUNCER: Up next on "The Axe Files".
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
O'ROURKE: Somewhere around 6 million jobs depend on what crosses through these bridges there.
AXELROD: So if this guy closed down--
O'ROURKE: You'll close down the U.S. economy.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
[07:30:00] AXELROD: What those murals represent to you?
O'ROURKE: These murals speak to our culture, our traditions in the largest bi-national community in the Western Hemisphere - 3 million from two countries, two languages who come together here and formed one people.
And it's something that's really powerful and almost magical to me, and not unconnected to the fact that El Paso was one of the safest cities in the country, because there's a culture of mutual respect.
AXELROD: This is the crossing to whereas to Mexico and how free is that crossing now? How interconnected are the communities?
O'ROURKE: So this is the Stanton Street Bridge. There are five other bridges that connect us to Ciudad Juarez. 32 million lawful crossings - just like these folks are going over right now - every year between El Paso and Juarez.
About 20 percent of all U.S.-Mexico trade - so not just El Paso's economy, but by extension, the U.S. economy, somewhere around 6 million jobs depend on what crosses through these bridges right here.
AXELROD: So if this got closed down?
O'ROURKE: You'll close down the U.S. economy, absolutely. And you will, by definition, make us less safe, because those CBP officers who are there, they're the ones who inspect everyone and everything that comes into this country.
If you don't have that inspection, there's still going to be some folks passing through who we will not know what they're bringing with them or if they have status or if they should be in the United States of America.
AXELROD: This was a different kind of border and a different crossing when you were a kid growing up.
AXELROD: Tell me how it's changed?
O'ROURKE: After 9/11 - and certainly after the Secure Fence Act of 2006, you really saw an almost militarization in border communities like ours. And beyond--
O'ROURKE: Unnecessary and beyond--
AXELROD: You talked about tearing down walls. You still feel that way?
O'ROURKE: I do. Now, I'll also say that there are some places where physical barriers make sense, and we've always had them on the border. But this military grade, 30 foot high, steel, slat and concrete base, that's new and it's really one unnecessary, has not improved our safety. In fact, our safety actually declined after the construction of the wall here in El Paso.
AXELROD: What we - those connected in some ways?
O'ROURKE: I think when you introduce greater fear and distrust in a community, fewer people are willing to work with local law enforcement, because they think that their immigration status may become the focus, instead of the crime that they're trying to prevent or report.
So, yes, security can come through immigration reform, investments at our ports and treating people with respect. The opposite - these ICE roundups, these walls are calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals. That makes us less not more safe.
AXELROD: What do you think about this sentiment about disbanding ICE?
O'ROURKE: I don't think it makes sense. But I think that it is coming from a good place, which is, these internal enforcement measures - bad under President Trump, bad under President Obama. Where in one year alone of his administration there were 400,000 people rounded up and sent back to their countries of origin, breaking up families in the process.
If the intent was to purchase a little political will in order to get comprehensive immigration reform done, it obviously didn't work. And so, I think we need to make sure that the two are understood to be one in the same.
If you do move forward with immigration reform, you get security as a natural byproduct of that. So we don't need to do these internal roundups. But there does need to be an agency responsible for the enforcement of our immigration laws internally when people do pose a violent threat to others in our communities.
AXELROD: As we look at on that bridge crossing the border, President has essentially forced the resignation of his Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and he's indicating that he wants a tougher policy. What's your reaction to all of that?
O'ROURKE: What he has done in the name of this country, taking kids from their parents after they've survived a more than 2,000 mile journey, some of it on foot, some of it a top a train known as "The Beast". Arriving here at their most desperate and vulnerable moment, deporting that mom back to their very country she fled, and then putting that kid in a cage, you would like to think it's un-American, but it's happening in this country.
[07:35:00] Not only must we follow our own asylum laws, which he is clearly breaking, not just in the way he's treating these asylum seekers, but by preventing them from lawfully seeking asylum at this port of entry. And here's what he's going to do, whether this is the intent or not.
He's going to cancel out $0.5 billion in aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, that's going to make those problems in those countries even worse. You will see an even greater flow of people heading North, coming here that no wall or militarization or policy is going to stop. They are desperate. Doing exactly what I would do if my kids were in the same danger that their kids are in right now.
So instead we should be investing even more - double what we're spending today in the Northern Triangle of Central America. Focus that not on military equipment, but on violence reduction and prevention in those communities. Where we've been successful in doing that, we've seen a net decrease in outflow.
AXELROD: You've been in the business of politics. Do you think that he sees advantage in torquing up the crisis?
O'ROURKE: Donald Trump is the arsonist who gets the credit for putting out the fire. He is going to cause worse outmigration and asylum seeking from Central America by cutting off all U.S. aid. And then he wants to be the - he wants to be the person who gets the credit for stopping it.
What we need is someone who will not play games or politics with people's lives or the security of this country, but will invest in the smart decisions and policies like investing in Central America to stop the outflow before it even begins.
We can try to address these problems at the U.S.-Mexico border with walls or open arms or we can address them in the countries of origin before they ever become a problem and that's what I want to do.
AXELROD: The President says the country is full. That was his message to immigrants who went to the border. And because you have traveled around quite a bit and you have traveled through all kinds of communities in this country, you know that there is a certain resonance to that with some Americans and some voters.
O'ROURKE: I haven't found that actually. I was just in Storm Lake in Iowa, talking to Mexican immigrants who came to work at the Tyson's Plant that no one born in Storm Lake is working at right now. And they're investing in the success of that community.
And the people in that community get it. Revitalizing rural America, in part, depends on ensuring that immigrants can find a home in rural America. Our success as farmers, as an economy, as a country, as a democracy is necessitated upon new people coming in to reinvigorate this country.
AXELROD: He says he's going to make immigration a centerpiece of his campaign and your answer is bring it on?
O'ROURKE: Absolutely. There's this community of El Paso Ciudad Juarez that is the positive example of why immigration matters, why it makes us safer, why it makes our economy stronger, why it creates more jobs. So I'm looking forward to sharing that message and talking about safety and economic growth and jobs in a positive way that includes all of us.
ANNOUNCER: Ahead on "The Axe Files".
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
AXELROD: That must have been an unbelievable moment when you got the news that he was gone?
O'ROURKE: Yes, it - yes.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
[07:40:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
AXELROD: Your dad was this larger than life figure. He was a big deal in this community. He was an elected official.
O'ROURKE: Absolutely. Still a big deal - at least in my head, although he died in 2001. Was a County Commissioner elected in '78 and then in '82 elected county judge. And never met a stranger and still so many years after his death, I can't count how many people come up and said, your dad was my best friend.
He had so many best friends. Loved life, got the best out of every minute of it, and took a true joy in being with people and in politics. And he saw that as not only a very high calling and a noble purpose, but a hell of a lot of fun.
AXELROD: You - but you didn't have that great a relationship with them when you were a kid.
O'ROURKE: As a little kid, yes. As a teenager he was tough on me. He didn't know what planet I was living on. I didn't know why he couldn't get it. And we really had some friction.
AXELROD: You went to prep school--
O'ROURKE: And going to a prep school.
AXELROD: But that was your choice. O'ROURKE: My choice. I wanted to get out of my house - away from my dad. I also want to get out of El Paso and see the rest of the world. I got that distance and I think I got that perspective. And then coming back after working in New York for a few years, and getting to see him, again now as an adult, we really connected.
You know I'm a lapsed Catholic and I do not go to Mass as often as my mom would have me go to Mass. But there was something very special and I feel faded in the last night that he was alive. And it's just my dad and I, and we drank a bottle of wine together, eat leftovers out of the fridge and we just talked for hours about life, about my life, about the years that we had been disconnected, about what the future might hold.
And the next morning he was hit by a car and killed instantly and I feel like I was supposed to have that conversation.
AXELROD: How did that - yes, that must have been an unbelievable moment when you got the news that he was gone.
O'ROURKE: Yes, it - yes.
AXELROD: I mean, I went through this myself. I lost my father at an early age and it was indescribable - almost hard to conceive of him not being here.
O'ROURKE: It took me a very long time and my wife can tell you that it is still happening to be able to understand and accept that. But you know perhaps in a positive way to look at this, he's alive in me. He is--
[07:45:00] AXELROD: What would he - what advice would he be giving you now?
O'ROURKE: He'd tell me to lighten up, to have fun, to not take myself seriously. He would love this.
AXELROD: And let me ask you one other question--
AXELROD: --about him that is a difficult one. Which is, he had a scandal, you were here at that time, you were a young kid. Some powdery substance was found in his county car.
AXELROD: Evidence disappeared.
AXELROD: Case was never really resolved, but it effectively ended his political career and it was big news here in El Paso.
O'ROURKE: Yes, I remember that.
AXELROD: How did you - yes. I'm sure you--
O'ROURKE: There was headlines on the El Paso Times, every--
AXELROD: How old were you then?
O'ROURKE: I would have been 12.
AXELROD: How did you process that?
O'ROURKE: So my dad in '74 bought a Toyota Land Cruiser - brand new and it was the truck he was driving in '84. And he was on a trip on county business and left his Land Cruiser parked in the county parking garage.
And as he always did doors, unlocked probably, windows rolled down. Sheriff's deputies found a bag in the glove box as they were installing a CB radio and found a powdery substance - cocaine, heroin, something else. I don't know, because they flushed it down the toilet.
So my dad's assertion was that somebody planted that in there or stashed it in there. That it was not his. Who knows what the truth is. I would believe him.
AXELROD: Where you teased, where you did--
O'ROURKE: Oh, yes, sure. I'm in 6th or 7th grade at the time at Mesita Elementary. And your dad's on the front page of the papers for having what may be cocaine in his car, that wouldn't a lot of fun. But--
AXELROD: This isn't a great introduction to politics. At that moment--
O'ROURKE: Oh, no.
AXELROD: --could you see yourself going into politics?
O'ROURKE: I was - I remember coming home from Columbia in my sophomore junior year and telling my dad - he'd taken out these loans for me to be able to go to school - that was going to be an English major.
And just his - the look on his face of "Why would you want to do that?" and I wanted to read, I wanted to write, I wanted to teach. That's what I wanted to do. I didn't want to be around people. I didn't want to be shaking - so many events - or just walking into a donut shop my dad says, "Hey go shake that guy's hand". That was my entire life and I wanted none of it, and the headlines and all that stuff. And yet, here I find myself, and I find myself doing what I am so grateful to have the chance to do. I love being with people.
AXELROD: You weren't the class President. You weren't in the debate society. You didn't do any of that stuff. You did join something called the Cult of the Dead Cow--
AXELROD: --which were a group of kind of computer geeks and hacktivists. O'ROURKE: Right.
AXELROD: That really spawned a bunch of people who were now very prominent in the social media and Internet space. How much did that experience help inform your understanding of social media as a tool, because that was really the key to your success?
O'ROURKE: Yes, so I - 6th grade my folks get me an Apple IIe and a 300 baud modem. And I'm dialing in to other people's computers on phone lines. That was the Internet at the time. It was thrilling to me to be accepted by this world of people whom I'd never met and probably would never meet, who lived all over the world.
And I wasn't particularly coordinated or athletic or popular or into the latest trends or fashion. I was this skinny, awkward, gawky kid who wore high water jeans that my mom bought me and all of a sudden I was on this online community where I was accepted regardless of how I looked or how athletic I was or was not, based on what I could write or the way in which I could connect with people.
And it was a very powerful precursor to the Internet. Showed me that the way that you could connect with people in that way.
AXELROD: You spent about seven years in New York. You were with your punk rock bandmates. You were a nanny. But then you came back. You had this incident. You were involved in a drunken driving incident.
O'ROURKE: Yes. So it was my birthday in 1998. I'd just moved back. And I was drinking and I made the choice to drive drunk. And so there's nothing that can justify or excuse that. And I was arrested as I--
AXELROD: You hit a car?
O'ROURKE: --should've been. I hit a car.
AXELROD: Went over a--
[07:50:00] O'ROURKE: --spun and landed in the median of Interstate 10 with a woman who had been out with me that night - with a date. And no one was harmed.
AXELROD: You didn't try and run away?
O'ROURKE: We did not try to flee the scene. I don't know that either of us would be - it would have been capable of fleeing the scene. I spent a night in jail. I went to court, was on probation for a number of months. Went to the classes that you have to go to and had my license revoked.
But what I have since realized is that that incredibly poor judgment, that really grave mistake on my part, did not end up defining my prospects. And there are so many people in this country - so often people of color, arrested for offenses far less serious - possession of marijuana.
So one, it has helped me to understand the disparity in treatment based on race and privilege in this country. Two, it is part of the public record, as it should be.
ANNOUNCER: Up next.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
AXELROD: Was there ever a moment when you looked in the mirror and said, "Wait a second. Am I ready to be the leader of the free world?"
O'ROURKE: Yes, absolutely. And I wonder if you don't ask yourself that question, whether everything's OK, in your head.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
[07:55:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
AXELROD: The race against Ted Cruz in 2018, you began as this obscure Congressman from El Paso, not well-known even in the State of Texas. You became this national figure. You raised $80 million, much of it online. This incredible energy behind your campaign. And then it's over.
You lose - you lose narrowly, did better than any Democrat had in 25 years. And you've said that it kind of put you in a funk.
O'ROURKE: Yes. Yes. You come down, I came down after we defeated Silvestre Reyes. Remember having breakfast with Amy the next day at Crave on Cincinnati Street in El Paso. And I was like, "Why am I so bummed right now? We just won this race that no one expected us to pull off?"
And I think it is the inertia of you're going a million miles an hour and the bus has stopped. The election's over, and it takes you a little while to get your bearings again, and to find out - I knew what my purpose was every second of every day of that campaign. Now the campaign is over. What am I supposed to do right now?
AXELROD: How did you get - go through the process of arriving at running for President? Was there ever a moment when you looked in the mirror and said, "Wait a second, Am I ready to be the leader of the free world?
O'ROURKE: Yes, absolutely. And I wonder if you don't ask yourself that question, whether everything's OK in your head.
AXELROD: You talked about being the son of a politician and how hard it was for you - your kids - particularly your oldest son, Ulysses, just struggled with your absence. How much of a break was that on you in trying to decide whether to run for President, how you going to manage that?
O'ROURKE: Initially as we were considering this, it was the full break. We were not going to do it. And we knew almost without saying it to each other, that it would just be too hard on our family and our kids to run.
But a couple of things happened. In the months after the November election in 2018, we were struck by the resiliency of our kids - and without ever bringing the subject up to them - surprised by how often they raised it themselves.
And then in the other, even far more compelling reason was that, when we decided to run for Senate in 2018, it was because in large part we feared the judgment of our kids. At some point they're going to look back on us and know what we faced and will judge us based on what we did or what we failed to do.
Nothing about that has changed, and in fact it is only become more urgent. And so really for those kids, this is our moment of truth. And we want to make sure, we want to know that we've done everything that we can and for us it is serving in this way.
AXELROD: I should note you bicycled over here.
AXELROD: You like to drive yourself on the road.
AXELROD: Your family has its freedom right now. This is a big sacrifice. Is it worth it?
O'ROURKE: Absolutely. Far more important than our privacy is the future of this country and the ability for Ulysses and Molly and Henry to grow up in an America that has met these challenges and has overcome them, an America that has been able to maintain and strengthen its democracy. And that's the test that we're under right now.
And so, not only do I know that they'll feel that way down the road, and I really get the sense from some of the questions they asked us as we were making this decision. They're there. They get it. And so that gives me cause for optimism and makes me grateful for the chance to run.
AXELROD: Well, Beto O'Rourke, so good to be with you. Good luck to your family and good luck to you out on the road.
O'ROURKE: Thank you. Thanks for having me on.
O'ROURKE: I really appreciate it. Yes.
AXELROD: To hear more of the conversations go to itunes.com/axefiles.