Texas politician and author Beto O’Rourke joins The Stacks to talk about his book We’ve Got to Try: How the Fight for Voting Rights Makes Everything Else Possible. We learn why Beto thinks voting rights is the most important battle we’re currently fighting, what he says to people who don’t feel represented or served by politicians, and whether he plans to run for office again.
The Stacks Book Club selection for November is Severance by Ling Ma. We will discuss the book on November 29th with Mitchell S. Jackson.
*Due to the nature of podcast advertising, these timestamps are not 100% accurate and will vary.
Traci Thomas 0:09
Welcome to The Stacks, a podcast about books and the people who read them. I’m your host Traci Thomas and today we are honored to welcome Beto O’Rourke to the show. He’s a Democrat from Texas who served as a US representative for its 16th congressional district from 2013 to 2019. He also famously ran for president, Governor and Senate in the great state of Texas. And did you know he’s also an author, his latest book is now out in paperback and it’s called, We’ve Got to Try: How the Fight for Voting Rights Makes Everything Else Possible. It’s a look at the history of voting and civil rights and how that history connects to the fights we’re facing today. From gun control to immigration to education, and more. Today I ask him about all sorts of issues ranging from political candidates and how they don’t reflect to the electorate to how he came up with the idea for his book and why he wanted to come on this very podcast. Don’t forget our November book club selection is the novel Severance by Ling Ma. And we will discuss that book on Wednesday, November 29th with Mitchell S. Jackson. Everything we talked about on each episode of the stacks can be found in the link in the show notes. Okay, now it is time for my conversation with Beto O’Rourke.
All right, everyone, I am so thrilled today I am joined by Beto O’Rourke, you all probably know him, he is a politician. And he’s also written a book that just came out in paperback, it’s called We’ve Got to Try: how the fight for voting rights makes everything else possible Beto, welcome to the stacks.
Beto O’Rourke 2:45
Thank you so much for having me on. I’m really excited to talk with you.
Traci Thomas 2:49
I’m excited to talk with you. We’ll start here in about 30 seconds or so. Will you tell folks about this book.
Beto O’Rourke 2:55
We’re in the fight of our lives, when it comes to the right to vote. We’re in the fight of our lives when it comes to gun violence when it comes to climate change when it comes to being able to see a doctor. And it’s so important that we stay in this fight that we continue to try. Because not only have we fought these battles before, but we’ve actually won them against much longer odds. And these are the stories that I tell throughout the book that have inspired me, and I hope inspire the people who read it.
Traci Thomas 3:29
What’s really great about this book is that you framed voting rights through the history of the struggle for voting rights. I mean, we’re talking about cases in Texas, where people have been, you know, run out of town by the racist sheriff in the 1860s. Or people who, you know, this, this man Dixon, who was like 40 years before he was able to get the right to vote went to the Supreme Court twice, you know, when the Democratic Party at the time, like, gave them the full run around, they were like, Okay, well, we’ll make it so that only white people can vote in the primary. And since we’re a private organization, now you can’t, you know, and back and forth, and back and forth. And so I’m wondering for you why it was important to tell the story or like to, because because in addition to that, you’ve also sort of snuck in this sort of like policy paper of your thinking about America and what’s possible when it comes to education and voting rights and, and gun violence and all of that stuff. So I’m wondering, like, why you saw those two things, the historical context, and then also like your view of America, and specific, more specifically, Texas, I guess, why you wanted to put those things together in that way.
Beto O’Rourke 4:39
I really wrote this book to try to understand why we’re experiencing the single greatest attack on American democracy since the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. How that came to be why it’s so concentrated in Texas, which is the state If it makes it harder than any other to vote, or even just to register to vote to, to get on to the rolls, and in doing the research for the book and being aided by Maggie Walsh, who helped me do some of the research on this book, I discovered that this is absolutely not new. This is very much who we are as a country, and certainly the history of the state of Texas. And literally 100 years ago, the state legislature in 1923 outlawed voting by black people in the state of Texas and they didn’t do it, euphemistically, it wasn’t, you’ve got to count the number of jellybeans in this jar before we like, recite the state constitution or pass a literacy test. Literally in black and white. It said, if you’re black, you cannot vote. And I learned this story about this black physician Dr. Lawrence Nixon, who lived in El Paso, at the turn of the century, founds the first chapter of the NAACP in the state of Texas right here in El Paso never misses an election, the most civically engaged human being in the city at the time, who wakes up one day and learns that he can no longer participate in this democracy, though he is a man though he is a US citizen. And what got me was that he nonetheless paid his poll tax. And next year 1924, stood in line to vote gets to the front of the line presents that poll tax receipt and the election judge and the poll worker who known by name and by sight, because this guy’s never missed an election say, hey, Nixon, you know, we can’t let you vote. And he replies, I know, you can’t. But I’ve got to try. And this fight that he begins that lasts more than 20 years and resolves in the 1944 Supreme Court decision, Smith versus All right, and then ultimately, in the 65 Voting Rights Act. I mean, that is a multi decade really multi generational struggle. And I think that when I see and understand that context, then I’m not thinking about the next election cycle here in Texas, or just what we can do this year, I’m thinking about the fight that this is going to take over many years, perhaps many decades. And we can’t succumb to the temptation to despair or to give up or to give in or to accept this as the status quo. Because Nixon sure as hell didn’t do that. Nor did John Lewis are countless other civil and voting rights activists, many of whom paid for our democracy with their lives, for them to do that. And for us to be the heirs to their sacrifice, and not do our part will forever condemn us in history. So so this was, for me, not only an opportunity to learn this history and understand why this is happening right now, and why specifically in Texas, which by the way, has more potential black voters than any other states, so no accident that it’s happening here. But but it also grounds us in what the solutions are the example of how to fight and win, this gives us some faith in the future.
Traci Thomas 8:05
Do you feel like in the research that you’ve done and like learning about this history, that it’s changed your understanding of what’s happening now? Like, is there something different than what we’re experiencing that what happened 40 160 Whatever years ago?
Beto O’Rourke 8:20
You know what, what really got me is I was one of these really naive people for most of my life, who just thought that we were making progress that we were on this clear path. I mean, sometimes we take a step back, sometimes it wasn’t as quick as I wanted it to be. But, you know, victory after victory. We’re constantly continuously getting better and like, millions of other Americans and perhaps millions of other white Americans are really misunderstood and misread kings quote about the arc of the moral universe, you know, it’ll look it’s just gonna bend towards justice. Just hang on, folks. And I didn’t realize that, that it really took people like Lawrence Nixon, like John Lewis, like Fannie Lou Hamer, or Septima, Clark, or you know, countless others, who often labored in obscurity, often, again, bled for this bending that took place. And you know what, no victory is ever final that 65 Voting Rights Act that we all celebrate justifiably? Well, it was essentially overturned or gutted in 2013 and Shelby versus holder, 1973. Texas Women, for the nation, when protection for the right to make their own decisions about their own body, their own future, in Roe versus Wade, guess what? That can be overturned 49 years later, and it was by this current radical extremist Supreme Court. So Tracy for me a big lesson and doing the research and writing this book and really just opened my eyes to the whole of American history to what’s happening in our country right now is no victory is ever final. And this fight will never be Oh, Ever, and you can take that and be depressed by it and say, You mean, we’re gonna have to do this forever, or you can be energized by it and just realize with eyes wide open, hey, this is the way the world works. The other side sure is how it gets this because 1973, for example, they never gave up, I’m trying to overturn protection for that, right. And eventually, they want, we can never give up on restoring protection for that, right? Going forward, just as one of many examples of things that we have to work on. And then voting, most important of all makes all of this possible. I’m confident that if more people had the right to vote in America, who were eligible, and should be participating in our elections, we wouldn’t have the outcomes that we have right now. Whether it’s the level of gun violence, the overturning of Roe vs. Wade, the lack of access to health care, income and wealth inequality, I mean, you name it, we can make these things better. But we need that democracy to work. And the only way to get there is to be in this fight, and to stay in it until we win.
Traci Thomas 11:03
Okay, I wasn’t going to ask you this this early. But I have we have to talk about this. But one of the things that you say in the book, and that I can hear from you talking today, and I don’t necessarily disagree, but I do have some pushback is that voting is the number one most important thing, right? That through voting, all other things are possible. And I am a black woman in America, I am in community with many black organizers, and organizers of different sexualities, genders abilities, all of these things, and what I hear from people who I’m in community with who are voters, right, this is not people who are not voters, but this is people who are voters, is that voting is just one tool in the toolbox. And as of recently, and we’re recording this at the end of October, and there’s a lot going on in Israel and Palestine. I’m hearing a lot of people talking about, you know, I’m so disappointed in Joe Biden, I’m sick and tired of this. I have been in marginalized community my whole life, right. And I just feel like the people we’re voting for are not doing the will of their constituents. So what do you say to that? Because I am I honestly as a person, you know, straight out of college, I went I worked for Obama. I’ve done door knocked all over the country like I am a I was raised by my aunt is in politics was in politics for years. I come to politics, very eager to get more people to vote like GOTV weekend leading up to election is one of my favorite times. I’m like bringing my nieces like, I’m not coming to this cynically, but I am feeling very, very, very challenged in trying to tell people you need to vote when I look around. And I see, you know, the president of this country, bear hugging Bibi Netanyahu, regardless of how you feel about Israel in Palestine, and this time, like, that doesn’t seem appropriate to me, it doesn’t seem appropriate. And, you know, student loan debt and all these things that we’ve been promised for years. And this isn’t just Joe Biden, like, you know, I’m a Democrat, so I’ll I won’t shit on Trump because he’s easy to shoot on. But like Obama, you know, with immigration, like, there’s just so many ways that people have been let down. And when I read that in your book of like, this is the number one thing and then I think of the people like Miriam Kaba, who’s a, you know, a prison abolitionist organizer, who is getting books and computers and, and mental health care and all of this stuff to people. And she’s not a politician. And like, isn’t that a road to making these things better people who are actually doing that work? And I know that’s a lot, but you have to answer to it because your whole thing is voting. So here you go, have fun.
Beto O’Rourke 13:39
One of my favorite stories is one that I read from Andrew Young, who visited Lyndon Baines Johnson, after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. With Dr. King, the three of them are meeting in the Oval Office and young and King congratulate the President on this historic achievement and using all of the political capital that he had, as a new president on moving forward with one of the greatest achievements in American history. And they then quickly say, But, Mr. President, you’re not done. We don’t have the right to vote. And they talked about what it’s like in Texas and Mississippi and Louisiana, and how you have disenfranchised Americans who aren’t able to fully participate. And the President says to them, you know, you’re right. I agree with you. But look at what we just did, and I have nothing left to give nope, no more political capital. Gentlemen, I just don’t have the power to get this done. And as Ambassador Young tells the story, he turns to King as they’re leaving and says, Well, what are we going to do? And Dr. King responds, we’re going to get this guy some power. And over the coming days, weeks and months, that’s exactly what people all across the country. did to the point that you’re making, and those that you’re listening to refer these these same concerns, complaints and suggestions that it’s not just voting. And in fact, the greatest example of this, I think of all time is a 24 year old John Lewis, in March of 1965, not too long after that Oval Office meeting, leading a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, almost losing his life, in in the process, and so shocking the conscience of the country, that he forces the president within eight days, which is just to me crazy to think of that timeline within eight days, Johnson has convened a joint session of Congress, every member of the House, every member of the Senate. And what he says, and we talked about this in the book, it just gives me chills, he says, Look, as those brave Americans in 1776, as those brave Americans at the courthouse and mathematics in 1865. So these brave Americans in 1965, are with their very lives, fighting for this democracy. So that can we can realize the ideals and the foundational promises of this country. It is absolutely beautiful, and so compelling, and only possible because of John Lewis. And you know what, John Lewis did not do that, at the ballot box. John Lewis did that by putting his life on the line, and speaking to this country, in a profoundly powerful way. So I agree with with everything that you said, and everything that I’m hearing from people about, it can’t simply be the vote as important as the vote is. But we must remember that John Lewis put his life on the line to win that vote, and not to win the vote for himself, and those who look like him only, but for all of us for every generation. And the reason that story for me is so important right now is in 2013, that Wright was essentially gutted for many people in the states of the former Confederacy, especially, and I had the great fortune of serving in Congress with John Lewis, which is the honor of my lifetime. And that guy still was fighting the fight. I mean, he got the lesson that I learned belatedly in life, that man, this thing is never over. It wasn’t over for me in 1965, it isn’t over for me in 2030, it will never be over until I stop drawing a breath. So I really think Tracy it is all of these things. And we’re foolish to think that simply voting is sufficient. Being engaged at every level, there are examples and stories of this. In the book that I wrote, being in a democracy is a full on engagement, we’re never on the sidelines, because they just don’t exist. And it is absolutely insufficient to only vote, though voting is critically important.
Traci Thomas 17:54
So where I struggle with voting, which again, I’m a lifelong voter, never missed an election, love to vote one of the highlights of my year. But I just feel like the candidates suck. Like, especially at the national level, you know, the local level, it’s a little different. It’s a little trickier to know who people are sometimes in the beginning, like, it’s, you know, I’ve been to LA, we’ve recently had some issues with our city council, some racism popped off last year. Gotta love it. But at the national level, we’re having a really a big crisis, I think of not only who is running the government, but also who is next in line for there’s no pathway, there’s not a lot of what we do call that. The not the runway, anyways, the stable, there’s no nobody lined up in the stable, right. And they think that that’s really hard to because it’s hard to feel enthused about voting, it feels like every choice is the lesser of two evils right now. And I think maybe some of that for me is I’m a millennial, my, like, one of my, my first election was George Bush, 2004, George Bush, Kerry, but my second presidential election was Obama. And so there was this person that felt really exciting and fresh. And I think for people who are of my age of my millennials, sort of that that age, it feels like it’s felt shitty voting his belt, should he especially on a presidential level, and, you know, we have the Senate race coming up in California and it does, like just nothing, nothing feels exciting and great. And I feel like a lot of the candidates don’t match what I think about a lot of things. So like, what do you say to folks like me who feel like okay, sure, I’m gonna vote but I feel shitty about it. Like I don’t feel excited in 2024. I will vote for Joe Biden because I feel like that’s the responsible thing to do. But if I’m being honest, I I don’t want to vote for him. If there was another option, I’m probably Vote for them. You know, it’s like what do you say to that sort of stuff.
Beto O’Rourke 20:04
I remember also feeling so excited about Senator Brock Obama and wearing my shoes out here in El Paso knocking on doors. Texas at the time had this caucus and primary system. And I led the Obama side of the caucus in my neighborhood here in Sunset heights knocked on doors for the primaries hosted campaign volunteers who’d come from out of state, just overwhelmed, never thought in my life, I would feel this way about another human being, you know, just so excited and believed in him so deeply. And by the way, I still do believe in him so deeply, but bound to be disappointed. And I was, and on one of the issues that we know, live and understand better than any other part of the country, immigration and the US Mexico border. You know, he just didn’t get it. And I don’t blame him for that he didn’t grow up here. He doesn’t know this. You know, I don’t know that he had the best advice from those around him. And I think he pursued a strategy where he thought, you know, if I deport a lot of people, and I show how tough I can be on the border, that will open up some ground in the middle to allow me to move forward on comprehensive immigration reform his goals were noble, the means that he pursued just turned out not to work and probably wouldn’t be something that we on the border, and those of us who really care about this issue would have advised him to do. And there are a number of other things that probably disappointed me about him. But overall, the greatest president in my lifetime, at least, and I don’t know that we’ll have someone like that, again, for President Biden. I think he has an opportunity right now, because what you just described in terms of how you feel about him in this coming election, I think is shared by a lot of people and a lot of Democrats. And I think that’s a real threat, not only to his reelection, but to the very possibility that Donald Trump will serve a second term. And I think he has this opportunity right now to excite and engage people in a way that he hasn’t so far. And so just on this subject of immigration, as you know, recently, the President has moved forward on 20 miles of new wall construction after promising as a candidate that he would never do that. And he has an explanation that has much truth in it in 2018. And appropriations was passed, it was signed into law it it mandates that the President do something to build these barriers, but his administration has chosen to waive 26 laws that protect the environment, ecosystems, and the people and the cultures of the Rio Grande Valley, where this wall is going to go up. Not only do I believe he should not do that. I think he could take bold action inspiring action to say, look, we’re seeing an absolutely unprecedented crisis in migration from countries where people literally cannot stay because if they stay, they and or their children will certainly die right now we’re meeting them with razor wire and walls and very recently, family separation and children in cages and really horrific stuff that in part led to domestic terrorism in El Paso where 23 people were slaughtered in a Walmart, because the gunman said they were part of the Hispanic invasion of Texas when we traffic in these tropes. And even when we build walls, and make people feel like we’re being invaded by an army of people with brown skin who speak a different language than the majority in this country, guess what? Really terrible shit happens. So not only stop that, but if the president boldly at some great political risks, and you know what, as a country, we’re going to do the right thing. We’re gonna get back in line with the best traditions of America, we’re gonna create a safe, orderly legal system for people to come here to just contribute to the greatness of America. You know, we’ll Republicans and Trump people hate him even more, absolutely. But he was never going to win them to begin with. But could he energize and excite Democrats, especially young activists, who frankly have been disappointed by his record on the border and immigration, and give them a reason to vote for him not just a reason to vote against Donald Trump. I really think that is probably one of the best things that he could do. And one of the best things that we can push him to do, given the hand that we’ve been dealt, because I agree with you about the political landscape in America, frankly, it is depressing, it is dominated by octogenarians. And there are very few paths that seem obvious for people of different generations and frankly, of different backgrounds. So the government looks like this country, which we’ve been missing out on.
Traci Thomas 24:51
Right, like politics are just so extremely, not diverse in any way. Whether that’s racially whether that’s like ability Why’s the fact that that there are so few representatives of color queer representatives that we’re still celebrating these firsts? Like the first out Native American one, you know, it’s like this is it’s 2023. This is America, allegedly. That’s what makes us great. And I think that’s also what’s really hard about getting energized around politics is like, it feels less diverse now than it was 10 years ago. I don’t know if that’s true. I don’t know if that’s just as like how it feels. Because the people in charge are all so old and so white, but it does feel like exceedingly more awful. And maybe I’m just more data and I don’t know, it’s not a question. It’s just a frustration, which I think is for me, the center of politics right now. It just feels like a really big frustration point. It doesn’t feel like a true place to invoke change, like politics doesn’t feel like that anymore. And, you know, I think it’s a combination of a lot of things. But it’s definitely disheartening. And, you know, reading your book, you talk about term limits in the book, and I’m wondering, like, what do you what, what is your vision of that? What should they be? How should they work?
Beto O’Rourke 26:13
How I remember, when we were running for Congress in 2012, and it was long shot outsider, heavily, outspent low chance that we were going to win. It was talking with my wife, Amy, and she kind of impose term limits on any prospective congressional job, she just, and her reasoning made a ton of sense, and still does to me, she’s just like, I don’t want you to be an asshole. Everybody who stays up there, for a long time thinks they are more important than anyone else. They’re the only one who can do the job. You know, whoa, is the world should I not be here to run this congressional district, and they become so self important and so impossible to be around? And, you know, we love each other. And she says, I just don’t want you to change. And so let’s just make a deal that should you by some miracle, when you’re not going to stay there forever. And how about, we don’t stay more than four terms that made sense to me, by some miracle, we won. And I introduced term limit legislation with a colleague of mine, in part to honor this commitment that I’ve made with Amy, but also because when I looked at that institution, the 434 other members, they’re white, they’re men, and they’re older, and they don’t look like America. And I think it’s really important that whoever serves you do your best. And then you get out of the way, so that someone else who likely is going to, you know, be younger, who’s going to have a different perspective, from where they come up from and from their community can take the role, and perhaps, and hopefully, and almost certainly do a better job. And I’ll tell you, in my own case, I served three terms before I left to take on Ted Cruz in 2018. The woman who replaced me is one of the most amazing members of Congress today. Her name is Veronica Escobar. She is the first Latina if you can believe it. She’s the first Latina to represent a congressional district in the state of Texas, a state where 43% of the population is Latino right now, and she’s doing a fantastic job. So I look at her I look at Jasmine Crockett, a young African American woman who’s representing North Texas, in Congress right now, I look at Maxwell frost. And in Florida, there are reasons to be hopeful. But also there are reasons those three that I just mentioned, for those who are in positions of power right now and have been there for 20 plus years, to just get out of the way, and let somebody else win that seat come up, and help guide this country to a better place. So I do hold out hope, because I see it right now and those who are taking these positions of public trust. But I think you’re you’re absolutely right, to describe what we have right now is being uninspiring. And when we asked, Hey, why aren’t young people voting? Why aren’t more people turning out? There are a lot of reasons, including voter suppression and voter intimidation, but some of it is candidate quality and the power that incumbents have, and we need to see more more of those incumbents either retire or be replaced.
Traci Thomas 29:25
Okay, this is sort of an indelicate question, but I have to ask you, you talked about these three people, you know, three of them. So I’m assuming many I know some local politicians that I think are really great and inspiring too. And the road for them to any sort of like larger national, whether it’s the Senate or the presidency or or appointments and whatever administration, it seems nearly impossible. And the indelicate part of this question is that you famously lost some election, some big ones. And so it’s two prong one is what do you see as the The road to getting exciting candidates have enough money in support to mount a, you know, a real campaign on a national or state level, like a large state level. And then also and this is more personal, I just I would love to know what motivates you as a politician, because I’m the kind of person that if I lost something one time, I’d never do it again. I famously quit playing soccer because I got hit in the face with the ball. And I was like, No, I want to be an actress. I need my face. You know, so I have a weak disposition for like losing, especially publicly, but you keep doing it. And you keep getting out there. And you keep putting yourself out there, which I think is really admirable. So So part one is like about how we can we can push other candidates forward. But Part Two is much more personal about like how you deal with with losing and publicly? Yeah,
Beto O’Rourke 30:49
I mean, look, the fights that we’re talking about, whether it’s the right to vote, or this fight against gun violence in a state that leads the nation in school shootings, where it’s been, you know, a year and a half since the murder of 21 people in Uvalde, Texas, 19 of them, just kids whose bodies were so badly damaged, that their parents could only identify them by the shoes that they were wearing. And nothing has changed. No laws have been passed, have safeguards against this happening again. So so we know it’s just a matter of time before we see this happen in another school to other kids in another part of Texas. It can’t be about any one person. And it can’t be about, you know, how difficult or how I might feel about a given outcome in an election. It really comes down to you know, Beto, what can you do that’s going to be most effective, most helpful, most supportive, most likely to change conditions so that bad stuff stops happening, and good stuff can begin. And so you asked me what motivates me. It’s this fight that so many of us are in across this country for justice and against the injustice that we see everywhere around us. And it Look, I’ve won some elections to city council to United States Congress, I’ve lost some elections for US Senate and for for governor. But to go back to Lawrence Nixon, in this 20 plus year battle that he fought for the right to vote. You know, he won two different signal Supreme Court victories. And as you pointed out, in the opening, the Democratic Party and the powers that were in the state of Texas at the time, were able to work around those victories and continue to keep him and other black Americans from participating in our democracy, how tempting must it have been for him to just give in or give up and say, you know, what, I’ve tried, I’ve done my part, you know, I fought ultimately, I lost these battles, and I’m just gonna go home, there was a radio station in El Paso, and this one gets me they called him every election day. And they put them on air and they say, Dr. Nixon, are you going to go vote today? And of course, he he’d say, Yes, I’m gonna go try to vote today. And every time he voted, of course, they rejected him and sent him back. How fucking humiliating was that Brendan? was a radio station making fun of him. Was this something that entertain their listeners? Or are they doing this because they were truly inspired by this, this person who was fighting against the odds for a right that so many others took for granted? So, you know, yeah. Does losing suck? Absolutely. You know, it? Of course it does. But I don’t see this in terms of a given election cycle or campaign or a personal candidacy. It is, what can I do to be helpful, and if it’s leading the top of the ticket in a given year, to bring resources into the state that yes, will help our campaign but certainly do wonders for down ballot candidates in 2018. When I ran against Ted Cruz, 15 African American women won judicial elections in Harris County, which is the largest county in Texas, it’s home to Houston, it literally changed the face of criminal justice in the most diverse city. In the United States of America. There were state legislative and state appeals court victories up and down the ballot. So in that regard, though, we may have lost at the top of the ticket, we want really important elections, up and down the ballot now through a group called powered by people. I’m focused on voter registration, helping to get people on the rolls in a state that makes it purposely very hard for people to be registered. So I’m just I’m in for life, to do whatever I can to help in whatever way is is going to do the most good for the greatest number.
Traci Thomas 34:49
And will you run again?
Beto O’Rourke 34:52
I don’t know. And I don’t ever want to take anything off the table because I’ll I’ll do anything really. I want to I want to commit my life to this My heroes are those who came from before who who laid down the example. And whose heirs all of us are. And what we do with this inheritance I think defines us forever and will determine what comes of this country. And I just want us to be worthy of what we had been bequeathed. And and it was so hard fought so hard one cost so many lives. I just want us to be aware of that. And again, a big part of writing this book was learning this asking the questions and and trying to answer them through the research and the writing. And I hope inspiring people who may not have ever heard of Dr. Lawrence Nixon from El Paso, Texas, or some of these other heroes that have really inspired me, both long gone, and who are among us right now.
Traci Thomas 35:52
I want to ask you about writing. You wrote this book. You didn’t have a ghostwriter?
Beto O’Rourke 36:04
I didn’t have a ghostwriter. Yeah, I wrote it.
Traci Thomas 36:06
You’re good writer. I was surprised. I was like, was pretty good. That’s pretty good. You never know. You know what politicians like? It’s not always the writing isn’t always important. Sometimes it’s like, you know, the message is more important. Have you always been a writer? Have you always been interested in writing? I know, you wrote another book in maybe 2011. About drugs in the border with a fellow representative. That was your first book. But before that, were you thinking like, I could be a writer if I don’t do this politics thing?
Beto O’Rourke 36:36
Yeah, Susie Byrd. And I wrote this book, and in 2010 2011, called Dealing death and drugs, which tried to give our perspective on the US Mexico border on the war on drugs that had made our sister cities who that pot is the deadliest city on the planet. And if we called for the end of the prohibition on marijuana, that seems really quaint right now, you know, 13 plus years ago, that was a really contentious issue in in Texas, and really, in much of the country. But yes, you know, I was an English major in college. And I remember, I went to Columbia, and I had student loans. My dad and mom had taken out loans for me to go there. And I came home my sophomore year, and I said, hey, guess what, I’m going to major in an English literature. And my dad doesn’t remember the look on his face. So disappointed in me, he said, so So we’re taking out all this debt, you’re taking out all this debt, you’re working these jobs, to support your education, to read books, and to tell stories and to talk about it. Like, why not pursue engineering or chemistry or become a doctor or you know, but I’ll tell you being able to listen to and understand where people are coming from, to be able to construct an argument to synthesize different experiences that I and others have had, and try to communicate them to people in a way that will advance what I hope is our progress towards larger shared goals. I think that education, the time that I’ve spent writing really primarily for myself, you know, just kind of writing my thoughts and reflections, being on the campaign trail, getting to the hotel at night and kind of trying to put into words, what I’m feeling and what I’ve just experienced, I think have helped me and thank you for the compliment. I, you know, I want to be a good writer. And I really thought that was going to be my path. Coming out of out of college, I worked some entry level publishing jobs. I wrote a lot and just never was able to do something that was satisfying, or can pay the bills, enough for me to continue in it and just ended up taking a different path in life, but love to read love to write. And just love the power of words. And I really, I think also, in researching this book, understand the power of them that that Walmart massacre that I referred to earlier that killed so many of my fellow El pasoans in 2019. You know, so many wanted to dismiss that as the crime of a madman or someone who was crazy. But when you follow the words that preceded this attack, when you have Trump describing people from Mexico as rapists or immigrants as animals, or dehumanizing them literally by treating them as animals in cages, and at this rally in Florida in the months before the El Paso shooting at the Walmart, you know, he says, What are we going to do about this invasion and someone in the crowd yells out, shoot them, and Trump smiles and the crowd laughs and people are applauding, and this white supremacist who drive 600 miles to El Paso with a weapon of war, slaughters these people and tells police afterwards I came to kill Mexicans and post this manifesto about repelling the invasion Hispanics If you look at that chain of events, and you realize just how powerful rhetoric and words are in influencing real actions that have real consequences and take real lives around us, and those who don’t tell their own stories, or the stories of their communities will have others tell them for us. And so Donald Trump was describing El Paso as this lawless, dangerous place. That was the focal point of an invasion. I grew up I live here, I’m raising my kids here. It is one of the safest places on the planet, not in spite of but because we are a city of immigrants. And so we’ve got to be telling that story and much of this book centers on El Paso, and the stories that I want people to know about my hometown.
Traci Thomas 40:43
Yeah, I mean, I guess I had this was a question I was gonna ask you much earlier, and we sort of got off the topic of Texas. But do you feel like Texas is a microcosm of the country or more of like a cautionary tale are like an outlier of where perhaps we could be heading if we don’t get our shit together?
Beto O’Rourke 41:00
This is such a great question. I think the the book really rests on this question. The election outrages that you referred to in the 1880s, after the end of Reconstruction, that first black man elected sheriff in the United States of America is elected to that position in Fort Bend County, in in Texas, right outside of Houston, Texas, in that county, because African Americans have become so politically successful, white nationalists begin targeting them with assassinations, the state government post reconstruction, literally objects, black office holders from these positions of public trust. It’s so outrageous the country that Congress takes up a voting rights bill in 1890. And the Republicans who at the time were the Voting Rights Party, pass it in the house, they have a majority in the Senate, they have a Republican in the White House who ran on restoring voting rights to African Americans. But it dies on the horns of a filibuster. That same challenge came to us in 1965. And we passed it and guess who was president United States, the first Texan to ever hold that office. And we face that challenge again, after the gutting of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby versus holder. When the Democrats now the Voting Rights Party of this country had the house, they had the Senate, they had a president and Joseph Biden who ran explicitly on the promise of restoring voting rights to African Americans who’d had them deprived in states like Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas. And despite all of that power, in 2021, and 2022, on the horns of a filibuster, we allowed the Voting Rights Act of our age named after John Lewis, who literally almost gave his life for the right to vote. We let it die. And so the question for us now is are we at 90? Or are we 1965? It’s still an open question because it’s unresolved. And yes, Texas, is at the center of it Texas with 40 Electoral College votes will decide who the next President and every future President of the United States is Texas with more black voters than any other state in the union and more black voters who are under greater attack through official voter suppression and voter intimidation. This is not just a microcosm. I really believe this is the country and the future of America and it is why I believe everyone, even those who live outside of Texas should deeply care about what happens here because it will absolutely influence the outcome for all of us wherever we live.
Traci Thomas 43:29
This is a very Texas specific question. It’s also a baseball question we’re talking today. It is game seven of rangers first Astros. This is not going to air till November. So by the time this airs, someone will have won the World Series. But Beto, who do you have tonight? Rangers or Astros?
Beto O’Rourke 43:49
I have the Astros okay?
Traci Thomas 43:52
I too have the Astros my my godfather is dusty Baker. So I always have the Astros as long as he’s there. But I went to a world or to a game last year in the playoffs, and I saw Ted Cruz there and I booed him I just want you to know sitting in my section he was sitting in my same row the next section over and I was like boom it wasn’t as popular because I was it you know, I forgot I wasn’t in LA but it was like involuntary.
Beto O’Rourke 44:20
No, I bet you were pretty popular. He is not a revered figure in in Houston and houston and harris county. He gets absolutely slammed electorally where he makes it up is in is in other parts of the state and it’s funny. There are Ted Cruz memes that flash up in my twitter and instagram feed every time the Astros lose they show him you know sitting behind him say Hey, this is why this is why the Astros just last
Traci Thomas 44:48
We accidentally one the day that I was there in him but I think it’s probably because of me and it was you definitely do. I want to know what sort of books you were reading while you were working on this one. But what sort of stuff were you reading and using in your research and or just like inspiring you writing wise or whatever.
Beto O’Rourke 45:07
There’s an author who for a while taught here in El Paso at the University of Texas at El Paso and later went on to Prairie View a&m, Will Guzman and he wrote the definitive biography of Lawrence Nixon, who is a big part of this book. He’s not he’s not the only character that the only story that I tell but is absolutely central. And, you know, prior to Guzman’s biography, no one had really taken a comprehensive look at Nixon’s life and the outsized impact that this man had on our country. I mean, he, he literally, what what’s really interesting and Guzman gets into this is you’ve got this victory in 1944. Finally, for Nixon, it’s the Smith versus All right, Supreme Court decision. Smith was Lonnie Smith, another African American physician from Houston, Texas, inspired by by Dr. Lawrence Nixon. But in 1954. There’s a young woman Thelma White, who graduates from the all black Douglas High School in El Paso, the only high school she could go to as valedictorian tries to enroll at Texas Western College, no password denied based on race, like Nixon because she was inspired by him. She takes her case to the district court, not only does she win admission, she wins desegregation for higher education in the entire state of Texas, you follow that up 1962. The first desegregation ordinance for places of public accommodation in the south is passed right here in El Paso that is inspired by Lawrence Nixon and in 1966. To get back to sports. You have the Texas Western miners win the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship with the first all black starting five in NCAA history, the biggest Cinderella story for my money. And all that happened because of Nixon. And Guzman is able to connect these things and at least connected them in my mind. And he’s such an inspiring writer and historian. So he’s somebody that I really respect and admire. And then all these other resources, just reading through, you know, Texas, legislature history. And these things that I didn’t understand and didn’t even know about, like, one of the greatest mass hangings in American history takes place in Gainesville, Texas, in the Civil War, is predominantly agricultural, of course, the electorate is all white in North Texas, they voted against seceding from the union and joining the Confederacy at the beginning, beginning of the Civil War. And for that, a great number of white men believed to be union sympathizers, are hung in one of the greatest mass hangings in American history didn’t know their story. There’s, there’s really very few resources on that. But thank God for the authors, historians, and researchers have been able to surface that stuff. So people like me, can hopefully get it to a wider audience. So those those texts, those sources, those authors are my heroes. And I tried to in our bibliography, and in our notes section, make sure that people can follow those tracks and and read those authors if they’re interested.
Traci Thomas 48:33
Is there anything that’s not in the book that you wish? What could be or was, huh?
Beto O’Rourke 48:39
You know, so much of the book, especially at the end centers on that, that Walmart massacre that we’ve talked about a couple of times over the course of this conversation. And we’ve talked about how nothing that’s happening is, is really new, whether it’s the voter suppression, the voter intimidation, of course, there’s a long history of that after Reconstruction in this country, the creation of a multiracial democracy, that is then overturned through white supremacy and white nationalism. It happened after reconstruction. It happened in 2013, after the the Voting Rights Act, that massacre in El Paso in 2019. Was, was also in some ways an echo of an earlier time in the teens in Texas in 18 teens, there was, again mass hysteria around brown skinned immigrants coming to this country, Mexicans in particular, so much so that all of the men and all of the older boys in a US border town called Porvenir were rounded up and executed absolutely slaughtered by white ranchers by the precursor to the to the border patrol, and even by members of the United States military. And they did so to combat what they described as the threat of invasion of people who didn’t look like or speak like or act like the majority in the United States of America. And so I think one of the points that I wish I could drive home even harder is that, you know, these fights are just, they’ll never be over and progress. And I know, you know, this, and many people have lived it in their lives. And for some of us, it’s it’s something we have to learn. And we have to be willful about learning this, it progresses, it’s not linear, it’s not inevitable. And it’s never guaranteed and No, no victory is ever going to be final, we have to stay in this fight for the life that that we that we leave for as long as we’re willing to support the ideals of this country. And if we don’t, we get the massacres, the gutting of the Voting Rights Acts, the level of voter suppression, and the outcomes that would otherwise be inexplicable, the $7.25 cent an hour minimum wage in Texas, the epicenter of maternal mortality three times as deadly for black women. Nobody wants that. But everybody gets it, if not everyone who’s eligible to cast a ballot. And that’s why I believe the right to vote makes everything else possible, even though as you correctly pointed out earlier, it’s not the only thing that we have to do in this democracy. But it’s central to everything else.
Traci Thomas 51:28
Okay, I told you at the beginning, I was going to ask you sort of a crazy question, but we have to talk about this. How you came to be on this podcast today, because I got an email from you from your Gmail account. And it was like, Hi, this is beta O’Rourke, I would love to come on your podcast, I wrote a book. Thanks. And I immediately forwarded that email to your publisher, we have one of the publicists on your team because I, you know, looked it up. And I was like, Hey, I just want you to know, I got this weird, like spam email from someone pretending to be Beto. And I just wanted you guys to know, because it’s like a Gmail and I don’t know, it just doesn’t feel right to me. But if he’s available, I’d love to have him. And they were like, No, it’s really him. He emailed you, he wants to go on the show. So first of all, how did you hear about this show? And second of all, do you just make a habit of cold emailing people, you’re so fancy, and I’m so regular?
Beto O’Rourke 52:27
No, that distinction is not true at all. In fact, so So first of all, I’m a fan. And part of what draws me to you beyond the authors that you’ve interviewed, is just the kind of conversation that you have with him, like I just last week listened to your interview with Michael, Harriet, and the F bombs, that you’re dropping your ability to get down to what’s really at stake, ask uncomfortable questions of people, and I don’t ever feel like they’re hostile. But I think they need to be asked some of them that you asked me over the course of this conversation about losing elections and staying involved in politics, because it begs the question Oh, like that. So should you really be doing this? Or maybe you should go off and, and do something else? You know, I don’t think everyone would ask that question. And I think it’s important that we hold people accountable, and that we get to as raw and understanding of people’s motives and the stories that they’re trying to tell as we can. And you’ve done that, and you also make it fun, you know, following your tour, the way that you engage with audiences. I really love that. And I think sometimes, you know, you mentioned how uninspiring politics is today. And I think so much of the soul of politics has been sucked out by how corporate and predictable it has become how staged and scripted and really unfun I mean, even the fun is kind of scripted. And what I’ve really loved about traveling the state and being a candidate and holding townhall meetings and no holds barred everyone, welcome. Let’s just see, what happens is that there’s a fun in that even when there is disagreement or argument or conflict. Those things are so forbidden in American politics today where we want everything to be crafted just perfectly for that Instagram reel, where life is really kind of messy, and there’s a joy in that and I find that in you the interviews that you do and just the the way that you engage with people, whether it’s one on one or with your audiences. So I you know, this book had just come out in paperback and I said, you know, I’ll just take a chance and an email and then I didn’t hear back from you and I was kind of bummed and I thought well, you know, she’s not interested. That’s okay. And I got an email from my publisher and she described Hey, you know, Tracy, is not sure that this is for real. And I was so happy when you when you wanted to talk to So thank you for having me on.
Traci Thomas 55:01
Well, thank you. That was really nice. I literally like called my brother, I was like, You’re never gonna believe this story. I got this spam email for beta work. And then Anyway, okay, I have to ask you like two quick questions. I know we’re run out of time. One is how do you like to write? How many hours a day? Are there snacks and beverages now.
Beto O’Rourke 55:20
So I asked my publisher for some advice, and he gave me Stephen King’s book on writing. And it’s kind of like, Get your ass in the chair. And, and just write. And as you know, it can be so fucking depressing and intimidating. And you review what you’ve done. If you’ve done anything at all over those two hours, and you’re like, This is just absolute shit, nobody would read it, I can’t read it. How in the world am I going to piece this book together, and then you have days where it just flows like the Mississippi and it’s just coming out of you. And you’re you’re inspired that all the research that you’ve done is just piecing and fitting together, there are eureka moments where things that you thought were absolutely unconnected, have a through line, and you’re able to draw those those connections and connect the dots. So it really can be very painful. And then it can be, you know, when when you have a good day, there’s almost nothing that feels better, because you know, it is the product of the work that you put in the research that you’ve read through the discipline that you’ve been forced upon yourself. And then hearing back from friends and family members from Zach Wagnon was my editor on this book and Maggie Walsh, the researcher, you know, their encouragement, their help, they’re pushing their prodding, you know, it really, I don’t know how people do this, who don’t have a team with them? And, you know, that kind of support to do it. But yeah, that was the way that I that I pursued it. And you know, it ultimately ended up working. I’m just grateful for it.
Traci Thomas 57:09
But what about snacks and beverages?
Beto O’Rourke 57:13
You know, I do one cup of coffee. Because more than that, and I’m wired and I can’t sleep and I’m almost too wired to write. I try not to eat anything while I’m writing because it’ll just distract me, I’m almost got to make myself so uncomfortable in my surroundings, just a glass of water. The laptop, sometimes I’ll write by hand if I’m trying to work through an idea. And it’s just, you know, you’re just going to be behind this closed door in this office for the next two hours. And then after that’s over, you can have food you can you know, have a coke or whatever. Yeah, it’s pretty Spartan.
Traci Thomas 57:56
Sounds horrible. What’s the word you can never spell correctly on the first try? Oh my gosh. Or are you a good speller? I feel like you’re probably a good speller. You have good speller energy.
Beto O’Rourke 58:06
I’m a pretty good speller. No word comes to mind. And it doesn’t mean that I don’t do that. I just can’t think of one.
Traci Thomas 58:13
Between No snacks and can’t can spell every word correctly. We could never be friends in real life would not work for us.
Beto O’Rourke 58:19
What is your snack? So maybe you’re going to introduce me to a million snacks.
Traci Thomas 58:22
I love snacks, but my go to snack that everyone knows I call it a pescetarian it’s goldfish and Swedish fish together in a container and then you kind of like pick it both of them. Also love a pretzel thin dipped in whipped cream cheese. I recently rediscovered popcorn which I’m really into again. The little peanut butter filled pretzels I love there’s not a snack that I don’t love. So that’s a fact. Except for I can’t eat nuts I’m allergic so I can have peanuts but not tree nuts. Last question. If you could have any person oh and stringy cheese I’m back on string cheese if you could have any person dead or alive read this book who would you want it to be?
Beto O’Rourke 59:01
Lawrence Nixon for sure. He you know from from someone who I didn’t know a thing about even though I grew up in El Paso to someone now that I admire as much as I admire anyone you know, I dedicate the book to him and he’s he’s my inspiration in the work that I do. And I’d love to know from him how much of this I got right and and how much of this he’d love to add to or or improve so he’d be my guy.
Traci Thomas 59:35
That’s a great answer. I that was my guess. It was either ham or John Lewis. Those are my two guesses for you. All right, everybody. You can get the book we’ve got to try by Beto O’Rourke out in paperback now wherever you get your books, you can listen to it on audiobook I listened to a big chunk of it better reads it. It’s fantastic. Thank you so much for being here.
Beto O’Rourke 59:53
Thank you so much for having me on loves talking with you.
Traci Thomas 59:56
Thank you and thanks for cold emailing me and ever What else? We will see you in the stacks.
All right, y’all that does it for us today. Thank you so much for listening and thank you to Beto O’Rourke for joining the show. I’d also like to thank Marlena Bittner for helping to make this conversation possible. Remember, the stacks book club pick for November is severance by Ling Ma. And we will be discussing the book on Wednesday, November 29. With Mitchell s Jackson. If you love the show and you want insight access to it, head to patreon.com/the stacks and join the stacks pack. Make sure you’re subscribed to the stats wherever you listen to your podcasts and if you’re listening through Apple podcasts or Spotify, be sure to leave us a rating and a review. For more from the stacks. Follow us on social media at the stacks pod on Instagram threads and tick tock and at the stacks pod underscore on Twitter and check out our website thestackspodcast.com This episode of the stacks was edited by Christian Duenas with production assistance from Lauren Tyree. Our graphic designer is Robin MacWrite. The Stacks is created and produced by me Traci Thomas.
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