In Beto O’Rourke’s Announcement, His Wife’s Silence Stands Out

Beto O’Rourke, the charismatic Texas Democrat and former member of the House of Representatives, announced his presidential campaign in a video on Thursday. The three-minute clip quickly racked up thousands of shares, with some viewers excited by the prospect of his out-of-nowhere political rise. But others were put off by how his campaign deployed an age-old trope in American political theater — the silent, supportive wife.

Throughout the video, Mr. O’Rourke’s wife, Amy, sat quietly by her husband’s side, periodically grasping his hand as he outlined his campaign vision.

She occasionally smiled. And gazed.

Mr. O’Rourke, 46, has repeatedly cast his presidential bid as a sign of generational change, attempting to draw a contrast between himself and President Trump, who is 72.

But several authors, business leaders and scholars who focus on gender studies and discrimination said there was nothing new or progressive about the power dynamics projected in the video.

Throughout the 1980s, Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush could be found next to their presidential husbands, often silently supporting them in big moments. More recently, buoyed by Hillary Clinton’s active role in her husband’s campaigns, many elected officials have leaned on their partners as high-profile surrogates.

In the current presidential race, Jane Sanders, wife of Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, enjoyed a prominent behind-the-scenes role and gave a speech at his initial campaign rally. Connie Schultz, the newspaper columnist and wife of Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, has a fan base all her own, and was set to be one of the most popular figures on this year’s campaign trail before Mr. Brown declined to seek the Oval Office.

Mr. O’Rourke’s video struck some observers as especially out of place in a presidential race in which more Democratic women are running for president than ever before. Among several of these women, the husbands are rarely seen.

[Check out our tracker of the 2020 Democratic candidate field.]

On his first day campaigning, in a seemingly offhand comment, Mr. O’Rourke joked about his wife, saying she was raising their children, “sometimes with my help.” His comment elicited both laughter and derision.

This is not the first time Mr. O’Rourke has been accused of appearing to revel in his advantages as a white male in an increasingly diverse Democratic Party.

As he announced his campaign, complete with a profile in Vanity Fair in which he hinted he was “born to” run for president, detractors pointed out that prominent black Democrats who lost their 2018 campaigns — including Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Andrew Gillum in Florida — are not running for president.

For weeks before his presidential announcement, Mr. O’Rourke traveled across the country as he wrestled privately with whether to run and wrote musings on his Medium account. This drew jokes from several comedians and prominent social media voices, who compared his public agonizing with the stereotypical tendency for men to refuse to commit to relationships — particularly romantic ones.

Meghean Felling, Sergio Peçanha and Anjali Singhvi contributed.


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