Two new books, including a memoir, offer an inside peek at Marco Rubio’s rise.
By Marco Rubio
(Sentinel, 320 pages, $26.95)
The Rise of Marco Rubio
(Simon & Schuster, 304 pages, $25)
Marco Rubio’s new memoir, An American Son, is like a feature-length version of his stump speech — and that such a thing can be said as a compliment speaks volumes.
Little more than two years ago, Rubio was an ex-state legislator vying for a coveted U.S. Senate seat with no national profile, no party support, and seemingly no chance of winning. His opponent was Florida’s then-popular then-Govenor Charlie Crist, an ace gladhander and a mean baby-kisser. (Which is not to say a kisser of mean babies.)
It was Rubio’s rhetoric that powered him to a win over Crist and catapulted him into the public consciousness. At campaign stops throughout the state, he gave heartfelt speeches about how his parents, as immigrants from Cuba, sacrificed their dreams and their country to provide opportunity for their children. When Rubio spoke of American exceptionalism, he did so with the conviction of years spent watching the repression in his parents’ birthplace over a narrow channel of water.
He projected earnestness and laughed at his own expense. After winning the GOP primary: “I often joke that early in this campaign, the only people that thought I could win all lived in my home. And four of them were under the age of 10.” When a crowd began to chant his name: “That ‘Marco’ cheer always worries me because I’m always afraid somebody’s going to start screaming ‘Polo.’”
By November 2010, when he handed Crist a 19-point defeat, Rubio was a national name, and an international one. More than 230 media outlets requested credentials to attend his victory speech, including reporters from Argentina, the Czech Republic, and the Congo. Today, depending on whom you ask, he is the Kobe Bryant of politics, a contender to be Mitt Romney’s running mate, or a frontrunner for the GOP presidential nod in 2016.
TWO NEW BOOKS, An American Son and a biography by Washington Post writer Manuel Roig-Franzia, trace Rubio’s family roots, upbringing, and political career: from Cuba, to Miami, to Washington, D.C. His parents immigrated to the United States in 1956, fifteen years before Marco was born. The family moved to Las Vegas around 1978 to find work and escape a changing Miami, but they returned around 1985. Rubio received a political science degree from the University of Florida and a J.D. from the University of Miami. He swiftly climbed the political ladder, from intern, to member of the West Miami Code Enforcement Board, to city commissioner, to statehouse speaker.
Between hard biographical facts lay glimpses of moments that helped shaped the future senator.
Rubio describes long talks with his grandfather, a Reagan man who instructed him on Cuban history and had him read Spanish newspapers to practice the language. He watched his father, Mario, join a strike of the Culinary Workers Union; strikers and scabs eventually clashed in violence, and Mario returned to bartending for lower pay. His mother, attracted by the wholesome values held by Nevada Mormon neighbors, brought the family into the LDS church for a time before Marco pulled them back to Catholicism. After returning to Miami, Hispanic students at his high school called him “gringo” and laughed at his Las Vegas fashion and American accent. As a city commissioner, after one neighborhood complained it had been passed over during previous tree-plantings, he ensured it was included in the next beautification project — an experience Rubio writes clarified for him the meaning of public service.
And family. Always family. Rubio could have titled his book, “Dreams From My Father.”
He movingly recalls the sound of his father’s jangling keys as Mario, at the age of 70, limped up the steps to their house after a long shift pouring drinks. He writes that he was haunted by his father’s sacrifice. “For years I had ended my nightly prayers with the same request. I prayed that my parents would live long enough to see me succeed, and that my success would allow them to enjoy a comfortable old age.”
At times, his Miami community takes on that fatherly role, and Rubio writes as if he were the apotheosis of Cuban exiles. “On the street of the small city of West Miami, in the early months of 1998, I discovered who I was. I was an heir to two generations of unfulfilled dreams. I was the end of their story.”
BUT IT IS NOT the end of Rubio’s story, as any GOP political strategist will tell you, once he stops foaming at the mouth over the prospects.
Rubio is the foremost Hispanic champion of a party that will become increasingly needy of Hispanic voters with each passing year. Between now and 2020 (do you have your “Scott Walker/Mia Love” bumper stickers printed yet?), the number of vote-eligible Hispanics will jump by more than 36 percent, according to Census Bureau projections. The white population, in contrast, will grow about 2 percent during that same period, and will begin to shrink after 2030.
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