An American Son
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.
In Rubio, the GOP has a handsome, eloquent surrogate who can testify to the power of the American Dream, and do so in fluent Spanish, no less. Pundits often describe Hispanic voters as a largely monolithic bloc -- two-thirds pulled the lever for Obama -- but Rubio can strongly argue that they need not remain so. (As he did when Harry Reid told reporters, "I don't know how anyone of Hispanic heritage could be a Republican.")
It remains unclear, though, to what extent strong Hispanic surrogacy can aid the party. Liberals will fight back by painting Rubio as an Uncle Tomás. In 2010, a trilingual Tampa newspaper called La Gaceta wrote in a blistering editorial that Rubio had "turned his back on his Hispanic family." To add further insult, the editorialists referred to the candidate only as "Marc Rub," writing that "we have stripped Marco Rubio of his Hispanicness and the vowels from his name."
Further, Rubio's position on immigration reform, an important issue for Hispanic voters (though not, by any means, the only one), often seems devised to thread the needle. He opposed the high-profile Arizona immigration law (now partially invalidated by the Supreme Court) when it was announced. Later, after the law was modified, he said he would not wish such a law on Florida, but understood Arizona legislators' plight. At a 2010 Senate campaign debate held by Spanish-language channel Univision, when asked how the U.S. should handle the millions of illegal immigrants already within its borders, he steadfastly declined to answer the question. He opposes the DREAM Act and President Obama's imposition of a similar measure by fiat. Instead, he unveiled his own DREAM Act that pleased neither the left nor the right.
THESE TWO BOOKS, the first shelved in what is sure to be an expanding collection on Rubio, have their flaws. Roig-Franzia's is based entirely on third-party sources. So when, for instance, the future senator's grandfather drops from Cuban public records, Roig-Franzia wanders off to discuss the island's history. Rubio's effort slides at times into political backslapping. Both books burn pages by retreading -- without adding new information -- scandals that were aired by the Florida press and answered by Rubio years ago.
Yet each book performs a useful service. The Rise of Marco Rubio puts the senator's friends and associates on the record, and it reminds readers that Rubio is a grizzled political veteran, not an outsider as is often his persona.
An American Son provides a surprisingly honest window into the man himself. Rubio struggles to balance politics with raising his young family. He is upfront about his political ambition, and admits that when Crist seemed unbeatable, he strongly considered running for state attorney general instead. "I wanted to be someone more than I wanted to do something, and I preferred the path of least resistance to my ambition."
Given the rigors of campaign life -- long hours on the road, uncomfortable (and justified) questions about one's AmEx statements -- it's bleedingly obvious that burning ambition was part of Rubio's equation. But such a statement is worth remembering as an invitation to check your wildest Tea Party fantasies at the door.
Rubio first won elected office at the age of 26, and but for about six months between leaving the Florida statehouse and announcing his U.S. Senate candidacy, he's been campaigning and winning elections ever since. At the age of 41, he published a memoir that, for all its charming anecdotes, reveals little about his political philosophy.
He recently voted in favor of protectionist quotas on sugar importation, a stance National Review dinged as "old-style Florida politics." In an article on Rubio's burgeoning press shop, Politico reports that he paid consultants $40,000 to preemptively dig up dirt on…himself. When the Internet was set afire by discussion of how much medal-winning Olympic athletes would owe the IRS on their return, Rubio introduced a totally pander-riffic bill, the self-explanatory Olympic Tax Elimination Act. "Our tax code is a complicated and burdensome mess that too often punishes success," Rubio said in the official press release. ("So we can probably squeeze in another two lines of exemption," he continued in the totally made-up press release in my head.)
There's no doubt that Rubio is an excellent orator, and his family's story -- from the destitution of Cuba to the drapery of Congress in one generation -- epitomizes the American dream. In a state with 3.8 million Social Security beneficiaries, he made headlines by suggesting during a televised debate that the retirement age be raised. Washington is better with him in it. (Especially considering the shudder-inducing alternative: Senator Charlie Crist.)
But a politician he remains. And you should never give your heart to a politician, not even one so inspiring as Marco Rubio.