Not 'born to be in it': Beto O’Rourke strikes more humble tone as buzz fades

Ed Pilkington

If Beto O’Rourke were a Hollywood movie star, there would have been no better publicity than a Vanity Fair cover with a portrait by celebrity photographer Annie Liebovitz and the headline: “Man, I’m just born to be in it.”

Related: The astonishing disappearing act of Beto O’Rourke

But O’Rourke is no Hollywood star, and, as one of more than 20 Democrats vying for the presidential nomination, the fallout of that glossy start to his campaign has been anything but cheerful. On Tuesday, the former Texas congressman confessed that he looked on the cover with regret because it came across as an expression of white privilege.

Asked by the presenters of ABC’s The View if the cover was a mistake, he replied: “Yeah. I think it reinforces the perception of privilege. The headline saying I was born to be in this … nobody is born to be president of the United States of America, least of all me.”

O’Rourke’s striking about-face is an indication of how sobering the early weeks of the presidential race has been for this constitutionally upbeat politician.

Since he announced his bid in March, coming off a high as narrow loser to Ted Cruz in last November’s senatorial contest in Texas, he has been bombarded with criticism, the most searing of which has been that he takes his advantages as a well-off white Texan for granted.

Ridiculed for folksy ways such as his tendency to stand on counter-tops to address voters, his popularity has taken a pummeling: several recent polls have put him as low as 3%. Now he is attempting to reboot his campaign, shifting its focus and priorities in the hope of winning back some of the faded buzz.

Top of the list of changes is contrition expressed through repeated public admittances that he made mistakes and came across as entitled.

“There are things that I have been privileged to do in my life that others cannot,” he told ABC. “When women in this country are paid 80 cents on the dollar that a man makes, African American women 61 cents, Latinas 53 cents …”

The View appearance signaled another change – a willingness to appear on national media he previously shunned. There has been a realization that holding scores of small town-halls in states across the country, which worked well in Texas, was not going to cut it on the national stage.

O’Rourke has beefed up his campaign staff with seasoned professionals such as Jen O’Malley Dillon, the deputy campaign manager for Barack Obama in 2012. And O’Rourke has accepted that in this jam-packed field, voters are looking for more policy detail than just his trademark call to national unity.

As a sign of the new-look O’Rourke, he released earlier this month the most concrete program to tackle climate change to come from any candidate. It would commit an unprecedented $5tn investment over 10 years with a goal of zero emissions by 2050.