Photo: Hamilton Nolan

BURLINGTON, IOWA—There’s a very nice visitor’s center on the river here. Right by downtown. They’ll tell you everything about Burlington, including the fact that it’s about to flood. That visitor’s center was totally empty on Thursday, even though the national press corps was just two blocks away. We had much more stupid things to focus on.

The Beancounter Coffeehouse is a long and narrow space with pale blue walls and a counter covered in baked goods and, on Thursday, several hundred reporters along with as many photogenic local grandmas as could squeeze inside. Beto was coming. It was all so dumb. Was he coming to “announce” something? No, that had been done in a carefully curated media rollout. Was he coming to “learn” something? No, there was nothing to be learned here except how to violate fire safety codes. Was he coming to have a “conversation” with the people of Iowa? No, that would be like trying to have a conversation inside of a hurricane. So what were all of us reporters doing here?

Nevertheless, there we stood. Wedged uncomfortably together in a coffee shop, as TV camera lights flooded the space around us. Waiting.

Beto came in and said “Everybody, what’s up!” like Dr. Nick coming into a Simpsons scene and saying, “Hi, everybody!” He shook hands with the staff and said some palatable things about the food. He combed his fingers through his hair like Bobby Kennedy used to, though with a more spastic general vibe. Then he climbed up on the counter where you order, raising the height of his head to more than 11 feet off the ground. Then he launched into his stump speech, right there, and said it all. You could tell it was his stump speech because it was full of grandiose turns of phrase like “Democracy that is foundering under attacks both from without, and within...” that nobody says in real life. He constantly moves his right pointer finger up and down as he talks, as if he were whipping you in slow motion. His stringy neck muscles are constantly popping out. This is a sign of physical fitness, but it is still vaguely disturbing to watch. Had he taken one step in any direction he would have knocked over a glass case of lemon bars, or fallen to his death. It was an absurd setting for a rehearsed speech. Get a fucking podium, man.

Then he took questions. It’s good that he took questions, both because it is vital to give the public true access to public discourse with civic leaders, and because it revealed that he really has no policy platform as such. On education, he talked a lot about some welding program at a local community college he had visited earlier in the day. He is in favor of mental health care. The Republican tax cuts were bad. The Supreme Court is messed up. But still, we should all get along. “When we learn to respect one another, there’s nothing we can’t do,” he said at one point. And later: “We need to find enough common ground to pursue the common good.”

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The most revealing moment came when a local man asked him about a Siemens factory in town that had shut down, and how he planned to keep those types of jobs in America. Beto’s answer to this vital question—and I will do my best to characterize it accurately—was, like, uhhh, why don’t you tell me? “You share with people like me, how we can partner together,” the man running for president told the Iowa citizen in search of answers. “Gimme your best idea for how we do this.” The local man was caught off guard. “Would legislation be an option?”

Presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke agreed with the man that legislation might be an option.

A Fox News reporter who was wearing a suit with jeans and who referred to this outfit as “Suit on top, party on the bottom” went live as Beto was speaking, prompting a cascade of “SHHH!” from the people who had come to the event. After everything wrapped up I pointed this Fox News reporter out to a feisty local woman who went over and scolded him to his face. This was the only useful moment of the day. The balance of this event was useful only for driving home what a farce we were all participating in. The national media, flooding en masse into a small town that they would never otherwise visit and did not care to learn about at all, focusing relentlessly on a guy who does not seem to have any particular beliefs or qualifications to become our nation’s most important political leader other than the fact that he can wear a blue shirt all day without sweating through the armpits. Every scenic campaign event that you will see for the next year is an exercise in absurdity. It would make much more sense to conduct the entire presidential campaign from a TV studio with every candidate given equal time to speak and then have the whole nation vote on the same day. Standing on counters in coffee shops does not qualify anyone to be a leader. It’s all done for the benefit of the media, more than anything else. We drive this stupid, embarrassing charade; we promote the fiction that it tells us something meaningful and important about presidential candidates; and we should all be very ashamed of ourselves.

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When it was over, Beto went outside and walked through Burlington with a press scrum surrounding him. As they all crossed Jefferson Street, a cameraman walking backwards tripped on the curb and fell flat on his back. Beto reached down and helped him up. You seem like a nice guy, Beto. Maybe go into customer service or something. Travel the world. Go back to school. Take some time to figure out what you want to do, man. Don’t look for answers on America’s time.