Marco Rubio felt out of place for a moment.
On the cusp of being sworn in as Florida’s newest senator in 2011, the Miami-born son of Cuban exiles had wandered away from his family during a tour of George Washington’s Mount Vernon home.
“I watched them from afar for a minute, laughing and talking in Spanish and English,” Rubio writes in his new book, An American Son.
“My first thought was how different my family was, how different I was, from the men and women who had lived in this place, and from the Americans who had founded our nation,” he writes.
“We looked and sounded different from the descendants of George Washington’s generation,” he continues. “But we embodied everything America’s founding generation had hoped America would become.”
That contradictory sense — of otherness but connectedness — is central to the immigrant experience in America. And it’s a key to understanding Rubio, whose book dropped just as his name began rising on the shortlist of potential running mates for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
In 303 breezily written pages, the outgoing cocksure Rubio sometimes comes across as shy and plagued at times by doubt. He dwells on the spiritual yet seems to obsess about money, which was always tight. For a politician so apt to talk about the future, he seems equally bound to the past.
A lawyer, Rubio first won political office 14 years ago.
Rubio’s conservative worldview was shaped by being both the child of immigrants and a member of Miami’s Cuban exile community, which treats him like everyone’s collective son. When Rubio served in the Florida House, he often downplayed the fact that he was the state’s first Cuban-American House speaker, serving from 2007-2009. Now he celebrates that past. ”
“I often feel as if I live in two worlds,” Rubio, 41, writes at one point, summing up the sentiment of anyone who lives in Miami-Dade. “I am the son of exiles.”
So he’s not just An American Son, which reads like two books in one.
It’s an autobiographical story of the son of hardworking immigrants who toiled as a bartender and a maid. But this is also a political document, an insider’s account of Florida politics.
Rubio gets the chance to control his own story, which has been the focus of intense scrutiny after he exploded on the national political scene. Rubio explains away many of the critical stories about him and his record as the result of “leaks” from his opponents (not all were) and as largely unfair or inaccurate (they weren’t).
Chock full of behind-the-campaign-scenes tidbits and political musings, Rubio’s narrative dwells most heavily on his nationally watched campaign for U.S. Senate against former governor and former fellow Republican Charlie Crist.
Rubio confesses he almost dropped out of the race against the once-wildly popular governor. His wife, Jeannette, helped persuaded him to stay and beat Crist. Rubio stuck with it, he writes, because he felt the governor was a rabble-rousing opportunist whose populism was bad for the GOP and the state.
Rubio also stayed in the race after Crist allies prematurely told reporters that Rubio would leave the campaign. That backfired. Had they paid attention to how Rubio, as speaker, fought Crist during a 2007 feud over property taxes, they would have remembered that he’s far too stubborn and too proud to get pushed around by Crist.
This is, after all, a guy who sang Sinatra’s My Way at his 1998 wedding to Jeanette Rubio nee Dousdebes.
Rubio acknowledges his political drive is almost an addiction. At one point, in the depths of the 2010 Senate campaign, he was so focused on calling donors that his young son Dominick wandered away, fell in the pool and was moments away from drowning before Rubio found him unconscious.
In the Senate, Rubio writes, a member who’s up for re-election is called “in cycle.” Rubio’s not on the ballot. But he could be soon if Romney picks him. Consider An American Son partly “in cycle.”
Rubio as of late has ducked questions about whether he’d take the number-two slot on the GOP presidential ticket this year. He says he won’t interfere with the process. Before that, he suggested he wouldn’t be offered the job and might not take it.
But An American Son makes clear that Rubio probably won’t say no to higher office, considering his reaction to the Senate seat that came open in 2010.
“All it took was the availability of a high office to expose how intensely my ambition still burned,” he writes.
Rubio prefers to live in West Miami. He doesn’t linger in Washington, where he’s the only Republican Hispanic in the Senate. He’s a point-person for his party on immigration, but faults both parties over the issue.
With an eye on higher office, it’s tough at times for Rubio to acknowledge weakness or fault, which he does at times.
Where President Obama, for instance, admitted drug use in his first autobiography, Rubio is silent about it. He admits to partying in South Beach’s post-Hurricane Andrew renaissance.
A modest drinker at most, Rubio recalls one moment of excess after a 1996 Bob Dole presidential campaign event in New Hampshire. On the flight home, he got into a vodka-shot competition. He wound up vomiting on an operative in front of his first political mentor, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and current state Sen. John Thrasher.
Rubio’s campaigns focused him. Until his first run for local office, in 1998, he seems rootless.
When he was a child, his family moved around Miami and then to Las Vegas for six years. He briefly became a Mormon. He later led the family back to Catholicism and, later in life, his faith grew along with his family and political power.
The older Rubio grew, the more he seems to have regretted spending so little time with his father, Mario Rubio, who worked late hours as a bartender and died just before his son became a senator.
Rubio seems racked with guilt at times for not appreciating his dad enough, having once called him a “scab” for crossing a union picket line in Las Vegas. His dad, struggling with a bad leg and working on his feet until his last days, is the quintessential hardworking newcomer who sacrificed everything for his children.
“He drove a red 1973 Chevrolet Impala for 20 years,” Rubio writes. “He wore a Seiko watch until the day he died, even though its gold plating had worn off long before.”
Rubio is clearly the heir of his mother’s father, Pedro Victor Garcia, a quirky, funny, warm Reagan-loving, cigar-smoking, guayabera-wearing, union-loathing, bingo-playing “autodidact.” He insisted Rubio read from Diario Las Americas to appreciate his Cuban heritage and learn Spanish.
In Cuba, Garcia had been a cigar-factory lector, hired to read books to the rollers. Rubio inherited that speaking ability as well — in both English and Spanish — which is clear to any witness of his speeches.
Part of Rubio has always insisted that a good amount of politics is all show.
“Sometimes I feel as if I have joined a theater company where every vote and every statement is calculated for maximum political effect rather than public benefit,” he writes of the U.S. Senate.
Rubio views political campaigns in much the same way. His book addresses — and dismisses — the hits he took in the press over the years related to his handling of the state budget, and questionable expenses related to his political committee and his Republican Party of Florida credit card.
Still, he acknowledges errors, especially early on when he ran for House speaker.
“My lack of bookkeeping skills would come back to haunt me,” he writes. “The press and Governor Crist raised the matter during my U.S. Senate campaign, implying I had pocketed money from my finance committee and used it to pay for personal items. It wasn’t true, but I had helped create the misunderstanding my opponents exploited.”
Rubio’s errors continued to nag him even in the U.S. Senate. A staffer inaccurately wrote on his official web page that his parents fled Cuba under dictator Fidel Castro, who took power in 1959. Instead, they fled dictator Fulgencio Batista’s Cuba, in 1956, primarily for economic reasons.
Rubio doesn’t explicitly mention his culpability in the error, but faults those who tried to turn the exile mix-up into a political hit.
Rubio says little about how he had to jettison his close friend and political ally, Hialeah Rep. Ralph Arza, from his House leadership team for making racially offensive statements connected to a Miami-Dade schools superintendent. Rubio doesn’t mention it, but black lawmakers threatened to boycott Rubio’s swearing in as speaker if Arza stayed. Arza, who apologized and made amends, left.
The decision pained Rubio at the time. Miami-Dade’s Cuban-American lawmakers despise turning their backs on longtime friends. But he had to. Still, many Miami Republicans felt he should have stuck with Arza.
Today, as Congressman David Rivera faces a federal probe into questionable financial dealings, Rubio has stood by his longtime friend.
At that time, Rubio was a West Miami city commissioner. He had been elected the year before. He writes of the walks and talks he had with seniors in their homes, how he’d earn their trust and learn their stories and his own sense of history over sips of sweet, redolent Cuban coffee.
“I had grown up in a Cuban American home, but… I don’t think I really knew where I was from and who I was until I spent hundreds of hours in the company of the people who claimed me as one of their own,” he writes.
“On the streets 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,” he writes, “I was the end of their story.”
But as the nation looks at this American son and possible vice-presidential contender, his time in the U.S. Senate looks like it’s far from the last chapter in his political life.