How Julián Castro Must Change to Be a Viable Presidential Candidate (OPINION)

Jan 14, 2019
8:05 pm

Look, I like me some 60s rock and have belted out The Byrd’s “Turn, Turn, Turn” with my kids in the car.

And we’ve ridden around bouncing to Selena’s cumbias.

But hearing that 60s classic and “Baila esta cumbia” as Julián Castro’s entrance and exit themes on Saturday seemed… soooooo… awkward.

Before you start, I will say this: I think Castro’s very qualified to run. I think it’s time for our country to seriously consider and elect a Latino president.  I’ll look into his platform and encourage other voters to as well.  But he’s just not… presidential.  At least not yet.  Not for these times.

In 2012, when he delivered the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention —the first Latino to do so— I wrote in a commentary that “he didn’t fail.  But he didn’t succeed in mobilizing the Democratic Party or Latinos.  He made the Latino community look good.  But he didn’t deliver the message that we need to be —that we can be— a political force to drive change led by the Democratic party.”

While his DNC speech was strong with stories and emotional connections, he had too many stories that made the speech forgettable.

And… he did the same thing on Saturday.

I didn’t even know he was going to announce his candidacy.  But thank you, Twitter!

Tejanos knew. My San Antonio compa made sure to let me know on Facebook, “Gente here are going crazy.” So I kept watching.

When Castro fiiiiiiinally spoke, I wasn’t impressed. The ideas didn’t ring. The phrases didn’t echo. The message faded into the applause.

In her book On Speaking Well, Peggy Noonan advises speakers to ask themselves, “What does this speech have to do?  Every speech has a job, a reason for being.”

In this case, Castro’s speech needed to help us envision him as a person competent enough to lead this country—by defeating Trump. (Let’s be honest: Trump will probably be around still. The worst case scenario, like the struggle, is real.)

Castro started off wrong.  What he should have done was recognize the crowd standing before him—show that he can engage masses immediately, effectively, responsibly.

Instead, he thanked.

His.

Mom.

Uh, boy.  Hey, I’m 45 years old and still a momma’s boy.  She’s everything to me.  But that’s not how to begin a speech aimed to present oneself in a presidential light.

He started talking about single-member districts.

“What the hell is that?” I thought.

He praised his daughter and kids.

“O.K. Julián, c’mon.  Get to the point.”

Then, he thanked… the press?!  Really?!  That’s who matters next when you announce your presidency?!

And then came the family history: like it was a thank-you speech at a college graduation party.

Again, important. But boring. I thought about grading papers, which is what I was going to do at the coffee shop if I hadn’t found out about his speech.

“Anything is possible!” Castro yelled.

“Really, Julián?  Really. What, uh, current American reality you livin’ in?”

Seven minutes into the speech he mentioned how we dropped the baton of American success.  “Here we go,” I thought.  “Some focus, some guiding thread that will tie this all together.”  He’s gonna talk about passing the baton to unify us as we strive independently as part of an American team… blah, blah, blah.

But he dropped the baton.  The speech dragged. In fact, when he announced his candidacy one minute later, the statement seemed anti-climatic.

Everything he said right before that was all about him and his idealized version of what our country is or should be, not about our current country’s state of division, contempt, violence, and cynicism.

If Castro wants to be a viable presidential frontrunner, he needs to show us a mirror of the state we’re currently in as a nation and conjure a window where we can envision some escape from Trump’s volatile presidency.

Castro needs to focus his speeches on the reality of others, not himself.

And he needs structure.

He should have divided the speech (which was too long anyway at 25 minutes) into two sections: where he’s been, where we’ve been in this country, and where he wants to take us.

He needs to build in a high point—all effective speakers do this. It’s Speech 101.

His high point in the litany of acts he said he’ll accomplish (which I believe in but heard from lots of candidates before) was, “As president, my first executive order will recommit the United States to the Paris Climate Accord!”

Woooohoooo!  You got my vote!

I mean… yeah… but I don’t think that’s what’s urgent on most people’s minds these days–especially not in the middle of government shutdown!  “What’s the context?” I ask my students when they write.

Castro didn’t raise the volume on something in today’s tense context that we could repeat and celebrate because it meets our most urgent needs in our troubled state.

And the optics. All wrong. He looked like every single candidate in contemporary history speaking at yet another rally with supporters and family cheering in the back.

He should have announced his presidency on March 31, César Chávez Day.  Or if he couldn’t wait, announce it on President’s Day next month.

And he should have picked a background that presented him in a presidential light.

I love my 26th Street neighborhood in Chicago, too. But a local spot —which wasn’t even visible— is not the location to announce a presidential run. Symbolism matters.

Obama, for example, announced his candidacy in Illinois’s capital in front of the Old State Capitol where Abraham Lincoln delivered a speech with the well-known line: “A house divided against itself, cannot stand.”

In all the images we saw that Saturday in 2007, Obama, alone at the podium, stood flanked by solid columns that witnessed history. He looked presidential from day one.

Saturday, Julián Castro looked local and practiced, sounding like he was trying too hard when he emphasized a word here and there with extra air.  (I think he tried to sound like Obama, TBH.)

And what does he rattle off at the end: everything we’re going to be!  “The smartest, the healthiest, the fairest, and the most prosperous nation on Earth.”

The what now? I had to replay the video over and over before I could remember what we’re gonna be.

Julián Castro is a good guy. He’s a smart guy. He is the embodiment of the American Dream. But he needs to speak to us in today’s context if he wants to be presidential.

In a high-school civics class, his speech would earn an A. But in our toxic state as a nation, Julián Castro needs to appear to be more than the nice, clean-cut guy who we’d pick to work with on a group project.

He’s got some homework to do.  And I gotta get back to grading essays.

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For more about Ray Salazar, check him out at The White Rhino Blog’s Facebook page, or on Twitter @whiterhinoray.