Rubio's Father: Gone But Very Much a Campaign Presence

Rubio's Father: Gone But Very Much a Campaign Presence
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MIAMI—There’s George. And Ron. And even Rafael.

Fathers of Republican presidential candidates could play a significant role in the White House campaigns of their sons. One has been president before, another a two-time contender for the Oval Office, and the other, while never having run for any office, is an avid -- though at times controversial -- campaigner and strategist.

Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz have embraced their fathers’ strengths while also trying establish themselves as their own men. There’s good reason for the latter, as their fathers’ shadows could be impediments, casting the sons as privileged, or pigeonholed, or polemical.

Then there’s Mario.

Ironically, the father who seems to have the greatest influence on his son’s campaign is the one who is no longer alive to see it. Mario Rubio is the embodiment of his son’s bid for the White House -- a campaign built around an American Dream narrative and high aspirations for the next generation. The elder Rubio’s influence on his son wasn’t political, but without it, the Florida senator has insisted, he wouldn’t be running for president.

“My father stood behind a small portable bar in the back of a room for all those years, so that tonight I could stand behind this podium in the front of this room,” Rubio said in launching his presidential bid Monday evening, repeating a line he has often used in speeches. “That journey, from behind that bar to behind this podium, is the essence of the American Dream.”

The story of Rubio’s father, a Cuban immigrant who served as a hotel bartender while his wife worked as a maid and a Kmart store clerk, has become well known among political observers. But it will be retold often as the freshman lawmaker campaigns for the Republican nomination, hoping to draw a contrast between himself and his rivals, one of whom has been something of a political father figure to him.

Rubio’s telling of part of this tale has also gotten him into some hot water. He had described his parents as exiles who fled Cuba and the Castro regime -- until the Washington Post reported in 2011 that the couple arrived in the U.S. in 1956, three years before Castro took control. Rubio has insisted the circumstances surrounding his parents’ arrival do not undermine the point that they came seeking a better life.

Still, the story of his father is the foundation of Rubio’s Oval Office bid. If successful, the 43-year-old Latino GOP star will have not just exceeded any father’s dreams of a better life for a child. His achievement will be the classic immigrant story writ large.

“I regret my father did not live to see this day in person,” Rubio said Monday night. “He used to tell me all the time: En este pais, ustedes van a poder lograr todas las cosas que nosotros no pudimos. In this country, you will achieve all the things we never could.”

Mario Rubio died of lung cancer two months before his son won election to the U.S. Senate in 2010, a triumph that instantly catapulted the young and dynamic Floridian onto the national stage. The younger Rubio hardly gives a speech these days without mentioning him. On Monday night at Miami’s iconic Freedom Tower, this father was the central thread of his son’s first speech as a presidential candidate.

“On days when I am tired or discouraged, I remember the sound of his keys jingling at the front door of our home, often well past midnight, as he returned from another long day at work,” Rubio said as his own four children stood nearby.

“My father was grateful for the work he had, but that was not the life he wanted for his children,” he continued. “He wanted all the dreams he once had for himself to come true for us. He wanted all the doors that closed for him to be open for me.”

Fathers have long played a significant role in presidential politics and campaigns, whether overtly or below the surface, and their influences have been wide ranging—from the financial and the strategic at one end of the spectrum to the deadbeat or completely absent at the other.

Barack Obama famously sought lessons from a father he hardly knew. Bill Clinton’s father died in a car crash before he was born and his stepfather was an abusive drunk. Ronald Reagan’s, who sold shoes, was also an alcoholic.

John McCain was the son and grandson of admirals. Al Gore was the son of a senator. Newt Gingrich’s father was an abusive alcoholic who left the family home soon after his son was born, and the future House speaker and presidential candidate took to his Army officer stepfather.

John F. Kennedy’s dad was a powerful patriarch with known -- and well mapped out -- presidential aspirations for his sons. George W. Bush sought to prove himself to his near-namesake, and won the second term his father couldn’t. Now, brother Jeb hopes to harness the goodwill directed toward George H.W. in his later years while standing apart from his brother’s controversial legacy. Mitt Romney secured the GOP nomination that his father sought but failed to achieve. Rand Paul is on a similar mission, notably trying to expand his reach far beyond Ron Paul’s devoted but limited base.

“The history of American politics is a history of daddy issues, of sons who felt compelled to impress, outdo, usurp, avenge or redeem their fathers,” New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote last October.

Rubio’s paternal imprint seems to fit its own category: to repay a nation for the opportunity it provided the humblest of newcomers.

The first-term senator, who has said he wouldn’t seek re-election if he sought the nation’s highest office, has often described it this way: “America doesn’t owe me anything, but I owe everything to America.” In speeches and interviews, he adds that this country altered the course of history for his family.

“The immigrant story is going to resonate more than ever now, and particularly with the Latino roots of his immigrant story, because that’s the next group to be rising to the fore,” says Barbara Perry, the director of the Miller Center’s Institute for Presidential Studies at the University of Virginia. “He can speak to the issue about being of immigrant stock as a part of public policy.” 

This of course has also created challenges for Rubio, who faces competing pressures from immigration activists and the conservative base regarding the reform legislation he helped to pass in the Senate last year but then backed away from. In an interview with NPR this week, Rubio asserted that he had done more than Hillary Clinton in trying to solve the problems with the current immigration system. 

His background also gives him personal standing on which to oppose the Obama administration’s opening of relations with Cuba. Two days before Rubio kicked off his presidential campaign, President Obama and Raul Castro met in the highest level interaction between the two countries in more than a half-century. Rubio announced his candidacy from Miami’s Freedom Tower, which served as an Ellis Island of sorts for Cuban exiles seeking asylum in the United States.  

And Rubio isn’t the only candidate this cycle with an immigrant story. Ted Cruz’ father, Rafael, also came to the United States from Cuba and is now a pastor who campaigns for his son and advises him. But he has made several controversial statements his Texas senator son has had to answer for and distance himself from. The evangelical aspect of Rafael Cruz’s story is more integral to Ted Cruz’s campaign than the immigrant one so far. And Cruz is also a vehement opponent of the immigration bill Rubio once championed.

The other challenge for Rubio in citing his father story is maintaining the genuineness of it, so that listeners find it relatable and not just an emblem of individual fulfillment. “There has to be substance behind the personal story,” says Perry. “Candidates have to present it genuinely, and people have to see it as something they are drawn too.”

Rubio seems to acknowledge the challenge. In an interview with CNN this week, he said he shouldn’t expect to earn the Latino vote just because of his background.

Thus the presidential candidate tells the story of his father in a way that emphasizes succeeding generations, and his own aspirations as a father.

The next 19 months will take me far from home. I will miss watching Amanda run track, Daniella play volleyball, Anthony play football and Dominick play soccer,” he said Monday night. “But I have chosen this course because this election is about them.”

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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