On May 12, 2009, Marco Rubio, then a candidate for the U.S. Senate from Florida, arrived in the U.S. Capitol for a pivotal meeting with Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina. Florida’s Republican leaders wanted the seat for then-Gov. Charlie Crist, then considered a shoo-in, and DeMint’s job was to persuade Rubio to drop his campaign. Instead, Marco Rubio made grown men cry.
“He was young and eager to make his case,” writes DeMint in his book The Great American Awakening (Rubio wrote the foreword). “His parents had fled Cuba as refugees, coming to America with great hopes of a nation promising a better life for their children.” Compelling stuff. “The Rubio family knew what it was like to lose their country. Rubio was afraid Americans were on the verge of losing their country and desperately wanted to stop the Washington politicians who were guiding America into the abyss.”
People in the room were “tearing up,” writes DeMint. “Rubio’s passion and genuineness left me speechless.”
Well, define “genuineness.” On Thursday the Washington Post revealed the results of a deep dive into Rubio’s family history. Rubio’s parents didn’t actually flee Cuba when Fidel Castro took power in 1959. They had moved to the United States in 1956. They thought about going back in 1961. Recoiling at what Castro was doing to the place, they decided to stay in the States.
But the Post’s scoop, as the Miami Herald has pointed out, was missing something: In speeches, commercials, and interviews, Rubio does not paint a dramatic tale of his parents fleeing as the Communists marched. (Until he changed it Friday afternoon, Rubio’s official biography said that his parents came to the United States “following Fidel Castro’s takeover.”) If anyone fights back the tears long enough to listen to him, he describes his parents only as Cuban exiles upset at what their country turned into. Anyone who’s ever tried to woo first-generation Cuban voters over to the Democrats can tell you: That’s a pretty common view.
Rubio plays a pivotal role in Republican politics. His family saga isn’t just an allegory for what could happen to America, it is a warning of what is already happening. It’s one thing for Glenn Beck to call Barack Obama a Communist—yawn, whatever, see you at the Bircher potluck. It’s another thing for the son of Cuban exiles to call Obama a Communist.
Of course, Rubio doesn’t explicitly use that word to describe Obama. He’s smarter than that. He only hints at it in every major speech. At the 2010 Conservative Political Action Conference, when the national media was starting to expect Rubio to beat Crist, the candidate hot-wired the rise of Castro with the goals of Obama. “Do I want my children to grow up in the country that I grew up in,” he said, “or do I want them to grow up in a country like the one my parents grew up in?”
As John Judis pointed out at the time, Rubio said something sort of crazy—that the party of Max Baucus and Steny Hoyer was engineering a Fourth International—and made it sound logical. “Using his own life story,” wrote Judis, “he framed the choice facing Americans in a way that evoked the contrast between his Horatio Alger capitalism and Obama’s or Nancy Pelosi’s socialism.”
Rubio was comparing the changes Obama and Pelosi wanted to engineer—at that point, financial reform and a health care law—with the collapsed command economy of Cuba, in which about four-fifths of workers are public employees. Yes, you can find liberals who extol the virtues of Fidel Castro’s fiefdom (just four years ago, Michael Moore was arguing that we’d be better off if we adopted Cuba’s health care system). But Rubio’s implication, that Democrats would grind away our freedom just as surely as Castro did, was the sort of stuff other Republicans get branded as kooks for saying. Rubio’s personal story, just as with the audition before DeMint, clinches the sale.
Maybe it’s good for Rubio that this is breaking now. Manuel Roig-Franzia, the Post reporter, is working on a book about the senator; this news could have come out much closer to the veepstakes, instead of coming out as everybody’s distracted by the Republican presidential race and Muammar Qaddafi’s bloodied corpse. Roig-Franzia has covered Cuba for years, and he puts the 1956 revelation in the right context. “In Florida,” he writes, “being connected to the post-revolution exile community gives a politician cachet that could never be achieved by someone identified with the pre-Castro exodus, a group sometimes viewed with suspicion.”
That explains what Rubio’s been trying to do: Cash in on the cachet. His version of the Cuban drama is a canary-in-the-coal-mine tale that explains why he opposes Obama. Republicans never get tired of it. In a speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, one of three big set-piece events designed to build up Rubio’s national image, he even extended the narrative to cover his grandfather, who moved with the family to the United States. “My grandfather loved being Cuban,” said Rubio. “He loved being from Cuba. He never would have left Cuba if he didn’t have to. But he knew America was special. … He knew that he had lost his country, and that the only thing preventing other people in the world from losing theirs to Communism was this country—this nation.”
Rubio’s official response to the Post story came in a column in Politico that got home-page splash treatment. The point it makes is familiar. “People didn’t vote for me because they thought my parents came in 1961, or 1956, or any other year,” Rubio wrote. “Among others things, they voted for me because, as the son of immigrants, I know how special America really is. As the son of exiles, I know how much it hurts to lose your country.”
Are we weeping yet?