A strange work of speculation by The New York Times Magazine
How does the newly elected, 35-year-old mayor of San Antonio become “the Hispanic Obama”? Because a writer for a national magazine needs to sell a story, that’s how.
In case you’ve been sealed away somewhere, hiding from the pollen, The New York Times Magazine featured San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro in last Sunday’s edition. On the cover, the teaser asked: “The Hispanic Obama?” And inside was your answer: a feline-looking Harvard Law grad who’s been a mayor for less than half a year. The headline on page 38 called Castro “The Post-Hispanic Hispanic Politician.” Another echo of Obama. (Another empty echo, that is. Enough with the post-thises and post-thats already!)
Aside from Castro’s cool temperament and his “post-Hispanic” lack of fluency in Spanish, the profile doesn’t back up the hyperbole. Sure, Castro is talented and smart and holds a fairly impressive office for a man his age. But that only means he’s one of dozens, if not hundreds, of young guns nationwide, men and women who could just as plausibly be the “Hispanic Obama”—which is, of course, a silly term by itself. And there’s no telling, at this point, whether he’ll be an effective-enough mayor and savvy-enough player to vault himself into contention for higher office. Or whether he’ll win if he does.
So what gives? Why has Julián Castro suddenly been vaulted into this imaginary conversation about who’ll be the first Hispanic president? Probably for the same reason Texas Monthly predicted, a few years back, that Dallas state Rep. Rafael Anchia would be the first Hispanic governor in the state (which would make Castro’s road to the White House a bit complicated, since they’d both be running in 2014 or 2018).
When writers sell stories to editors, at most magazines, they’ve often got to add some oomph to close the deal. A 35-year-old, preternaturally smooth and smart Hispanic mayor of a big American city ought to have been plenty to convince the Times Magazine that the Castro story was worth doing. But it had to be pushed: There had to be a high, and intriguing, concept. Readers supposedly demand it. And so a potentially fascinating feature about a young politician representative of a whole new generation of politicians—which is really what Castro is—becomes this rather tortured exercise in comparing a brand-new mayor to the nation’s first black president.
It’s the magazine equivalent of those thousands of books that talk about how such-and-such “changed the world.” You know: White Thunder: How Mayonnaise Changed the World, or Hail Voyager! The Wreck that Changed the World. Nothing can compete for readers’ time, it appears, unless it is the thing that changed everything. I don’t even want to think about what that says about American readers.
Magazine stories, like songs, need catchy hooks. You do have to try and lure readers in. But the Castro story, with its overblown premise, is emblematic of a growing tendency for even the most cerebral of magazines to run stories that exaggerate their subjects’ importance and—as a result—all too often distort reality rather than illuminate it.
Julián Castro could have made a hell of a profile subject. But as the subject of a story of pure speculation, about how he might become governor and then president, the San Antonio wunderkind gets lost. The concept does not blend well enough with the story—and ultimately, it’s the concept that wins out. We understand Castro only within the confines of this narrow political framework. Instead of tangible insights into Castro’s way of operating, and the workings of hid mind, we get people speculating on whether he’s going to fill the “leadership void” in national Hispanic politics. And we get quotes like “Julián really stands out,” which tell us exactly nothing about him.
Which is a damn shame. Who knows—at this point, who cares?—whether Castro will become a force in Texas or national politics. His story, and his political rise, matter all the same—both for their own particular fascinations and for what they say about the future of Texas and U.S. politics. Unless I’ve missed it (tell me if I have, please), the real story of Julián Castro is still to be written. And if I don’t get there first, I look forward to reading it.