Old-timers will remember the era when getting profiled on 60 Minutes was a cultural laurel almost as impressive as making the cover of Time. It meant you were Somebody! Even so, 60 Minutes can still pack a punch. When the show devoted its first segment of its first show of the new year to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the freshly minted congresswoman from the Bronx and Queens, the buzz in Washington easily lasted for, my heavens, a good half an hour—maybe even an hour. Then we went back to thinking about President Trump.
Let me linger a moment longer on Ocasio-Cortez, or AOC, as her fans, among whom I include myself, call her. Already her “personal story” has become universally known among the politically sentient, and Anderson Cooper shared it with viewers of 60 Minutes, too. It’s a fairy tale for our progressive moment—a Cinderella story as told by Saul Alinsky.
Ocasio-Cortez was born in the Bronx less than 30 years ago to Spanish-speaking parents who met in Puerto Rico. Her father ran a small business; her mother cleaned houses to make ends meet. They bought a modest house in Westchester to spare their little girl the indignities of a Bronx childhood. When the father died, during her sophomore year at Boston University, loans and scholarships allowed Ocasio-Cortez to finish her degree in something called “international relations”—ideal training, as it happened, for her ensuing careers as a community organizer, political gadfly, and bartender. It was the bartending, no surprise, that kept the wolf from the door. When veterans of the Bernie Sanders campaign asked her to undertake a long-shot challenge to a veteran Democratic congressman in the 2018 primary, she said sure.
This average–Joe Millennial narrative helped, but her route to success lay through Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. We are long past the time when politicians pretended to be embarrassed about the “inauthentic” show-biz machinery of image-making and self-promotion. AOC’s use of social media calls to mind Astaire dancing or Rickey Henderson swiping second. It is effortless mastery. Buzzfeed’s Katherine Miller—no millennial sentimentalist—compared her with other politicians praised for their social-media savvy. “If Cory Booker is pretty good at Instagram as far as politicians go,” Miller wrote, “the vibe’s still sometimes like your Bible study leader giving you a college campus tour. Ocasio-Cortez uses Instagram [as] the rest of us do—reflexively, incidentally.”
AOC broadcast her campaign in daily, sometimes hourly, installments. And then, during downtime at Starbucks or cooking an Instant Pot dinner in her shoebox apartment, she would speak directly into her phone’s camera and take questions from her rapidly expanding flock of followers (now numbering more than 2 million on each medium). Once elected, she took them all along with her to what she wittily called Congress Camp—orientation for freshman legislators. She never passed up a chance to be tendentious: She lamented the “painful” sight of statues of patriarchal forebears in Statuary Hall and said the “supernice” grandeur of Washington’s Union Station proved that “infrastructure is worth investing in.” (Noted.) Her dispatches were and are mesmerizing, proselytizing, and normalizing, all at once.
But from the beginning her fans have come for more than politics. AOC is a package deal. She uses her own life story as a lesson in uplift and self-improvement, and the effect is as American as a Gordita Crunch. If she can live the dream, you can too! “You are good enough to do whatever you want,” she said in an early Instagram post. “You are beautiful enough … you can grow through your imperfections. And you can start—right—now.” Mr. Alinsky, meet Tony Robbins.
Her inevitable gaffes—to use the Washington word—have led some of her political adversaries to think she’s a ditz. A few of her missteps are just the sloppy, wishful thinking of the ideologue, as when she misread a story in the Nation magazine to say that the Pentagon had a pile of misappropriated funds lying around (room number unspecified), totaling $21 trillion. Why oh why, she wondered, couldn’t that money be spent on Medicare for all?
Other mistakes are a symptom of the disability, common among politicians, known as motormouth, as her enthusiasm to explain the world to the rest of us outraces her capacity to choose words properly. Speaking in her mile-a-minute mode on Facebook one evening, she seemed to suggest that the federal government consisted of three chambers, which she later corrected to branches—identified, alas, as the House, the Senate, and the White House. A pretty fundamental mistake, yes, but America would be a happier place if every Democrat forgot about the Supreme Court so readily.
In the world of Washington gaffe-making, this is small potatoes, especially considering that her every word—her every tweet and Facebook share, her every Instagram story and YouTube vid—draws the scrutiny of many million people, fans and detractors alike. Gathered into a little pile, in fact, the gaffes are dwarfed by the mountain of Palinisms that Republicans struggled to ignore a decade ago. AOC is a creature of her time and place, and often the accusations against her amount to little more than that she’s a millennial. As Miller pointed out, that’s what millennials like about her. Before Congress convened, AOC took a week off for what she called “self-care,” and Republicans snorted derision. But that’s the way they talk these days! Besides, when I first began covering Congress, in the 1980s, certain legislators frequently disappeared for a week or two. Their staffs discreetly called it a vacation; the rest of us knew it as “detox.”
AOC shows no signs of substance abuse. Indeed, it’s far more likely that the force of her icy discipline will be mismeasured. You see the discipline in matters large and small. In the way she dramatizes her past, for example: She is careful to speak of lessons learned “when I was scrubbing toilets with my mom.” As house cleaners, she and her mother were probably polishing a lot of pewter sconces too, but she knows which chore hits a nerve in the retelling. When reliably liberal “fact-checkers” slagged her misreading of the Nation article, she had the brass to accuse them of pro-Trump bias, and not a single Democrat did a spit take.
Sexism, too, of course: A dim-witted conservative journalist tweeted a picture of her walking down a hallway stylishly dressed in seemingly pricey couture—his way of zinging the working-class poormouthing that is an essential part of her persona. (She frets that she can’t afford an apartment in Washington.) AOC pretended his intent was salacious. “If I walked into Congress wearing a sack, they would laugh and take a picture of my backside,” she wrote. “If I walk in with my best sale-rack clothes, they laugh and take a picture of my backside.” She’s flattering herself, but the congresswoman knows what she’s doing.
Charisma is a value of the left; it is changeable, sensational, superficial, subrational, and almost always a distraction from what’s essential. It also doesn’t last. I’m not so sure this will hold true in the case of AOC. Already she has proved herself much smarter and less dopey than Republicans and even the establishment media want her to be. It would be better if they dropped the sleuthing, motive-mongering, and flyspecking and did the unthinkable: take her seriously.
“People say you don’t understand how to play the game,” Anderson Cooper said to her on 60 Minutes.
“I think it’s really great for people to keep thinking that,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
“So you want folks to underestimate you?”
“Of course! That’s how I won!”