Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Marco Rubio's very Pixar story

There are quite a few ways of conceptualizing Marco Rubio's career (I wrote about Creed and Rubio last year), but occasionally something grabs hold of you and refuses to let go until you actually sit down and write about it.


J.R.R. Tolkein seethed at industrialization and was driven to write an allegory -- The Lord of the Rings was birthed.

George Orwell saw the Russian Revolution, Stalin's brutality and propaganda, and felt compelled to write Animal Farm.

James Joyce drank a lot and went slightly senile -- he wrote Ulysses.

As for me, over the weekend, I was reading Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs (who led Pixar, at one point), and realized there are a lot of cool parallels to Marco Rubio's career.

Quite simply, you can understand who Rubio is and where he's going by thinking about Pixar, Jeb Bush, and Steve Jobs' relationship with John Lasseter.

Please hear me out on this.

Rubio, be-sworded (photo: Miami New Times)

1. Legendary benefactors (Jeb is to Marco Rubio as Steve Jobs was to John Lasseter)

Marco Rubio's political mentor is Jeb Bush to whom he owes, among other things, a sword.

After Rubio became Speaker of Florida's House, Jeb Bush presented him with the "Sword of Chang". Who is Chang?

He is, according to Rubio, a mythical conservative warrior who wields a sword.

"From time to time, if there’s a big issue going on, you’d see Jeb say, 'I’m going to unleash Chang.” He gave me the sword of Chang.'

But how did Jeb and Marco's story begin -- what led to this swording moment and why is it like Pixar's own genesis?

In 1996, an unknown Rubio offered to help Bob Dole's campaign and Dole's Florida director, Al Cardenas, was immediately impressed with Rubio's potential and hired him. Rubio availed himself well, and two years later, he decided to get into campaigning for real and ran to become a commissioner in West Miami -- a position that doesn't sound like much of a position.

Rubio won, and on election night got a call from Jeb Bush, who by this time was aware of Rubio and his electoral potential no matter how inchoate.

Over the years, Jeb mentored Rubio as he climbed the political ranks. Eventually Rubio became Speaker of Florida's House, and in 2010, he decided to take on popular Republican Gov. Charlie Crist in the GOP primary to become senator.

Jeb tried to paint himself as a passive, neutral observer during the race, but he rarely seemed passive and never seemed neutral. He blasted the NRSC for backing Crist and urged people to give Rubio a chance.

When Crist lost his mojo and started to go down in flames, Charlie notably backed out of the GOP primary, and decided to run as an independents in the general election.

That gave Jeb a chance to say what he really thought of Crist:

"I am not surprised," he told The Weekly Standard, "This decision is not about policy or principles. It is about what he [Crist] believes is in his best interests."

And he continued hammering Crist throughout the race,"It's all about him. It's not about anything else. Governor Crist organizes his life around his personal ambitions.... he doesn't have a set of guiding principles to share with people," he told Fred Barnes.

Jeb's pupil Rubio famously won the general election over Crist and his Democratic opponent by double-digits.

Last year, Jeb called on Mitt Romney to pick Rubio for Veep, and it wasn't just a token nod; he reportedly made a private push along with the public call (which brings up an interesting point: why would Jeb have pushed Rubio for VP if Jeb were planning on running in 2016? After all, a Rubio '12 Veep bid would've set Marco as the clear front-runner for 2016. Just another reason why I don't think Jeb will run).

So what did Jeb see so early on in Rubio? Same thing we can all see -- a guy who can help bridge the GOP's divide with Hispanics.

It's a divide Jeb has been trying to bridge his entire political career with some success in his homestate of Florida, but to turn it into a national, transformative thing, he knows the GOP needs Rubio.

Now let's move to the Pixar story.

The creative force behind the Pixar story is John Lasseter, who -- like Rubio -- was also groomed at the feet of masters.

He idolized Walt Disney as a kid, and in college, got to study with Disney's "Nine Old Men" team who were responsible for some of Disney's greatest animated movies in history.

After working in the animation division, he moved to Lucasfilm and its CGI department. Lucas subsequently went through some financial issues, and sold the unit to Steve Jobs where it officially became Pixar.

Jobs, at the time, was in corporate exile, having been ousted from his own company, Apple. He was now failing at his new venture, NeXT, and needed to be on the cusp of something different and exciting to make himself truly relevant again and regain control at Apple.

In John Lasseter, he immediately saw a genius story-teller, and threw himself into the Pixar process.

Ultimately, Lasseter would prove to be Jobs' means for reemerging as a giant player in corporate America, and Jobs used his success at Pixar to wrest control of Apple again.

Well, the Jobs is Jeb and Lasseter is Rubio parallels should be starting to make sense to you.

Like Jobs, circa Pixar's beginning, Jeb Bush's name is legendary, but he hasn't been at the cusp of electoral politics for over a decade and carries a last name that's badly damaged.

In the Jobs-Lasseter relationship, Jobs had tons of money but needed a makeover in his image. So he threw money at Lasseter and Pixar, and guided the precocious babe in those first, harrowing years.

In return, Jobs became enormously successful (he made more money on the Pixar IPO than the Apple IPO), and turned into a national player again.

Jeb Bush = Steve Jobs; White House = Apple  (image: Animation and Design)

In the Bush-Rubio relationship, Jeb provided Rubio with his political connections and experience, but now Jeb needs Rubio more than Rubio needs Jeb, because Bush needs a political makeover badly to take his place in corporate America again (i.e. to wrest control of Apple and the White House once again for the Bush family, as it were).

Over the years, he's been able to confer all the institutional advantages he has on Rubio, while Rubio is mentioned in nearly every breath alongside Jeb's name. They've become a political team, and Jeb looks fresher in Rubio's light.

Jeb Bush is Steve Jobs, and Marco Rubio is John Lasseter.

Together they made Pixar, and Apple is the White House that Jeb wants to take control of again.

Moving to our next parallel in this story....

Tea Party = Jeffrey Katzenberg; Immigration reform = Toy Story; Marco Rubio = John Lasseter

2. The Tea Party, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Toy Story

To help finance and distribute what was turning into Pixar's first full-length movie, Toy Story, Jobs and Lasseter knew they couldn't do any better than hooking up with Disney.

According to Walter Isaacson, the only problem was that hooking up with Disney meant hooking up with its CEO, Jeffrey Katzenberg, a caustic, egotistical micro-manager who had to have things done his way.

Naturally, Katzenberg wanted to be heavily involved in making Toy Story, and Pixar had no choice but to let him.

But with Katz's heavy hand involved, Toy Story went from reflecting the charming, innocent vision of Lasseter to the acerbic cynicism of Katzenberg.

Lasseter grew increasingly disillusioned:

"It was a story filled with the most unhappy, mean characters that I've ever seen," he told Isaacson.

Particularly and hilariously noteworthy?

At one point in the Katzenberg-inspired version, Woody orders Slinky to help him throw the other toys off the bed. Slinky hesitates, and Woody yells "Who said your job was to think, spring-wiener?!"

Jobs and Lasseter were stuck.

They both knew that the movie was turning out badly, but they still needed his money and the Disney name and distribution.

But wringing free of Katzenberg to do their very best work meant that no one might actually see their best work.

Now let's quickly shift gears and talk about Marco Rubio before coming back to Katzenberg.

Marco scored a stunning upset of Charlie Crist and consequently reached national stardom, thanks to the Tea Party.

But the Tea Party might prove to be Rubio's Katzenberg, because it also has rigid ideological standards that demand 100% conformity and immigration is turning into a potential breaking point.

Katz loved Lasseter's work, but steered him in a more acerbic direction -- one reflecting his own personality.

Likewise, the Tea Party salivated over Rubio, elected him, and expects that he'll stay faithful to their vision. After all, Marco owes quite a bit to the movement, and while I loathe the stereotype of tea partiers as angry ignoramuses', there's no doubt that they preach a more confrontational brand of politics that scorns compromise.

The Tea Party is Katzenberg in this story.

Rubio, meanwhile, is stuck -- just like Lasseter and Pixar. He still needs the grassroots verve of the Katzenberg Tea Party Movement, but also needs to make his own Electoral Toy Story into a brand that can appeal to every demographic.

In the Pixar story, Katzenberg agreed to back off when everyone told him Toy Story sucked. You have to let Lasseter be Lasseter and Pixar be Pixar, they told him.

When Lasseter and Pixar subsequently scored creative control again, they were able to produce the charming product that's sitting on your DVD shelf today (and, hopefully, close to your heart).

Now... the big question is whether the Katzenberg Tea Party will temper their claim on Rubio's product and accept a gentler form of rhetoric, a less caustic Woody, and a more lovable brand of Toy Story than perhaps they'd idyllically want.

So far, Tea Party leaders are expressing mild skepticism and, sometimes, downright hostility to Rubio's shift on immigration.

But can the Tea Party ultimately do what Katzenberg did -- let go and let Marco be Marco?

IF they can accept that kind of shift from Rubio, they stand to reap huge rewards and box office success.

Rubio/Toy Story might not be exactly what Katzenberg and The Tea Party wanted, but the mere association of Disney with Pixar was a massive win for Katzenberg, and the mere association of President Rubio with The Tea Party would be a huge win for the Tea Party.

So what is it, Tea Party?

You have your choice -- are you going to let Rubio make Toy Story?

3. Rubio talks like a Pixar film

From the moment Steve Jobs saw his first Pixar short, he was entranced with Lasseter's ability to pour humanity into everything he animated.

The most famous and one of the earliest examples was the Oscar-winning short, Luxo Jr., which, in two minutes, turned the pedestrian sight of a big and little lamp into a deeply human story.

To Lasseter, there was a human story behind everything in this world -- from the people defining it to the toys that they played with. And even if they couldn't literally speak -- like the lamps in the short above -- they actually could speak through the stories their movements told.

Well, Rubio has that same sort of gift, that same sort of ability to humanize everything he talks about, and has used it most effectively when talking about illegal immigration.

Instead of using lifeless, foreign adjectives like "alien" and staid references to civil categorization, he calls illegal immigration a humanitarian problem.

"The issue of kids that are in this country, undocumented, is not an immigration issue, it's a humanitarian one," he said in an interview with National Journal in December. "They are more like refugees in that sense."

And then, in perhaps his most penetrating soundbite, he told the Washington Ideas Forum, "It's really hard to get people to listen to you.... if they think you want to deport their grandmother."

But Rubio doesn't just talk about immigration at a human instead of legal level, he so turns everything in politics into a story that ultimately produces a political takeaway.

In other words, you and I tell our stories to support our political principles; Rubio supports his political principles with his stories.

Is it calculated? Sure. But so is Luxo Jr. and every Pixar picture since. Just because it's calculated doesn't mean it's bad. In fact, if you have the right person, calculating is responsible for most of the good in this world.

In his RNC speech, Rubio told just such a story.

My dad was a bartender. My mom was a cashier, a maid and a stock clerk at K-Mart. They never made it big. They were never rich. And yet they were successful. Because just a few decades removed from hopelessness, they made possible for us all the things that had been impossible for them.

Many nights I heard my father's keys jingling at the door as he came home after another 16-hour day. Many mornings, I woke up just as my mother got home from the overnight shift at K-Mart

When you're young, the meaning of moments like these escapes you. But now, as my own children get older, I understand it better.

My Dad used to tell us: "En este pais, ustedes van a poder lograr todas las cosas que nosotros no pudimos" "In this country, you will be able to accomplish all the things we never could."

A few years ago during a speech, I noticed a bartender behind a portable bar at the back of the ballroom. I remembered my father who had worked for many years as a banquet bartender.

He was grateful for the work he had, but that's not the life he wanted for us.

He stood behind a bar in the back of the room all those years, so one day I could stand behind a podium in the front of a room.

That journey, from behind that bar to behind this podium, goes to the essence of the American miracle — that we're exceptional not because we have more rich people here.

We're special because dreams that are impossible anywhere else, come true here.

That's not just my story. That's your story. That's our story.

Rubio's story, yes, and also the stories Lasseter and Pixar tell.