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OpinionColumnistsMark Chiusano

Julián Castro's narrative and the narrowing 2020 field

Reading Julián Castro, as New York's Kirsten Gillibrand

Reading Julián Castro, as New York's Kirsten Gillibrand bows out.  Photo Credit: Getty Images/Joe Raedle

amExpress has been working its way through the Democratic presidential contenders' books, which means lots of ungainly prose and descriptions of big dramatic turning points, but also some moments of interest. Often, the interest comes from wondering why candidates whose lives are so carefully and impressively laid out in 300 pages are failing to click for 2020.

That was the case with the often-entertaining “Off the Sidelines” by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who embraced the inevitable and dropped out of the race on Wednesday.

We wonder whether it will be true for Julián Castro, author of “An Unlikely Journey.”

Castro, the former housing secretary and San Antonio mayor, has had a high-profile career. He’s lingering a bit below the top tier for 2020, but he’s ahead of Mayor Bill de Blasio (still hanging in there to represent NY) and other minor candidates thanks to qualifying for the September debate stage.

There is the usual politicese here — he wants “to help others in my neighborhood be able to reach their own dreams” — but also fun details about he and his twin brother, Rep. Joaquin Castro, competing in high school tennis or tying for first place in Stanford University student government elections. We see Castro chatting about Elon Musk with President Barack Obama, and “roughing out bullet points” for his first phone call to the woman who becomes his wife.

But the strange thing about the memoir, published last year, begins with its subtitle, “Waking Up from My American Dream.” That seems to foreshadow a dark narrative about the false promises of American society, which would make sense for a Latino politician in the age of a president who warns of an immigrant “invasion.”

Yet Donald Trump is relegated to an introduction, where Castro visits the border, and a 2016 election-night epilogue. The book feels as if it were written in a pre-Trump era. It is largely a sunny journey, mostly up: Castro’s grandmother flees the Mexican Revolution to America, and in a few generations you have the Castro twins smoothly injected into American politics after hard work and law studies at Harvard University. There are dark moments: as a young man Castro walks in on said grandmother trying to overdose on Tylenol. But the professional path is clear: a staircase from Texas to Washington that might have led to being Hillary Clinton’s running mate, or at least working in her administration.

That didn’t happen, and now Castro is trying to jump right to the top job himself, including by being the most forceful voice on immigration on the 2020 debate stage. But one wonders whether his play-by-the-rules forward momentum is enough in a radically changed political environment.

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