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As much as he loves to lambast the media, no Senator thrives off its attention more than Ted Cruz. Perhaps that’s because he nurses a grudge that many elites whom he knew at Princeton and Harvard never fully embraced him; perhaps we’re seeing the vapor trails of his time as a drama geek in high school. Whatever it is, the Texas Republican loves to be talked about in the media, social or mainstream — as was clearly seen when he checked his phone during Ketanji Brown Jackson’s hearing to see people talking about him on Twitter.
Cruz did a song and dance with reporters as the Senate — including his colleague from Texas John Cornyn — debated gun legislation last week. While Cornyn was trying to work with Democrats to come to a bipartisan solution (and succeeded, as we saw on Sunday), Cruz lurked conspicuously in the background — and that likely affected how Cornyn navigated those negotiations.
First, some context: Much of reporting on Capitol Hill is incredibly dull. Most times, you wait outside the chamber for extended periods of time, hoping to get at least 20 seconds of Susan Collins telling you something that resembles news. As a result, a verbose member of Congress who is a reliable quote machine can become a reporter’s best friend.
But Cruz has found a way to jam the system by often delivering reporters locquacious dissertations. It’s a rather ingenius strategy: He essentially tests the patience of reporters, seeing how he can long he can speak uninterrupted, and then says only what he wants to say, rather than giving a straightforward response. He did this a ton when he ran for president.
Last week, I got a prime example of how Cruz manipulates the press. On Monday, I and a number of other reporters caught Cruz in the halls of the Senate. I particularly wanted to ask him if he trusted Cornyn to protect Second Amendment rights in those gun control negotiations.
Instead, the pack of reporters surrounding Cruz were treated to a long soliloquy about how he has been to multiple scenes of shootings in Texas, including Sutherland Springs, Midland Odessa, El Paso and then Uvalde. He then went into how Democrats obstructed his gun legislation after Sandy Hook. This is another classic Cruz tactic because it takes a good chunk of truth — that he proposed this legislation — and makes it sound like he would have proposed legislation that improved background checks, but elides that it would actually have removed provisions for expanded background checks. As PolitiFact reported, Republicans were going to filibuster the underlying legislation to which Cruz tacked on his amendment, which is why Democrats set up a 60-vote threshold for any amendment.
At this point, I was getting pretty annoyed. It was midway through Cruz’s soliloquy when NBC News’ Frank Thorp snapped a photo of him with a disposable camera. Cruz stopped midway through a paragraph he was reciting to say, “That’s old-school.”
It was at that moment I realized that Cruz was playing a character for all of us reporters. He was positioning himself as a principled conservative genuinely concerned with finding a solution to mass shootings that wouldn’t compromise his fealty to the US Constitution (plus, he got in plenty of good jabs at Democrats for crime rates in cities). He was portraying a character, but as soon as one piece in his well-choreographed set moved in the slightest, his mask fell off.
Immediately, my brain went through all of the previous interactions that I had with Cruz. Each followed the same script: He monopolized my time with self-serving, substance-free bluster — and I often walked away either with too much filler to put in my story or so little that I had to quote him verbatim on the subject he’d chosen to talk about instead. I’m not the only one, as this thread by my friend Matt Fuller at The Daily Beast plainly shows. But I felt pretty silly when I went through those interactions in my mind — and I realized that throughout Cruz’s entire time in the Senate, he’d fooled me.
Of course, this is not uncommon for politicians — those creatures who are so bolstered by ambition that they would sell you a jersey and tell you it’s a tuxedo — but with Cruz, it’s so apparent that every breath he takes, every eye movement and every vocal inflection is in the service of his own political persona. Even the very act of jousting with reporters bolsters his brand, since it makes him seem like the precise kind of confrontational conservative who can retort to the “mainstream liberal media agenda”.
But is this the kind of person who deserves to be in public service? A person who thinks not about how his choices can help people but how he can promote himself?
Make no mistake: The prevaricating and opportunistic Cruz has been doing this throughout the entirety of his time in the Senate. And it’s not just liberals or media types who are led down the garden path by such behavior: Plenty of conservatives buy into it completely. His placing second in the 2016 Republican presidential primary is proof of that.
Of course, the one person who didn’t buy it was Donald Trump. And though I’m hardly a Trump fan (the understatement of the year), I found myself empathizing with him calling Cruz “Lyin’ Ted,” and saying, “The Bible held high, he puts it down and then he lies.” Trump may be a hypocrite, but he also sometimes sniffs out other people playing characters.
The whole experience showed me the exact kind of politician Cruz is. He is someone for whom politics is a cynical game, a bit of fun, and an opportunity to be in the public eye. Does he care about doing good for the country? Quite possibly, but I’d wager from his behavior that it’s certainly not his primary concern.
I’ll still report on what he says from the hallways of DC, because like it or not he’s an important figure. But I’m onto him now, I think. And this time, I’m not going to be his punchline.