For those who knew him, another observation now comes to mind: They did not believe they were looking at a future statesman.
“You’re supposed to make friends with future secretaries of state, not weirdo musicians,” a friend, Adam Mortimer, said. “It’s like, wait, one of the weirdo musicians might run for president.”
The rollicking music years
He seemed like any other punk-minded student: Jawbox T-shirt, hair past his shoulders and a grim insistence that the Smashing Pumpkins had grown pretentious.
By college, friends say, Mr. O’Rourke had settled on the outlines of an identity that would last: a rebel in moderation, more puckish than unruly. He said he chose Columbia in part because of the financial aid package and in part because he looked up to his bohemian uncle, Mr. Williams, who had tapped into New York’s music scene. Before that, Mr. O’Rourke had attended boarding school in Virginia, largely to create some distance from his father, a political obsessive who did not understand his son’s musical leanings.
Now Mr. O’Rourke had the run of the city. He went by Robert — Beto was a nickname from El Paso, owing to its border-town bilingualism — and he played the guitar, establishing himself as the school’s gentle punk rocker.
When a bandmate in a group called Swipe adopted a belligerent performance persona, telling crowds that they were listening to “Angry Swipe,” Mr. O’Rourke protested from the stage. “He was like, ‘No, we’re not. We’re not angry,’” the band member, Alan Wieder, said. “It made him very uncomfortable that I was mean.”
Offstage, Mr. O’Rourke was a prolific dabbler, straddling disparate orbits. He was socially conscious but not especially political, “other than whatever kind of politics were being talked about in Fugazi,” a former roommate, Jeff Ryan, said, naming one of Mr. O’Rourke’s favorite groups.
He often kept a musician’s rollicking hours — “He liked to drink beer,” Mr. Wieder said, “not in the Brett Kavanaugh sense” — but also rowed crew, requiring him to rise by 4 a.m. for practice on the Harlem River. He was an English major skilled enough with computers to introduce roommates to the culture of early-1990s chat rooms, once pranking a girlfriend by posing as a romantically interested woman online.