It was a plot twist worthy of Homeland.
Will Hurd got home one night and told his fiancee that he was in fact an undercover officer in the CIA. And there was more. They would have to move to Pakistan.
They never married.
“You know, it probably had a chilling effect on our relationship, especially when you confirm, ‘Hey babe, I actually work in the CIA and we’re going to Islamabad. Pack your bags. Great!’” Hurd recalls in a phone interview from Washington.
Now 44, the former Republican congressman is still a bachelor. “I dated a woman for a while when I was in Congress but being on the road, putting a hundred and so thousand miles on your car every year and having close to three-quarters of a million airline miles a year, is not conducive to a relationship unless they’re riding with you.”
Hurd joined the CIA in 2000. After the September 11 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, he spent eight years on the frontlines of the “war on terror” including Pakistan, India and Afghanistan. He then helped build a cybersecurity firm before entering politics and winning election in the highly competitive 23rd congressional district of Texas.
For two terms he was one of two Black Republicans in the US House of Representatives; for his third term, he was the only one. When in 2019 he decided to walk away, it felt to some like a light going out – proof that former president Donald Trump’s regressively nativist version of the Republican party had prevailed.
Hurd channeled his energies into technology companies working on national security. He has also just written a book, American Reboot, partly a manifesto for fixing America’s ailing democracy and beating China, partly a memoir delving back into his childhood in San Antonio, Texas.
Like former president Barack Obama, Hurd is the son a Black father and white mother. He writes that it was neither fashionable nor widely accepted to be an interracial couple in early 1970s south Texas. He elaborates by phone: “I don’t know of another interracial couple in San Antonio around the time that my parents were married.
“I was a mama’s boy growing up and it was only in later life that my mom would reveal stories to us about how people would look at her weird because she had these dark babies. We never saw that or necessarily understood that when we were growing up so the things that I faced were similar things that my peers and friends faced.”
Hurd endured racism as a teenager. He writes how “shopkeepers wouldn’t want a young Black kid in their place of business so they’d call me the N-word and tell me to get out. Non-Black fathers of girls I dated tried to persuade their daughters not to date me because of my race.”
Much has been written about Obama’s gift for “code-switching” between Black and white spaces, campaigning in a Black barbershop one moment, appearing with his white great-uncle– a second world war veteran – the next. It was said to have given him an unusual ability to walk in someone else’s shoes.
Hurd reflects on being mixed race: “I think it gives me an empathy and compassion for anybody who might be different in a room because I’m used to always being different. It’s to try to understand and appreciate somebody else’s perspective.”
“When I was first running for Congress and crisscrossing the district, and going into communities that had never seen a Republican before, it wasn’t daunting for me because being different from the other people in the room was something I always had experience with.”
“I’m not equating race and political affiliation; I’m just saying that because of the things that I had to deal with being am interracial kid, I was able to take those lessons and apply them in places. It made me more effective.”
But speaking of political affiliation, why did Hurd choose the Republicans, a party associated with racist dog-whistling since before he was born, from Richard Nixon’s 1960s “southern strategy” to Ronald Reagan lauding “states’ rights” in Mississippi in 1980?
Hurd’s response: “What I would say is that’s probably the minority of the party. And so why am I a Republican? It starts with my dad. My dad’s been a Republican all his life. He has always said he’s been a Republican since Lincoln freed us.”
Then when Hurd went to study at Texas A&M University he befriended former president George HW Bush, was tutored by former defense secretary Robert Gates and got to know former Texas governor Rick Perry. “When I look at what I look at people that were influential and in my life, these were Republicans.”
“Then when you start thinking about the principles and theories at the core, it is about freedom leads to opportunity, opportunity leads to growth, growth leads to progress – those foundational things. And when I criss cross the district or the country, that’s where most Republicans are.
“Yes, there are some that don’t espouse those things but it is, in my opinion, not the majority of the party. But they’re enough that they color the entire party, which is why we have to be diligent in forcing those kind of voices out of the party.”
It could be said the Republicans have just been through a lost decade. After nominee Mitt Romney lost the presidential election to Obama in 2012, an “autopsy report” concluded the party needed to diversify or die and broaden appeal to young voters, women and minorities.
Along came Trump, who turned the autopsy upside down and cast aside racist dog whistles in favor of megaphones. He duly lost the national popular vote but got lucky in the electoral college and became president – a sugar high for Republicans in the moment but recipe for long term heart disease.
Part one of Hurd’s book is entitled “The GOP needs to look like America”. He writes: “The party can’t have in it assholes, racists, misogynists and homophobes. For our party to more accurately reflect a broader America, we will need to appeal to the middle, not the edges.”
He adds by phone: “When you look at some of the original polling after Trump won, people said they didn’t necessarily like his ideas, but they thought he was going to be different. But he ultimately didn’t follow through on some of the things outlined in the autopsy and guess what? We lost all three: the House, Senate and the White House.”
In November’s midterm elections, however, polls suggest that Republicans will regain the House and possibly the Senate. Won’t the party feel its embrace of Trump has been vindicated? “I don’t know the answer because I can say that Donald Trump has a very strong, solid base but his influence down the ballot is waning.”
Hurd was never on the Trump train. When in October 2016 an Access Hollywood tape revealed the Republican nominee saying “grab ‘em by the pussy”, Hurd denounced the remarks “utterly sickening and repulsive” and urged him to “step aside for a true conservative”. In the election, Hurd voted for independent candidate Evan McMullin, with whom he had served in the CIA.
When Trump, early in his presidency, drew moral equivalence between white nationalists and civil rights protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, Hurd called on him to apologize. He comments now: “Has he said racist things? Yes.”
Yet despite outrage after outrage, even an insurrection, most Republicans have bowed the knee over the past five years. Some still refuse to acknowledge that Trump lost the 2020 election lest they incur his wrath. Asked if he wishes that more would take a stand, Hurd declines to criticize his old colleagues.
“Look, I wish for the Republican party to be successful among communities that we’re not very successful with now,” he says. “In the long term we need to be a party that’s based on values and our audio and video need to match, meaning our words and our actions need to reflect that.”
To try again from a more positive welcome, does Hurd welcome the defiance of Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, two Republicans sitting on the House committee investigating January 6? “Liz and Adam are trying to help the party get beyond the 2020 election.
“The 2020 election was not stolen. It was lost. We need more people to understand that because if we’re able to get beyond that, then we can start talking about some of these issues that this country needs to deal with.”
Hurd could have remained in the trenches with the handful of anti-Trump rebels. But he decided it was time to go. “I always believe that these positions, if you’re doing well, you have a shelf life. I said back in 2009 when I first ran, it was six, seven or eight years. These seats, these positions were not designed to be in for ever.
“Being a career politician is not what is going to be helpful for our country. I thought it was the opportunity for me to do other things. I enjoyed talking technology in a policy setting’ now I love talking policy in a technology setting. Your ability to have an impact is not connected with a position that you hold.”
For good measure, he insists: “Donald Trump had no influence on what I did or didn’t do in Congress and he doesn’t have any influence on what I do after Congress.”
Hurd’s book argues that elected officials appeal to the extremes rather than the middle partly because of the design of congressional districts. He accuses both sides of fear mongering rather than trying to inspire. Joe Biden might have seemed like the right man to deliver bipartisan healing after the trauma of the Trump years. But Hurd has been disappointed.
“The promise of that has not unfolded. The Democratic party is so afraid of their far left that it’s influencing their actions. The 2020 election told us: don’t be a jerk and don’t be a socialist. The fact that Joe Biden won and had zero coattails – the Democratic House and Senate lost seats – is a sign to say, ‘Hey, we don’t want that kind of rhetoric [from Trump] but we also don’t want the terrible ideas that the Democratic party is pushing.’
“But guess what? Democrats haven’t learned that lesson and so in 2022 you’re going to see Republicans take the House and likely the Senate. It’s not, as the far left likes to say, because they haven’t done a lot. No, it’s because the country doesn’t want to see the things that they’re talking about actually happen.”
Hurd even manages to turn Republicans’ disingenuous attacks on Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman nominated to the supreme court, into an excuse to bash Democrats. “It was Democrats who took away the joy because, instead of talking about the historic nature of her nomination – she is the second most popular judicial candidate in history – it was the left that wanted to talk about some senators asking crazy questions. That’s not news.”
What does he make of the current political manipulation of the teaching of race in schools? “Slavery happened. Jim Crow happened. These things have impacts; we should be talking about them. But you also shouldn’t be segregating kids based on their eye colour or hair colour to tell that lesson. All those things can be true at the same time.”
American Reboot has triggered a wave of media speculation that Hurd is considering a run for president in 2024. He has the electoral pedigree and national security credentials. And as Republicans’ first Black presidential nominee, he would personify a resounding statement that the party had shrugged off Trump and learned from that decade-old autopsy report after all. He does not rule it out.
“Look, it’s nice that you write a really good book and everybody thinks you’re running for office,” he says. “For me, if I can serve my country again, I’ll evaluate it but right now the best way to serve my country is to put some of these ideas out there and say, hey, we don’t have to accept the way we’re currently doing things and there’s a better way.”