Last week, Pete Buttigieg, the young mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who recently announced that he is exploring a Presidential candidacy, arrived in New York to meet the press. First up, on Thursday, was an interview on “CBS This Morning,” where the show’s hosts seemed slightly impatient, like college-admissions officers who had been asked to interview a benefactor’s son. Norah O’Donnell positioned her eyebrows skeptically. “You’re thirty-seven, you represent a town of a hundred and two thousand people—did I get that right? What qualifies you to be President of the United States?” Buttigieg, who has pale skin, thick brown hair, and a formal manner, gave a self-deprecating laugh. “I know that I’m the youngest person in this conversation, but I think that the experience of leading a city through a transformation is really relevant right now,” he said. “Things are changing tectonically in our country, and we can’t just keep doing what we’ve been doing. We can’t nibble around the edges of a system that no longer works.” John Dickerson pointed out that other Democratic candidates were proposing very big ideas—Medicare for All, the abolition of private health insurance—and asked, “What is your idea that is so big that nobody would mistake it for nibbling around the edges?” Buttigieg answered, “Well, first of all, we’ve got to repair our democracy. The Electoral College needs to go, because it’s made our society less and less democratic.” He went on in this vein, suggesting that electoral reform was essential, and promising that other policies, on security and health care, would follow. Viewers were left with the image of an impressive and fluent young politician, whose presence in the Presidential race, and on their screens, had never really been explained.
A few hours later, I met Buttigieg in a busy restaurant in the basement of Rockefeller Center, where the windows looked out at the ice-skating rink. He had taken off his sports coat for an appearance on “The View,” but put it back on for lunch, and he arrived carrying an enormous backpack over his left shoulder. “The View” had gone much better. The hosts were intrigued by the idea that Buttigieg, who came out three and a half years ago, could be the first gay President, and by his campaign’s main theme, which he calls intergenerational justice—he believes that millennials are suffering from their elders’ short-term thinking on climate change, economics, and other issues. Whoopi Goldberg wondered whether such a case could be made without alienating older Americans, and Buttigieg watched her intently, absorbing the criticism. “I think we really hit on something with this idea of intergenerational justice,” Buttigieg told me. “I think the trick for us—and this was a big part of what Whoopi Goldberg was asking about—is there should be a way to make a generational case without this all being about generational conflict. And I think there’s a way to do it.”
Buttigieg, who attended Harvard, studied philosophy, politics, and economics (P.P.E.) at Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, and did a tour in Afghanistan as a naval reservist, can seem like an “old person’s idea of a young person,” as Michael Kinsley once said of Al Gore. Certainly, against the image of the millennial left, and of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Buttigieg appears to be a more prosaic political character—he has a habit of giving answers in numbered sequence, and he uses phrases like “pathway to peace.” But, in his own understated way, he is suggesting a sharp break with the past. If you thought in terms of the effects of public policy on millennials, he said, you began to see generational imbalances everywhere. The victims of school shootings suffered because of the gun liberties given to older Americans. Cutting taxes for the richest Americans meant that young people, inevitably, would have to pay the bill. Climate policy, he said, was the deepest example of the imbalance, but the Iraq War was perhaps the most tangible. “There’s this romantic idea that’s built up around war,” he said. “But the pragmatic view is there are tons of people of my generation who have lost their lives, lost their marriages, or lost their health as a consequence of being sent to wars which could have been avoided.” Then he quoted, happily, from “Lawrence of Arabia”: “The virtues of war are the virtues of young men—courage and hope for the future. The vices of peace are the vices of old men—mistrust and caution.”
For much of his life, Buttigieg has been giving those around him the impression of extreme promise. Both of his parents were professors at Notre Dame, and he grew up in South Bend, near the campus. His father, Joe, was a translator of the Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci and a scholar of James Joyce. His mother, Anne Montgomery, is a linguist. At Harvard, Buttigieg was the student president of the Institute of Politics, a role sought by the most ambitious of the exceptionally ambitious, but he could also suggest a more inquisitive nature. His close friend Nathaniel Myers recalled that Buttigieg had become entranced by the Norwegian novel “Naïve. Super,” by Erlend Loe, taught himself the language to translate another work by the author, and then started periodically attending a Norwegian church in Chicago to keep up. He plays piano, and has sat in with the South Bend Symphony Orchestra and Ben Folds. He was elected mayor of South Bend, in 2011, when he was twenty-nine, and only came out in advance of his reëlection campaign, when he was thirty-three. His wedding, to Chasten Glezman, who was a Montessori middle-school teacher, was broadcast live online.
In 2015, Buttigieg gave a speech at Harvard, and David Axelrod, President Obama’s longtime chief strategist, was in the audience. The speech, Axelrod told me this week, was moving and thoughtful, and he noticed that, though Buttigieg had notes, he rarely consulted them. What struck him was a familiar kind of talent. “His story is an incredible story,” Axelrod said, “but more impressive than the story is the guy. At a time when people are aching for hope and a path forward that we can all walk, he is a relentlessly positive person.”
The following year, Frank Bruni wrote a column proposing Buttigieg as “the first gay President.” In an interview with David Remnick, Obama included Buttigieg on a short list of gifted rising Democrats. “If I told you he was anything other than a long shot, you’d hang up the phone,” Axelrod said, of the Presidential race, but he emphasized the possibility that, as he put it, lightning could strike. “The practical political point is it’s hard to see where he’s going in Indiana. If it doesn’t work out, if there’s a Democratic President looking for talent, I know Pete well enough to know he’s going to be high on the list, and higher for having run.” At the very least, Axelrod said, Buttigieg was likely to emerge from this as “an interesting voice from his generation.”
Part of the paradox of Buttigieg’s candidacy is that he has placed himself in a performative role, without the benefit of a performative personality. “He is reserved, and maybe that’s a hindrance,” Axelrod told me. Chasten Glezman, his husband, told a reporter that Buttigieg is “still coming out of some shells.” In our conversation, he seemed most practiced when talking about policy but most alive when discussing James Joyce. When I asked how he had made the decision to run for President, he brightened, and said that, though he wasn’t a Catholic, he made use of the “Ignatian process of discernment.” He pictured a world in which he became President—perhaps shy of using the word, he referred to it only as “the end state”—and then considered whether it gave him a feeling of “fulfillment or desolation.” Fulfillment, it turned out.
I had noticed that, in his interview on “CBS This Morning,” no one mentioned that Buttigieg could be the first gay President. I asked him whether he saw that as a measure of how quickly gay identity has become accepted. “Depends where you are,” he said, thoughtfully. “You quickly get plunged into this world where you’re supposed to represent your community,” but at that point he had little experience of the gay community. “Like, I will fight for the trans woman of color, but do I really know anything about her experience because I’m married to a dude?”
Coming out while he was mayor also helped emphasize to him the political importance of meeting people where they were. He mentioned an older woman in South Bend who had greeted him after a public event by saying how impressed she was with his “friend.” This could have been a moment to discuss the difference between a friend and a partner, or how important it is not to be euphemistic about love, but Buttigieg decided against it, because the woman obviously felt so good about recognizing his “friend”—for her, this was progress. “So much of politics is about people’s relationships with themselves,” Buttigieg said. “You do better if you make people feel secure in who they are.”
One reason that there are so many candidates for the Democratic nomination for President is that there is no longer much certainty about what qualifies a person for the role. The two Democratic phenomenons of 2018, Ocasio-Cortez and Beto O’Rourke, were a twentysomething activist and a congressman who emphasized his dissolute youth. The President is a former reality-show star. That Buttigieg can plausibly run for the Democratic nomination, as the thirty-seven-year-old mayor of a city that is roughly half the size of Yonkers, depends on this new uncertainty. But it also owes something, paradoxically, to his conventional political style and résumé, which can help persuade the Party’s elders that they are looking not at a revolution but at talent.
Buttigieg described it a little bit differently: part of the gift of being a young politician was what you simply could not remember. In South Bend, which Newsweek had listed among ten dying American cities as he announced his first campaign for mayor, his efforts had been focussed on converting a factory economy to a post-industrial one, and during his tenure the city’s unemployment rate halved. Buttigieg said the break with the past had been easier for him because he could not remember a time when the Studebaker factories that once dominated South Bend were open—they had always just been abandoned urban “furniture” to him.
The element of his generation that most people miss, Buttigieg said, is that it is essentially pragmatic. “Actually, sometimes pragmatism points you in a comparatively radical direction,” he added. “So take universal health care,” he went on. “It is very pragmatic to look around and say, well, the countries that do this tend to be better than the countries that don’t. The system we have isn’t working very well, we ought to try this other system. Politically, it’s never been possible, because it’s been considered socialism, and socialism was a kill switch. Our generation did not live through the Cold War in the same way.”
As I got deeper into lunch with Buttigieg, I began to see him not as a counterweight to the radicalization of his Party but as an expression of it. If the cautious, studious, improbably ambitious Rhodes Scholar in the race, who emphasized the necessity of meeting middle America where it was, was himself supporting the abolition of the Electoral College, then that suggested that the generational transformation of the Party had been completed. Looks deceive. “I am among the most surprised that, as a thirty-seven-year-old mayor, I am being taken at least a little seriously as a candidate for President,” Buttigieg said. “But that very fact reflects that there is something in this moment that calls for newness.”
John D. Dingell, a Michigan Democrat who served in the U.S. House from 1955 to 2015, was the longest-serving member of Congress in American history. He dictated these reflections to his wife, Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), at their home in Dearborn, on Feb. 7, the day he died.
One of the advantages to knowing that your demise is imminent, and that reports of it will not be greatly exaggerated, is that you have a few moments to compose some parting thoughts.
In our modern political age, the presidential bully pulpit seems dedicated to sowing division and denigrating, often in the most irrelevant and infantile personal terms, the political opposition.
And much as I have found Twitter to be a useful means of expression, some occasions merit more than 280 characters.
My personal and political character was formed in a different era that was kinder, if not necessarily gentler. We observed modicums of respect even as we fought, often bitterly and savagely, over issues that were literally life and death to a degree that — fortunately – we see much less of today.
Think about it:
Impoverishment of the elderly because of medical expenses was a common and often accepted occurrence. Opponents of the Medicare program that saved the elderly from that cruel fate called it “socialized medicine.” Remember that slander if there’s a sustained revival of silly red-baiting today.
Not five decades ago, much of the largest group of freshwater lakes on Earth — our own Great Lakes — were closed to swimming and fishing and other recreational pursuits because of chemical and bacteriological contamination from untreated industrial and wastewater disposal. Today, the Great Lakes are so hospitable to marine life that one of our biggest challenges is controlling the invasive species that have made them their new home.
We regularly used and consumed foods, drugs, chemicals and other things (cigarettes) that were legal, promoted and actively harmful. Hazardous wastes were dumped on empty plots in the dead of night. There were few if any restrictions on industrial emissions. We had only the barest scientific knowledge of the long-term consequences of any of this.
And there was a great stain on America, in the form of our legacy of racial discrimination. There were good people of all colors who banded together, risking and even losing their lives to erase the legal and other barriers that held Americans down. In their time, they were often demonized and targeted, much like other vulnerable men and women today.
Please note: All of these challenges were addressed by Congress. Maybe not as fast as we wanted, or as perfectly as hoped. The work is certainly not finished. But we’ve made progress — and in every case, from the passage of Medicare through the passage of civil rights, we did it with the support of Democrats and Republicans who considered themselves first and foremost to be Americans.
I’m immensely proud, and eternally grateful, for having had the opportunity to play a part in all of these efforts during my service in Congress. And it’s simply not possible for me to adequately repay the love that my friends, neighbors and family have given me and shown me during my public service and retirement.
But I would be remiss in not acknowledging the forgiveness and sweetness of the woman who has essentially supported me for almost 40 years: my wife, Deborah. And it is a source of great satisfaction to know that she is among the largest group of women to have ever served in the Congress (as she busily recruits more).
In my life and career, I have often heard it said that so-and-so has real power — as in, “the powerful Wile E. Coyote, chairman of the Capture the Road Runner Committee.”
It’s an expression that has always grated on me. In democratic government, elected officials do not have power. They hold power — in trust for the people who elected them. If they misuse or abuse that public trust, it is quite properly revoked (the quicker the better).
I never forgot the people who gave me the privilege of representing them. It was a lesson learned at home from my father and mother, and one I have tried to impart to the people I’ve served with and employed over the years.
As I prepare to leave this all behind, I now leave you in control of the greatest nation of mankind and pray God gives you the wisdom to understand the responsibility you hold in your hands.
May God bless you all, and may God bless America.