MAY 28, 2019
THOSE WHO DERIDE MILLENNIALS as lazy, selfish, and entitled would do well to consider Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana. Buttigieg has a résumé that would put most baby boomers to shame. Since graduating from Harvard, in 2004, he’s earned a Rhodes Scholarship; worked as a McKinsey consultant; served in Afghanistan with the US Navy; and won city-wide office with more than 70 percent of the vote. Twice.
Having just barely “attained to the Age of thirty five Years,” the threshold mandated in the Constitution, Buttigieg has now turned his ambitions to the White House. The results have been promising: a May 9 Monmouth poll puts Buttigieg third in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, behind only Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. Nationally, too, Mayor Pete is building momentum — as of last week, Quinnipiac had him ahead of party stars like Cory Booker and Beto O’Rourke. Everything can and will change, but it’s a credit to Buttigieg’s vision, intelligence, and thoughtfulness — and, certainly, his status as a white male — that he’s emerged, with such speed, from near-total obscurity to something like viability.
Does such a rise indicate Buttigieg has what it takes to unseat the aged cretin currently squatting in the Oval? I hesitate to guess. But whatever happens in 2020, Buttigieg appears poised to make a substantial contribution to American politics and public life — a fact evident not just from his galvanizing interviews and appearances, but also from his new memoir, Shortest Way Home: One Mayor’s Challenge and a Model for America’s Future. The book is clearly intended as a campaign document, and contains all the humanizing anecdotes and professional backstory typical of a political memoir. But Shortest Way Home is more than just a stump speech with a dust jacket. It’s a vivid and surprisingly lyrical portrait of a city and a man in transition — and an intellectual performance in which Buttigieg succeeds in making his play at the presidency seem entirely, thrillingly appropriate.
Shortest Way Home begins in South Bend, current population 102,000. Once a model of Indiana affluence — the city made bicycles, dowels, mattresses, fishing tackle, and other all-American products — the city’s economy faltered in the 1960s following the closure of the Studebaker auto plant. By the time Buttigieg was a boy, in the mid-’80s, husks of empty factories were so integral a part of the landscape that they seemed practically invisible, like “part of the furniture,” Buttigieg writes.
At 18, Buttigieg moves to Cambridge for college, and after graduating magna cum laude, he embarks on a period of intense professional development. That these early chapters register as more than boastful career exposition — “I worked on the Kerry-Edwards campaign!” “I consulted on Canadian grocery pricing!” — is thanks to the wisdom and elegance of Buttigieg’s voice; indeed, the anti-generic crackle of the sentences made me wonder if Buttigieg had written the book without the services of a ghostwriter: war stories, he says, are “baked with facts but leavened with bullshit”; to visit Arlington Cemetery is to “confront the dictatorship of chance”; political ideology has nothing on “the simple, transitive effect of love.” This is more that just campaign copy — it’s real writing. (Perhaps we should expect nothing less from a man who says his favorite book is Ulysses.)
Buttigieg returns to South Bend in his late 20s, when he embarks on a run for state treasurer (he loses), and a subsequent run for mayor (he wins). Shortest Way Home loses some of its sparkle when Buttigieg takes office; even a writer of his talent can’t make sewer reform interesting. As if sensing this, Buttigieg mixes things up with a unique, present-tense chapter that follows him on a typical morning run through South Bend. It’s a nice device that puts Buttigieg’s writerly stylishness on full display, and communicates the obvious affection he feels for the particulars of his city — for the St. Joseph River, for the migratory geese, for something called “Stink Corner.” And it reveals a crucial piece of information we won’t fully understand until later in the book: here, we see Buttigieg getting out of bed with someone named Chasten. A man. His husband.
Have I mentioned Buttigieg is gay? It’s a marker of just how drastically the politics around gay rights have evolved in the past decade that this fact isn’t considered immediately disqualifying in a presidential candidate. Buttigieg himself noted this shift in a recent interview: “When I got into elected office” — just seven years ago — “it was a given in my mind that you could either be out or you could be in office — not both.”
But Buttigieg has managed to do both, in Mike Pence’s Indiana of all places. After taking leave from his first term as mayor to serve in Afghanistan, Buttigieg returns home eager to be upfront about his sexuality: “Before going overseas,” he writes,
I had felt comfortable being more than one person, as we all sometimes must, according to the roles we are called to play. […] But something about exposure to danger impresses upon you that a life is not only fragile but single, with one beginning and one end. It heightens the desire for your life to make sense as a whole, not just from certain angles.
After telling his parents he’s gay, he writes an essay for the South Bend Tribune to take the news public. Notwithstanding a few internet trolls, some conservative constituents, and an anti-gay newspaper deliveryman who temporarily boycotts Buttigieg on his morning rounds, the reception is generally positive. Buttigieg goes on to win reelection with over 80 percent of the vote.
It’s hard to know what to make of this coming-out story, presented as it is like any of the other career moves chronicled in the book (in true Buttigieg fashion, he meets his future husband a mere two months after the Tribune essay runs). But of course coming out isn’t mere professional development. It’s a statement of identity, of desire, of difference. For many of us, it’s messy and complicated, and involves a certain amount of Sturm und Drang. Shame is a deep-rooted plant, insidious and hard to kill, and for all the ways homosexuality is now “acceptable” in parts of American public life, there’s no eliding this fact.
And yet, as Shortest Way Home would have it, Buttigieg appears immune to shame’s destructive power. Though he admits to the political risk of coming out, he makes no corresponding personal analysis. Is Buttigieg torn up about being gay? How does he come into an awareness of his sexuality? How does he square his desires with the teachings of his Catholic high school? We never find out, and skip straight to the happy ending — to the Norman Rockwell Christmases with in-laws who fill Buttigieg’s stocking with peanut butter cups and Slim Jims.
Buttigieg hinted at some degree of conflict in his coming-out essay when he wrote, “It took years of struggle and growth for me to recognize that [being gay is] just a fact of life, like having brown hair, and part of who I am.” He went even further in speech in April, calling his internal confusion “a kind of war”: “If you had offered me a pill to make me straight, I would have swallowed it before you had time to give me a sip of water,” he said. “If you had shown me exactly what it was inside me that made me gay, I would have cut it out with a knife.” This is strong, powerful stuff — but it’s wholly missing from Shortest Way Home. In its absence, this portion of the book feels like an evasion, a careful stepping-around on the rush home.
Certainly, most political memoirs are happy to avoid anything so complicated as the tempestuous, internal politics of personal sexuality. But Buttigieg’s book is so much better than most political memoirs, and its quality sharpens the reader’s appetite for true confession, for true disclosure. Every human being is a ball of contradiction, desire, and delusion, and watching a writer untangle this ball is one of the chief pleasures of memoir. It’s therefore a disappointment to see Buttigieg go mum on this front when he’s otherwise so forthcoming, at least by the standards of presidential candidates.
And yet, if this silence amounts to a literary failure, it also serves a useful political end: it makes Buttigieg seem all the more palatable to the millions of straight Americans whose support he may soon need. Refusing to write a tortured exegesis on the knotty process of sexual recognition serves to underscore an important point: gays — we’re just like you! It’s a point that already comes easily to Buttigieg, who projects a kind of gay respectability politics quite naturally. Buttigieg presents as more or less heterosexual: he loves the Dave Matthews Band; he speaks in a basso profundo; his worst fault, according to his husband, is his indifference to grocery store expiration dates. Buttigieg is no glitter-covered Cher devotee — though Cher herself is a fan — but a thoroughly unthreatening Middle American who happens to be married to a man.
Of course, this shouldn’t have to be the case: Buttigieg, or any other candidate, should be “allowed” to be as stereotypically gay as they like. But we’re kidding ourselves if we see Buttigieg’s capacity for heterosexual identification as anything but politically useful. Though it may be painful to acknowledge that Buttigieg’s capacity to “read” as straight serves him electorally, well, it does; and if Barack Obama was the right person to make portions of white America comfortable voting for a black man, perhaps Pete Buttigieg is equally well positioned to pull a similar feat with the country’s straight electorate. He’s the transitional figure we need.
In 2012, following two unrelated shootings that occur at the same South Bend address, Buttigieg pays a solo visit to the street corner in attempt to get a feel for the place. Shortly after arriving, a group of locals appears; it turns out the mayor has “inadvertently crashed a kind of impromptu wake.”
A man asks Buttigieg if he wants to speak with one of the victim’s mothers. “Honestly, I didn’t,” he writes. “It’s not that I didn’t wish to comfort her or be helpful, it was just that I didn’t know how.”
Of course, he manages to come up with a boilerplate expression of sympathy. But despite the simplicity of Buttigieg’s words, the exchange goes on to mean a great deal to the woman: in the years following, when she or a relative runs into him around South Bend, they tell him so. As Buttigieg sees it, “What mattered to her was that I showed up. […] Not that I, Pete, was there, but the mayor was there — a walking symbol of the city, and therefore a signifier of the fact that the city cared about her loss.”
Yes, Buttigieg is a brilliant thinker. Yes, he supports a number of bold, thrilling proposals: Medicare “for all who want it,” the abolition of the Electoral College, aggressive climate action, DC statehood, Supreme Court reform, and so on. But Buttigieg is more than an intellect, more than a conveyor of policies. He’s also a symbol.
It matters that he’s gay, that he showed up. I imagine I speak for many other gay men when I try to communicate just how much this means to me, how deeply moving it is to see a television anchor, speaking of Buttigieg, use a phrase like “his husband” — all without batting an eye. There’s a revolution in those two words, and that they just might apply to a major-party nominee — a president — qualifies as a miracle.
Of course, Buttigieg remains a long shot. But for now I choose to linger in the possibility, in the hope, that he and his husband — his husband! — might yet go to the White House. That they, and we, might yet win.