Meet Pete Buttigieg, The 37-Year-Old South Bend Mayor And Potential 2020 Candidate
With Meghna Chakrabarti
Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old Democratic mayor of South Bend, Indiana, on why he’s building a presidential run on what he calls “intergenerational justice.”
Mayor Pete Buttigieg, two-term Democratic mayor of South Bend and presidential hopeful. Author of “ Shortest Way Home: One Mayor’s Challenge and a Model for America’s Future.” ( @PeteButtigieg)
From The Reading List
Excerpt from “Shortest Way Home,” by Pete Buttigieg
When I was fourteen, Mom and Dad sent me to St. Joseph High School, the Catholic school up the hill from our place, housed in a 1950s- era tan brick building sometimes confused for a light industrial structure due to the surprisingly high smokestack of its old incinerator. This offered its own sort of political education. At Saint Joe, we were brought up not only to learn Church doctrine on matters like sexuality and abortion, but also to understand the history of the Church as a voice for the oppressed and downtrodden. At all- school mass in the bleachers of the airy, aging gym, we would pray for the various places and peoples around the world experiencing oppression.
My adjustment to high school life first unfolded under the command of Father Bly, who presided from an elevated desk with a dog- eared Bible on it, as he had since the 1960s, teaching the Old Testament. He had reluctantly consented to the mixing of girls and boys a few years earlier, but had succeeded in refusing to allow his room to be renovated, so we sat in those fifties- style seats with the desk built into them, bolted on to the floor. With a sort of terrified reverence, we held still as Father Bly expounded on the wisdom of the ages, beginning with Genesis. As he lectured, he rarely budged from the stool behind his raised desk; rumor had it that with an imperceptible movement he could send that Bible flying into the forehead of any student caught sleeping.
Occasionally he would lighten things up by passing out copies from what must have been a mountainous library of National Geographic back issues, so we could look at pictures of the Holy Land or something else he considered interesting. Once, he distributed an issue that contained satellite photos of subdivisions and golf courses being built in the deserts of Arizona, made possible by irrigation schemes that diverted water from the Colorado River. You could see the giant green squares in the satellite imagery, surrounded by barren sand and mountains. There are whole towns in Mexico, he explained, where the riverbed now runs dry because the water is drained upstream in the American Southwest. Next came the moral of the story:
“This weekend, you will probably go to the University Park Mall, and you may run into some atheists,” he pronounced, lingering on the consonants at the end of the word, hissing a little, atheisssttsss, without losing his aloof posture and hundred- yard stare.
“These atheists will tell you, ‘There is no God, there is no heaven, and there is no hell.’ And how will you answer them? You will tell them, of course there is a God, and a heaven and a hell. There must be a hell. Because where else would you put the man who built this golf course!”
In government class, we were shown the 1989 film Romero, in which Raul Julia plays the Salvadoran bishop assassinated in 1980 by right- wing paramilitary after challenging the ruling elites in El Salvador. Shocked that this could have happened within living memory with what looked like American complicity, I began paying more attention to human rights. The school had a small chapter of Amnesty International, which raised a few hundred dollars a year and conducted letter- writing campaigns. I joined and eventually became president of the six- or- so- strong group. Here came an early lesson in the realities of organizing— it was nearly impossible to get people to volunteer to help write letters to political prisoners at the little card table I put up outside the lunch hall, but we got hundreds to come to the Battle of the Bands organized to raise money for the club.
On balance, the school faculty was far from a liberal bunch. A monument to aborted fetuses on school grounds reminded us all that pro- life politics was an article of faith, and many teachers were skeptical of the perceived bleeding- heart tendencies of their more social- justice- oriented colleagues. Mr. Dubois, who taught gym and drafting, comes to mind. He spoke with a thick southern Indiana drawl, combed what remained of his white hair back, and usually called gym class to order by barking, “LAAAAAHN UP, YOU IDIOTS.” Or occasionally, for variety, “LAAAAHN UP, YOU MORONS.” Over time, I would come to understand that this was a way of showing affection. But you can see how, at least early on, this could be a little intimidating— especially since gym class was not my scene. It would be a good ten years or so before I experienced any real level of physical fitness, so the primary objective was to survive without embarrassment. I could handle myself in touch football just by throwing my weight around, because half my classmates had not yet caught up to my then- imposing five feet eight. But basketball was more nuanced and less forgiving.
Once, after I somehow made a basket, Mr. Dubois pulled me aside at dismissal and offered something that might be described as encouragement. “Butt- man,” he began, “I see a lot of poh- tential in you. Keep working at it.”
But some weeks later, he stopped to talk to me with something else on his mind: he’d heard I was getting mixed up in Amnesty International. Mr. Dubois was not fond of “Ay- rabs,” so I could see where this was going. I stiffened, and told him that I was, that I was running our chapter now, and that I felt that was consistent with the values we were being taught in theology class. There must have been a little more force in my voice than either of us had expected, because he responded with a respectful nod followed by a cheerful snort: “Well, to each his own, I guess.” He smiled and returned his gaze to his clipboard as he proceeded toward a new victim on the gym floor, a sophomore whom he had decided for some reason to nickname “Re- cruit.”
By high school I had traded my oversized, thick glasses for contact lenses, but my eyesight was getting worse every year, smothering my childhood aspiration of becoming an astronaut or at least a pilot. But in the meantime I had begun to wonder what it would be like to be involved in public service directly, instead of reading or watching movies about it. Could political action be a calling, not just the stuff of dinner table talk?
I got onto every mailing list I could, and from every political persuasion, from the local Republican Party to the Democratic Socialists of America. I wanted to find out how people went about being involved in ways more impactful than lonely letter- writing campaigns. And I decided to try my hand at leadership in student government, first losing an election for student body treasurer but then winning one for senior class president. In an assembly in the dining hall, the five or so candidates for class president gave our short speeches, using a closed- top trash can as a kind of makeshift podium, and once the scraps of paper got counted up, I had won my first election.
I kept up top grades, and by senior year a flow of mailed college recruiting brochures accumulated into an avalanche on our dining room table. Sifting through them, I tried to picture a future as a college student. There was something distant and even intimidating about the imagery— confident, smiling, diverse students in sweatshirts chatting and laughing in small groups on tidy quadrangles, or walking cheerily with their backpacks through autumn foliage on slightly different variations of the universal college campus. It was hard to picture myself at ease like these students; I wasn’t even at ease in the halls of my own high school, even as a class president. But the letters and brochures made it seem like the colleges were happy to have me. I applied to about ten of them, hoping above all for a shot at Harvard. The odds seemed long— I’d heard of even valedictorians from Saint Joe being turned away— but I had to make the attempt.
When I got home one day and saw a letter from Harvard on the mail table, I didn’t get my hopes up too much. It was not a thick envelope. I feigned nonchalance, setting my backpack down before heading back to pick up the letter that might hold a key to my future, while my parents kept a discreet but unconvincing distance in the living room. I usually open letters with my finger, but this one deserved a letter opener. Pulling out the page of watermarked paper, I read the opening line over and over again: “I am delighted to inform you . . .”
Slowly, I allowed myself to believe the letter from this dean of admissions, and by the time I studied the bottom, with a little “Hope you will join us” written in ballpoint pen near the signature, it felt like the establishment had thrown its doors open and beckoned me inside.
All I had to do was leave South Bend.
I had never been to Boston, but I wound up going twice during that last semester of high school. The first was a planned college visit after I got admitted, sleeping on the floor of a freshman dorm and learning what to expect from the campus, at least physically. The second was an all- expense- paid trip that came as even more of a surprise than the admission to Harvard.
At the urging of my teachers, I had submitted an entry to an essay contest sponsored by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library as part of their annual Profile in Courage Award. Around South Bend, President Kennedy was on par with Lincoln. As the first Catholic president, he had won the undying loyalty of the white ethnic working class, and as the man who had invited America to shoot for the moon, he was the first example of presidential leadership that I had understood as a child. Participating in the contest seemed almost like a duty.
I worked for days on an essay about Carolyn McCarthy, who had run for Congress on gun policy issues after her husband was shot and killed on the Long Island Rail Road. I had nearly finished the essay when I went online to research a couple last details— and found out that the previous year’s winner had written about the same person. I would have to start from scratch.
Rushing to come up with an alternate plan, I decided to write about someone I had found even more interesting, if a little more edgy politically. An obscure Vermont congressman, Bernie Sanders, had been reelected for years as a socialist— in a (then) generally Republican state. At a time when vagueness and opportunism in politics seemed to be the order of the day, here was an elected official who succeeded by being totally transparent and relentless about his values. “Socialist” was the dirtiest word in politics, yet he won because people saw that he came by his values honestly. Regardless of whether you agreed politically, it certainly seemed like a profile in courage to me.
Years later, when I was running for mayor, I would check my mailbox one morning and find a mass mailing from the local Republican Party (I guess I was still on the list) warning that Pete Buttigieg was dangerously leftist, citing the high school essay as proof. I wasn’t too worried about it— by then even many local Republicans were supporting me— but it prompted me to go back and find the essay.
It definitely reads like something written by a high schooler, starting with the opening sentence: “In this new century, there are a daunting number of important issues which are to be confronted if we are to progress as a nation.” Other comments fit the times then but no longer ring true— such as when I lamented that a strong conservative like Pat Buchanan “has been driven off the ideological edge” of an increasingly centrist Republican Party. But the basic premise still holds: that candidates for office can easily develop “an ability to outgrow their convictions in order to win power,” and that Sanders was an inspiring exception.
Also impressive to me then was the fact that Sanders often worked across the aisle, collaborating with Republicans when possible and using his position as the only independent in Congress to drive dialogue on issues like trade. The lesson here, which Sanders himself would demonstrate some twenty years later when he ran for president, was that bipartisanship and appeal to independents was not the same thing as ideological centrism. I wrote that Sanders’s “real impact has been as a reaction to the cynical climate which threatens the effectiveness of the democratic system.”
I had forgotten about the contest until one day in March, when one of my teachers appeared, beaming, in the hall and pulled me aside after class. I had won first prize, she said, and would be flown to the library in Boston to meet the award committee and accept the scholarship money that went along with it.
A few weeks later, wearing a newly purchased suit (my first), I stepped into the soaring atrium of the JFK Library in Boston Harbor. Beneath its giant American flag, flanked by my parents, our principal Mr. Cassidy, and two teachers from Saint Joe, I was ushered to an elevator and up to a reception room commanding views of the Boston skyline, with planes descending toward the airport and ships crossing the harbor. It was unlike anything in Indiana.
My eyes widened as people I had only read about in the news milled about, holding soft drinks. The lanky and cheerful Senator Al Simpson, Republican from Wyoming, widely known as one of the wittiest members of Congress, began talking to me as if we’d known each other for years. (I was too new around politics to realize that for him this was a professional skill as well as a personal quality.) “You have to keep a sense of humor, otherwise they’ll chew your ass and it’ll get you down,” he advised. A distinguished- looking journalist named John Seigenthaler casually mentioned that he had launched USA Today, while another elderly patrician gentleman dropped that he had once chaired the Democratic National Committee.
Dignified and quiet, Caroline Kennedy was standing a little apart from the other guests with her three children at her side, looking as much like an attentive mother as like the American political royalty she was. Then, I had my first experience of the feeling in a room when a very famous person walks in. The energy of the room shifted perceptibly, and I turned to see the arrival of Senator Ted Kennedy, “the Lion of the Senate.” Moving slowly but with a kind of fire in his crisp blue eyes that made him all at the same time seem fierce and warm, he was heralded by the kids yelling, “Uncle Teddy!” as they rushed from Caroline’s side into his enormous embrace.
Feeling at once elevated and humbled, I was suddenly aware of looking like an Indiana hayseed, a schoolboy shaking hands with an icon. I have no recollection of what either of us said, until the end of the conversation, when he offered me an internship the following summer in his Washington office. His voice, full of Boston ah’s, sounded just like that of President Kennedy challenging America to go to the moon and do other great things, “naht because they are easy, but because they ah hahd.” In my mind, listening to the senator speak, I heard the strains of historic presidential leadership.
It felt like I had been handed a ticket to the major leagues.
Excerpted from Shortest Way Home: One Mayor’s Challenge and a Model for America’s Future by Pete Buttigieg. Copyright © 2019 by Pete Buttigieg. Used with permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
New Yorker: “ Pete Buttigieg’s Quiet Rebellion” — “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.’ ”
CNN: “ ‘I’m not going to miss this moment’: Pete Buttigieg is running to make history” — “South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg is trying to make history.
“Should he win the Democratic presidential nomination and defeat President Donald Trump in 2020, Buttigieg, 37, would be the youngest (and first millennial) president in US history, the first candidate to go straight from the mayor’s office to the White House, and the first out gay president.
“But Buttigieg, who is known around town as ‘Mayor Pete,’ isn’t getting ahead of himself: He knows he’s a long shot for the White House. In a recent Monmouth University poll, only 14% of Democrats and those that lean Democrat could form an opinion of him and 58% said they had never heard of him.”
Stefano Kotsonis produced this hour for broadcast.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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