Requiem for a Lightweight: the Mayor Pete Factor

Photograph Source: Edward Kimmel from Takoma Park, MD – CC BY-SA 2.0

My first sounding, at least from the political echo chamber, of the South Bend mayor came a few months ago, when my wife announced over breakfast that some of her sisters liked the cut of his jib.

I looked him up online, came across McKinsey and the Rhodes scholarship, and, like the rest of the country that lives without television, struggled with the pronunciation of his Maltese surname, Buttigieg, until I learned that a simple “Mayor Pete” would suffice.

In the intervening two months, I thought little more about the mayor, other than to take note that his ranking in the early polls consigned him to that great electoral no man’s land of about five percent that he was sharing with the likes of Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and Beto O’Rourke, all of whom, someday, might regret that they had only one soundbite to give for their country.

As best as I could determine, Mayor Pete was stalking a constituency of the middle ground, by uttering thoughtful clichés about the Rust Belt, the deficit, sexual equality, cops on the beat in South Bend, and the wars on terror—in which he was a deployed as an onward Christian soldier.

His dream is to survive long enough in the primaries so that as a last man standing he could offer himself as an alternative either to the Democratic Shining Path (Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders) or Joe Biden’s Walmart he’s-hopeless-but-he-can-win Amtrak centrism.

To get to the late rounds of the fight, all Mayor Pete has to do is run ahead of Beto O’Rourke (D-Vaudeville) and raise enough money (think of those earnest appeals to support public radio) to keep the campaign wolves away from the door.

* * *

My chance to hear Mayor Pete in front of what game-show Hollywood calls a “live audience” came when I recently flew to New York City and figured out that, while I was there, he would be speaking at the 92nd Street YMCA, which is more famous for its literary round tables featuring Normal Mailer and George Plimpton than as a place you can go….when you’re short on your dough.

I managed to get a ticket for the talk and showed up about twenty minutes before the opening bell. Already there was a long line of Buttigieg supporters queueing to get in and a few security types loitering near the front doors. But this wasn’t one of those Trump rallies from 2016 with sniffer dogs or one of those bus drivers from the movie Slap Shot denting up the campaign bus with a sledgehammer… “makin’ it look mean.” This was the Whole Foods crowd lining up for some presidential latte.

I had thought that there might be a warm-up band at the 92nd Street Y—perhaps some speeches by a few state senators already on the Buttigieg train—but instead all that greeted us on the main stage was two armchairs and a coffee table, suitable either for Gestalt therapy or a campaign rally, which in 2020 adds up to the same thing.

Once the house was full and the lights were dimmed, Mayor Pete and his questioner entered from stage left, where presumably they had been idling in a green room (that inner sanctum of the celebrity class).

Were Mayor Pete more a politician (and less a culturally sensitive icon), he would have chosen to enter the hall from the lobby and would have swept down one of the aisles with handshakes, high fives, fist bumps, and some of those Hillary finger-points for his faithful. Instead he walked on stage with that look of embarrassment and surprise that comes naturally to guests picked randomly from the crowd on Let’s Make a Deal.

Pete’s schtick is that of a working mayor, so he arrived on stage wearing a dress shirt and necktie but no suit jacket, as if maybe, just before the rally, he had been chairing a sanitation meeting or manning a 24-hour crisis hotline. But for whatever reason—his thin frame, his diffidence in front of a crowd—Pete looks more like floor walker at Barney’s, maybe someone assigned to men’s shoes.

The moderator this evening was Jonathan Capehart of the Washington Post editorial board and various talking head assignments. On paper, Capehart is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize and someone who can occasionally come up with primetime insights into the Mueller Report on the PBS NewsHour.

On this occasion, however, he was appearing less as a grand inquisitor and more in the cheerleader role of Ellen DeGeneres, and apparently he came on stage with the intention of “grilling” Mayor Pete on the joys of his marriage to Chasten Glezman and asking “how did it feel” to appear on the cover of Time magazine. Clearly Capehart comes out of the bended-knee, finishing school of journalism.

* * *

Bizarrely, at least for someone who needs to win Ohio, Florida, and North Carolina to be elected president, Mayor Pete began the evening with a long description of his Rhodes scholarship at Oxford (England, not Old Miss), where he took “a first in PPE” (philosophy, politics, and economics) at Pembroke College. (William Pitt the Younger and Monty Python’s Eric Idle are among its famous graduates.)

Perhaps confusing a campaign rally with a search committee at the Kennedy School of Government, Mayor Pete painstakingly went through what was required of a Rhodes scholar to get a degree from Pembroke (he had to make up a year’s worth of economics classes in ten weeks) and what it means to be awarded “a first.” (He got his degree with “first class honors.” It means an A, although for a few awkward moments Capehart kept gushing about Pete’s brilliance for finishing “first” in his class at Oxford.)

The son of professors at Notre Dame, Mayor Pete loves academic questions and will, with very little prompting, explain to his listeners how he was always the smartest kid in the class. And if he was running for a position on the faculty senate at Oberlin College, I might report that he was qualified.

At one point, sounding as though he was at a teach-in, he said gravely, “We have to find the right kind of vocabularies to talk about progressive values.”

Acting like a kindly thesis advisor during orals, Capehart carefully went through each line of Mayor Pete’s curriculum vitae, just so the audience would not miss the fact that after the years at Harvard and Oxford, Pete also got his ticket punched as a 29-year-old mayor in South Bend and as an ensign in the U.S. naval reserve, in which he was deployed as an intelligence officer to NATO command in Kabul.

Oh, and by the way, he also worked as a consultant for McKinsey and, more recently, found time to write his memoirs, Shortest Way Home. It’s painting/writing by the numbers, so any aspiring candidate can sound like the father-dreaming Barack Obama (“A river is made drop by drop”).

In this telling of American history, the president is the person with the highest SAT scores, and the best college essay.

* * *

For all of Buttigieg’s resumé stops—in Oxford, South Bend, Kabul, and Cambridge, Mass.—the only subject on which he can muster much passion is that of The Importance of Being Mayor Pete. (As Brooklyn advance man Walt Whitman said, “I celebrate myself, and sing myself, …”)

On Afghan politics, the in-fighting of the Democratic party, the budget deficit, or how McKinsey pads its billing hours, Mayor Pete sounds like a shy freshmen, someone who has yet to finish the required reading. But on the subject of himself, Buttigieg might well be a tenured professor.

Whenever Capehart asked him why he wanted to be president or whether he was qualified, Mayor Pete’s answer was usually a soliloquy about his immaculate resumé, Ivy degrees, sexual evolution, language fluency, or the high tables at which he has dwelled on St. Augustine, Teilhard de Chardin, Gary Wills, or Graham Greene.

Pete’s big on theologists and writers agonizing about their faith, as was Jimmy Carter. After university, Pete transitioned from his childhood Gipper Catholicism to the Anglican and Episcopal churches (Rhodes scholars on their knees). When Capehart brought up the political question of faith, Mayor Pete responded brightly: “We could talk about this for an hour.”

During a conversation with Mayor Pete, you get a lot of blurbs about “changing the course of the country” and allusions to a “new generation” and the symbolism of running as the first openly gay candidate, but you get almost nothing on Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, the national debt as a payday loan, the opioid crisis, or America’s potholed infrastructure.

But then, I suppose, if you are running on a Selfie platform, those issues are as quaint as William McKinley speaking out on the tariff question or Andrew Jackson denouncing the Second Bank of the United States (“The bank, Mr. Van Buren, is trying to kill me, but I will kill it…”).

* * *

For a presidential candidate, Mayor Pete struck me as someone who is physically awkward, the kind of man who would prefer wandering the stacks at Harvard’s Widener Library more than he would revel in kissing babies at an Iowa county fair.

If you met Pete at work, you might think—at least from his brown shoes and reticent demeanor—that he was yet another outside auditor lost on his way to the cafeteria.

And, yes, it is difficult to imagine him taking on Vladimir Putin and the Russians. Think of Obama in Syria, but without all the backbone.

Buttigieg has the long fingers of a concert pianist and, in person, looks a bit like Mister Rogers (“It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood,” but without the cardigan), if not former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis (who would himself occasionally, during his failed presidential campaign, make jokes in Latin).

Mayor Pete also speaks in the halting cadences of an old man—or at least a full professor—and for much of the evening, I found myself wondering if the youngest candidate in the Democratic field wasn’t, by chance, the oldest, and one prone to the received wisdom imported from Harvard faculty lounges.

Buttigieg did warm to Capehart’s cringeworthy confession that the journalist’s mother likes Mayor Pete, but otherwise the only passion he brought to the event was during an Oprah-like moment, when he spoke in teary defense of Chasten, saying: “I think all of us have a lot to repent for…. but one thing I should absolutely not be repentant for, in the context of my marriage, is that I am in love with my husband.”

Don’t ask, don’t tell, but have ready a long rambling answer that will get the crowd on its feet. Then Capehart flashed up on a big screen tweets from Chasten’s Twitter account, many of which were photographs of GIF rodents and grumpy dogs with scarves. It wasn’t exactly a Woodward and Bernstein moment.

* * *

Donald Trump featured in only a few applause lines, mostly when Capehart pressed Buttigieg on whether he supported a congressional resolution calling for the impeachment of the president.

Such a question was way too terrestrial for the sacerdotal Mayor Pete, but after a few go-rounds on the subject, he did say: “Yeah, I am open to that,” as if Capehart had suggested heading downtown after the event for some sushi at Sugarfish.

Buttigieg is not the kind of Democrat who would spend hours, say, with Representative Adam Schiff, plotting how to take on Trump (as when Harvey Logan asks Butch Cassidy: “Guns or knives, Butch?”)

Pete might be able to quote The Federalist papers on the impeachment articles or recall some details of Richard Nixon’s resignation, but don’t vote for the mayor if you want someone who can rein in the Pentagon, talk trash to the Saudis, or increase appropriations for more corridor rail service.

Why? Because Mayor Pete is a Potemkin candidate, a mayor of symbolism, and his constituency is one of ego and self-love. Like Jay Gatsby, of West Egg, Long Island—yet another itinerant midwesterner trying to reinvent himself in the East—it can be said of Pete that he “sprang from his Platonic conception of himself.”

Ask him about the budget deficit, and sooner rather than later his answer will allude to the fact he is neither a Millennial nor Generation X, but on the cusp of the two astrological iForces shaping the future of the country.

Ask him about Iran, and pretty soon he will switch the answer to his gay marriage and his faith.

Ask him about the economy, and eventually you will get an earful about his deployment to Afghanistan or the English town Gatsby calls Oggsford.

* * *

At the end of the evening, Mayor Pete exited the stage in the same direction from which he entered—from the left. By that point the house, papered with Buttigieg supporters, was on its feet, cheering for more.

All they got was some dyspeptic waving from their man, who as Capehart explained, with grave import, “had to get back to Washington.” Notice he didn’t say South Bend.

The security guards at the front of the hall admitted a few backstage from the donor class, presumably before Mayor Pete departed on his errand of state.

The rest of the crowd drifted onto Lexington Avenue or disappeared into the Uber night, no doubt a little underwhelmed that their man had not shaken any hands or signed autographs. But then the last thing Bernie Sanders wants to do is to mix with his supporters, and look at his favorable poll numbers.

Presumably the Buttigieg campaign enthusiasm will last as long his donors can make the lease payments on the NetJet, or whatever he uses for his magic carpet, and at that point Mayor Pete and Chasten can head back to South Bend and get serious about coaching Little League, to fill in those blanks on the CV. (They already have the obligatory dogs, Truman and Buddy, and their picture on the cover of Time.)

In the end Mayor Pete will fall victim to what so far has delivered him to the presidential jamboree—the paper chase of credentialism.

Without Harvard, Oxford, McKinsey, and Afghanistan on his resumé, Mayor Pete would look more like an overly bright Jeopardy! contestant than a presidential candidate. (Alex Trebek: “He’s the mayor of a midwestern city and in his spare time he wants to be president. Let’s give a big welcome for Pete Buttigieg….”)

But with so many golden tickets in his background, after a while, when voters ask about what it will take to cut the $1 trillion blown on Homeland security or the best way to lower carbon emissions, they will want to hear more than Pete’s self-directed love songs. Whitman said, “I and this mystery, here we stand,” but he wasn’t running for president.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.