The Road Taken

Pete Buttigieg at a presidential campaign event, 2019
Elizabeth Frantz/The New York Times/Redux
Pete Buttigieg at a presidential campaign event, Exeter, New Hampshire, May 2019

“All his life, he’d displayed an interest in history and politics. He was disciplined, hardworking, bright, and earnest.” That could be a fitting description of Pete Buttigieg, the thirty-seven-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who’s currently running for president of the United States.

But it’s not. It instead describes the youthful promise of our thirty-seventh president, Richard Nixon, in a passage from John A. Farrell’s recent award-winning biography.1 Young, upcoming politicians often make such a sparkling impression, which shows the limits of early distinction and hopeful expectations.

That’s not to say that Buttigieg’s Beaver Cleaver visage may be concealing some secret, sweaty Nixonian paranoia. Surely not. The youngest mayor of an American city with a population over 100,000, elected at the age of twenty-nine, and the first openly gay man in the Democratic Party to run for president, he has a genuine charisma that Nixon would have killed for. In interviews and public appearances, including the CNN town hall that introduced him to millions of Americans who couldn’t even pronounce his name (apparently Maltese for “lord of the poultry”), he has been admirably direct, eloquent, and persuasive on what he calls “intergenerational justice.” The first millennial to run for president, he’s referring to the ways in which today’s geriatric politicians are shafting his generation:

If you’re my age or younger, you were in high school when the school shootings became widespread; you’re going to be dealing with climate change…you’re going to be dealing with the consequences of what they’ve done to the debt; you’re on track to be the first generation ever to make less than your parents.

He has been criticized for being vague, and compared to Elizabeth Warren’s highly specific positions, his website is Policy Lite. But he’s saying things progressives want to hear, referring to climate change as “a national security threat,” supporting labor, calling for a slow-walked single-payer health care system, and demanding universal background checks for gun buyers. He’s been deft at issuing sharp Lilliputian jabs to the fatty presidential flank, remarking on Trump’s draft evasion: “I have a pretty dim view of his decision to use his privileged status to fake a disability in order to avoid serving in Vietnam.” He’s released ten years of his tax returns and has a refreshingly modest income for a presidential candidate. His even-tempered candor has led to a jump in the polls and vaulted him into the top tier of candidates, beyond the reach of the less disciplined, if hipper, youngster Beto O’Rourke.

The money has followed. Suddenly flush with cash, with some polls showing Buttigieg in fourth place (after Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and either Warren or Kamala Harris), his campaign has begun hiring staff. His strong…

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