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Plumbers and Steamfitters Local Union 33 has a sculpture of two 20-foot wrenches emerging from the mud out by its pocked parking lot in Des Moines, Iowa. Inside, a public bathroom features a shower adorned with gone-gray towels and multiple containers of industrial-strength body wash, presumably for cleaning up after some kind of toxic toilet encounter. It is all very manly. If this were a Joe Biden event, the ex-VP would just grunt “Scranton, Scranton” for 30 minutes before waving and disappearing back into his motorcade.
But it’s not. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg sits up front. Well, he sits for a moment but then stands because he is not tall. He is jacketless, and wearing one of his 612 white-shirt-and-blue-tie combos. The outfit and his Supercuts haircut make him look like the guy whose plot arc was cut out of Office Space.
He fields a question from a voter about his favorite book. Buttigieg is ready. He extols the connection between the American worker’s daily struggles and, uh, Leopold Bloom. “I’ve got to go with Ulysses,” says Buttigieg. When he ran for Indiana state treasurer in 2010, his staff told him ixnay on the Oyce-Jay. He still lost by 400,000 votes, so that advice has been discarded.
Buttigieg laser-locks eyes with his questioner, one of his connecting techniques. He does this with everyone, from a man advocating for incarcerated murderers having voting rights, to the Spanish–language reporter whom he tells, “Estoy teniendo una conferencia de prensa después del evento” (“I am having a press conference after the event”). He shrugs: “I don’t know how to say press gaggle in Spanish.”
He then lays out how James Joyce sorta, kinda led him to run for president.
“It’s not beach reading, but I think it is a really important book because it puts everyday life at the center, and it’s doing the same thing in literature that I’m trying to do in politics,” Buttigieg says, but admits — as any AP English student knows — the book is somewhat indecipherable. “It’s one day in June, and it’s mostly about this one guy, this middle-class guy talking about his life in Dublin.”
There are some wrinkled brows in the crowd. What the hell does this have to do with Trump, Joe Biden sniffing some lady’s hair, and Chinese tariffs?
Then comes the pivot.
“I think American greatness has more to do with the everyday than anything else,” says Buttigieg. “In the post-Cold War period, we’ve been taking away investment in all the things that make everyday life better in our country. We’ve been disinvesting in public education. We have been disinvesting in infrastructure. We have been disinvesting in health care, and it’s making our everyday lives harder.”
He pauses for a moment to let this sink in.
“No matter how spectacularly powerful our military is, no matter how impressive our space program is, it isn’t going to come to much if we can’t deliver a good everyday life for Americans.” He smiles a little smile. “So, I guess my literary tastes are like my political tastes: I want things that focus my view on the everyday.”
The crowd goes wild! OK, maybe NPR singles-night wild. Still, there is light in their eyes as they contemplate replacing our porn-star-banging, syntax-mangling president with a 37-year-old gay Rhodes scholar/Afghanistan veteran who likes to install Wi-Fi sensors in his city’s sewers and plays Spoon on the piano. (Buttigieg’s most baffling inconsistency is that he insists he loves Dave Matthews and Radiohead.) He is married to a 29-year-old man who adores 30 Rock.
It is not clear if we are still in Iowa or in an Evelyn Waugh novel.
On the surface, Pete Buttigieg should be number one on the “What the hell are you thinking running for president?” list. He likes to say that, with his seven years as mayor, he has more executive experience than Trump or Mike Pence. Still, the number of people in South Bend who have voted for Buttigieg could fit into the end-zone section of Notre Dame Stadium, with room left over for Touchdown Jesus and the Twelve Apostles. A telling fact in his otherwise readable Shortest Way Home: One Mayor’s Challenge and a Model for America’s Future is that not much happens. While Biden was counseling Barack Obama about Osama bin Laden, Buttigieg was drawing up roundabouts to improve traffic flow and beautifying downtown South Bend.
And yet he has caught fire. There’s been a Time cover, a stint slow-jamming the news on Fallon, and a standing ovation at a Fox News town hall in New Hampshire. He has raised $7 million, not Biden or Bernie Sanders territory, but more than enough to build an operation in early primary states. Trump slagged him, saying the country was not going to elect a man who looks like Alfred E. Neuman, immediately cementing Mayor Pete as a credible candidate. Buttigieg zinged back, “I guess it’s a generational thing — I didn’t get the reference.” (Buttigieg speaks eight languages, so the idea he never heard of Mad’s Neuman seems dubious.)
Some of his success can be attributed to his being the first openly gay candidate for president. (Buttigieg came out in 2015 at age 33.) He mentions a BYU student who was inspired to come out because of him. “It’s not unusual for someone, usually someone a little older, to come up to me in the airport or on the street, start to say something, then just begin crying,” Buttigieg tells me. In person, he comes across as brave and unflappable, which, he suggests, might be a defense mechanism. “One reason that some people develop a calm personality is that you feel emotions so strongly that you learn quickly to govern them,” he says with a wry smile.
He is matter-of-fact about his sexuality. His marriage exists “by the grace of a single vote on the U.S. Supreme Court,” Buttigieg has said in his speeches. He even launched some finely aimed barbs at Pence, telling an LGBTQ political-action committee, “If me being gay was a choice, it was a choice that was made far, far above my pay grade. That’s the thing I wish the Mike Pences of the world would understand. That if you’ve got a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me. Your quarrel, sir, is with my creator.”
Buttigieg’s campaign has been careful not to pigeonhole him as “the gay candidate.” In the 2020 Democratic race, there isn’t a major wedge issue — like the Iraq vote in 2008 — to separate candidates. Most hold similar positions on Trump, abortion, gun control and health care. (In June, Buttigieg came out more forcefully for impeachment, and is in favor of Medicare for all who want it, with private insurance still available as a supplement.) His Afghanistan service protects him from the “lightweight” charge, but is also a distinctive perspective that few elites have in America. Buttigieg split his time between investigating how the Taliban financed terror and something more visceral: avoiding roadside bombs as he drove supply trucks outside of the wire. His military service gives him gravitas when he is asked what is and what isn’t worth American blood.
“Our whole set of ideas on this was scrambled by seeing things like the failure in Rwanda and the failure in Iraq and wondering how between them we can find a good doctrine,” Buttigieg tells me as we sit in a glorified walk-in closet at his campaign office that seems also to be a resting place for audio-visual equipment. He says that in Afghanistan he felt lost when considering what success there would look like.
“If we’re talking about military intervention, core American interests have to be at stake,” Buttigieg says. “Anything we’re about to do in our interests must be vetted against our values, because part of how Afghanistan got to be the way it is is that we got lazy about our values and who we supported, and it came back and bit us.” A few seconds later, he adds another qualification — “Then there’s the Obama proviso: Don’t do stupid shit.”
Buttigieg’s campaign has been a sly combination of ambition and love, wearing boxing gloves while singing about hearts and flowers. He throws elbows, but they’re tempered with Midwestern politeness, hitting Biden’s pledge of a return to bipartisanship with “Normal hasn’t been working for a lot of people. . . . We’ve got to create a new normal.” He doesn’t mention the former vice president by name.
Buttigieg throws the left some red meat by calling for the abolition of the Electoral College and stacking the Supreme Court. At first, he didn’t talk about Trump explicitly except to say, “It is the nature of grotesque things that you can’t look away.”
Instead he speaks of the nation at a crossroads.
“We are living on one of those blank pages in between chapters in American history,” he said. “What comes next could be ugly — or it could be amazing.”
But does Buttigieg have a path to victory? He has already out-Beto’d Beto O’Rourke on the shiny-new-thing front. Part of that is Buttigieg being gay. So far, that has played out in a somewhat counterintuitive way, with voters thinking, “Mayor Pete may be gay, but he is just like us.” Calmness and intelligence are his calling cards, a stark contrast to our current president. He is the opposite of angry, and that appeals to an exhausted and tormented nation. Still, will America turn over the nuclear codes to the mayor of Indiana’s fourth-largest city?
“The closer you get to Iowa and New Hampshire, the more voters start playing it safe when there’s a sitting president you want to get rid of,” says political consultant Joe Trippi, who saw this happen to Howard Dean, his candidate in 2004. Another consultant who ran a general-election campaign tells me that he is hugely impressed by Buttigieg, but adds, “What state can he win? I have trouble coming up with one.” (Back home in Indiana, Buttigieg is in third, behind Biden and Sanders.)
Buttigieg is currently polling on the medal stand in New Hampshire and Iowa. But when the campaign turns to the more racially diverse part of the country, he faces trouble. Then there’s the feat of trying to build a national organization overnight. Trippi has worked on six presidential campaigns, lunched with Mayor Pete before he declared and admires Buttigieg, but he fears it can’t be done.
“You are in a home-built contraption that’s never been flight-tested,” says Trippi. “That’s everything from inexperienced staff, to a first-time candidate, to just trying to hire people fast enough and put them in the right roles. At the same time, you’ve got to raise the money. You’re rolling down the runway and somebody’s screaming that they just finally got the altimeter into the instrument board.”
PETE BUTTIGIEG DOES not turn down the media. Ever.
It’s primary election day in South Bend for the race to name Buttigieg’s successor, so the mayor is back in town — he’s been away from his paying job for 40 of the past 90 days. He is at his campaign office doing an interview with the Skimm, a news site for millennial women that will give you the world in 120 seconds. He has sipped some whiskey with the correspondent for some reason. The crew is now filming B-roll, and Buttigieg is walking up and down a hallway. The camera operator misses something, and Buttigieg has to do it again. His face reddens not out of anger but embarrassment. Buttigieg has an idea.
“How about this time I walk out the door so it looks like I’m going somewhere?” he asks.
A few minutes later, the twentysomething crew high-five each other and disappear. Buttigieg wanders down a hallway, says hello to a campaign staffer and pets a puppy she is training to be a service dog. I followed Buttigieg for two weeks from South Carolina to South Bend to Chicago, ending in Iowa. The thing that stuck with me is that Buttigieg comes across as a normal human, whether he was facing a wall of cameras or talking to me about the guilt or innocence of American turncoat Alger Hiss. This may seem like a low bar, but many presidential candidates never reach it.
Buttigieg’s achievements could be construed in a Tracy Flick-esque manner, but no one is better at self-inoculation. I mentioned to an Indiana political reporter who has covered Buttigieg’s campaign from the larval stage that, given Buttigieg’s black-voters deficit, maybe the mayor should skip Fallon and go build a house in an urban neighborhood with Jimmy Carter. The reporter sent me a photo of Buttigieg building a house in 2018. That weekend, Buttigieg visited Carter at his Sunday-school class.
Buttigieg is the only child of Joseph Buttigieg, a Notre Dame professor (spoiler alert: a Joyce scholar) who immigrated to America from Malta and met his wife, Jennifer, in New Mexico. They soon moved to South Bend, where Joseph taught and Jennifer worked as a linguist. Despite Pete not understanding the game completely, Joseph and his son had coveted Notre Dame football season tickets. His parents insisted on staying in the city while other professors and professionals fled to the suburbs. (Pete and his husband, Chasten, live in a house on the same block where Buttigieg grew up.) Joseph protested Ronald Reagan’s appearance on campus over the president’s Central America policy, but still took his son to the airport so he could see Air Force One.
In high school, Buttigieg was president of the student council and voted most likely to be president of the United States. He won a trip to Boston as a senior for an essay on why he thought Bernie Sanders was a courageous politician. His campaign staff urged that I talk to his AP-economics teacher for color. In his spare time, Buttigieg learned multiple languages and played piano and guitar.
Buttigieg even turns his repressed sexuality to his advantage. I ask him if he regretted missing romance and liaisons while he was in his twenties. He turns that angst upside down.
“If dating had been available to me in my twenties, I’m not sure I would have achieved much of anything,” Buttigieg says. “There’s a lot of energy in your life that’s got to go somewhere, so it went into work.”
Maybe it’s true. His twenties were a Best and Brightest track to Harvard, a Rhodes scholarship during which, according to The New Yorker, he learned Norwegian while in the loo. He joined the Navy Reserve in 2009 as an intel officer, and conducted mayoral meetings from an Afghan rooftop when he served a seven-month tour of duty in 2014. Fortuitously, he also wrote an opinion piece for the Harvard Crimson denouncing the Iraq War.
Some on the left have criticized him as an establishment box-checker, hoovering up credentials as the world burned around him. The mention of this criticism is one of only two times in a week on the trail that I see Buttigieg get remotely defensive. (The other is a brief grimace when an Iowa questioner keeps insisting that South Bend is a small city.)
“I was advised to be careful about my profile,” Buttigieg says. “Once somebody mentioned me being a Rhodes scholar, and there was this big ovation. It was a reminder to me that working people want their kids to have great educational opportunities.”
Buttigieg returned home to South Bend in 2010 at the age of 28 after three years at McKinsey & Company, an international firm that advises companies on efficiency that sometimes means downsizing, which is probably why McKinsey is rarely mentioned in his bio. Since no one else seemed interested, Buttigieg ran for state treasurer against Richard Mourdock, who would become infamous two years later during a Senate run for saying that pregnancy — even from rape — is something “God intended.” But there was no gaffe in that election, and Buttigieg lost by a landslide. A self-described geek, Buttigieg wasn’t a natural campaigner but decided to try again in 2011 and run for mayor of his hometown, the job he probably wanted all along.
“We’d go to an event, and I’d say, ‘You’re going to shake every hand in this room, and then you can join me for dinner,’ ” says Mike Schmul, who managed Buttigieg’s mayoral bid and now runs his presidential campaign. Buttigieg got better.
Campaigning, Buttigieg has copied the sleeves-rolled-up, wade-into-the-crowd style of an RFK. It’s probably not an accident. He tells me he admires JFK. “He didn’t pretend to be something he wasn’t,” Buttigieg says. This is a slightly Disneyfied take on Kennedy, who secretly womanized, and popped pills to hide a potentially fatal case of Addison’s disease.
Back in South Bend, Buttigieg jokes that the Kennedy comparisons only go so far.
“You know, definitely by the standards of JFK, I really am a man of the people,” Buttigieg says with a smile. “The biggest thing that I have going for me is that people view me as what you see is what you get.”
I WOULDN’T SAY Buttigieg has choreographed his every move, but there have been some dancing lessons. As mayor, he set downtown revitalization and tearing down abandoned homes as his two primary goals, both ideas that are understandable on a national stage. In 2014, The Washington Post called him “The Most Interesting Mayor You’ve Never Heard Of.” With no logical office to run for in blood-red Indiana, Buttigieg launched a campaign to be national Democratic Party chairman in 2017, running against the more established Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison and former Labor Secretary Tom Perez, the eventual winner. The DNC-chair race was a no-lose situation. He was never in danger of winning, but he achieved much networking with an eye toward 2020.
But now comes the hard part. Buttigieg won re-election as mayor with 8,500 votes. That is barely more than an alderman needs to win a ward in Chicago. Buttigieg has not yet proved he can move his national support beyond the smart set. This is most evident in South Carolina. Pete Fever is in its early stage with Buttigieg and Chasten, a schoolteacher, appearing on the cover of Time. Before a North Charleston town hall, I run into his communications adviser Lis Smith. She is pure adrenaline. “Pete thinks the honeymoon is ending,” she says. “It’s not.”
Outside, a line stretches more than a hundred yards as 600 people wait to slip into North Charleston High School, while Buttigieg blushes backstage as a photographer asks him to touch his nose, his face and his hair to get contrast for his picture.
This is all promising, but I count exactly 13 African Americans in the crowd. (North Charleston is 47 percent black.) Inside, about half of the African Americans are placed onstage behind Buttigieg to give the illusion of diversity. The lack of actual diversity is the main source of questions from reporters following his speech. It continues the next day in rural Orangeburg, in front of another almost all-white town hall. Charles Patton, a black student from South Carolina State, asks the first question: “Mayor Pete, are you for us? If so, what exactly does that entail when speaking in regards to black and brown lives?”
Buttigieg first responds with policy, ticking off five things he wants to do for disadvantaged Americans: home ownership, better health care, criminal-justice reform, entrepreneurship and improved public schools. “One of the most important pieces of homework for our campaign is to make sure there is no question in the minds of any minority voters, black voters, be it in South Carolina or anywhere in the country, where I stand and what I will do,” he says. Sensing this isn’t what Patton wants to hear, Buttigieg gets blunt: “I need help. Out here, people are just getting to know me, and trust, in part, is a function of quantity time, and we are racing against time.”
I catch up with Patton afterward. “The main issue is trust,” Patton tells me. “We have been lied to so many times.” He pauses for a moment. “I like what I heard. I think I can trust him.”
There are multiple factors working against Buttigieg with black voters, beginning with the superficial. He looks like the youngest member of New Kids on the Block. Add Cory Booker’s and Kamala Harris’ presence in the race, throw in Biden, Obama’s trusty Robin, and you’ve got three candidates with visceral ties to the community. There may be another reason for Buttigieg’s nonsupport, the stat that dare not speak its name: African Americans have been traditionally less comfortable with gay marriage. While 62 percent of whites support gay marriage, only 51 percent of blacks do, a number undoubtedly lower in the evangelical South.
Whatever the cause, it has to be fixed. A poll came out a few days after the Orangeburg town hall showing Buttigieg polling at exactly zero percent among South Carolina’s black voters. Honeymoon over.
Buttigieg likes to say that the African American voters in South Bend, who know him best, love him and contributed to him being re-elected 80 percent to 20 percent in 2015. This is a bit of magical thinking. Buttigieg’s relationship with the South Bend black community is complicated, and he won a predominantly African American ward by only a 52-48 spread in 2015.
Not since Gov. Mike Dukakis ran on the Massachusetts Miracle in 1988 — arguing that his transformation of his home state could be duplicated at the national level — has a candidate relied so heavily on a turnaround story as Buttigieg does with South Bend. A lot of it is true. Like much of the Rust Belt, the city had been in seemingly permanent decline. After carmaker Studebaker abandoned the town nearly 60 years ago, population dropped almost 25 percent, from 130,000 in 1960 to 100,000 in 2010. Buttigieg promised technocratic changes — he employed a team of Notre Dame whiz kids to map which houses were abandoned — and youthful optimism. “A city gets beaten down enough, it forgets what is possible,” says Mark Neal, who served as acting mayor while Buttigieg was in Afghanistan. “Pete reminded people that there were things we could do.”
The downtown has been revitalized with new construction, new restaurants and a glorious light show that reflects off the St. Joseph River nightly. Buttigieg installed sensors on the city’s ancient pipes to ensure water flowed safely. He even helped rename a major downtown street Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
But the day-to-day impact on South Bend’s 27,000 black residents is less clear.
Giving Buttigieg props for renaming a street is a “pretty low bar,” says Regina Williams-Preston, a South Bend council member who has both good and bad things to say about the mayor. (She lost a mayoral bid this spring.) She takes me on a tour through the city, pointing out a general lack of black construction workers and showing me the sites of one of Buttigieg’s main policies, the demolition of 1,000 vacant homes in 1,000 days. The policy was both welcomed and disputed. “They were taking down whole blocks at a time, and that could cause the spread of lead and asbestos,” Williams-Preston says. By her account, the Buttigieg administration wanted to push on but faced opposition. “Finally, Pete kind of backed down and was like, ‘OK, let’s put a moratorium on this. Let’s train our inspectors to identify asbestos.’ ”
That wasn’t the major issue. Shortly after taking office, Buttigieg was contacted by federal investigators informing him that police chief Darryl Boykins, South Bend’s first black police chief, was under investigation for illegally taping conversations with other police officers. Buttigieg was disappointed that Boykins hadn’t told him about the investigation and, understanding that the feds would act if he hesitated, fired him over the phone. The black community’s displeasure was expressed loudly for months.
“I learned not to fire somebody remotely,” Buttigieg tells me. “I should’ve sat down with the chief and had that conversation, at the very least. I don’t think there would’ve been this back-and-forth with his resignation. I never made that mistake again.”
But the damage had been done, especially when it was rumored that some of the recorded police officers had made racial slurs on the tapes. Buttigieg, citing pending legal action, refused to release or even listen to the tapes, which outraged black citizens. From there, it was a long slog back to trust.
But Mayor Pete worked at it. A practicing Episcopalian, Buttigieg started visiting black churches on Sundays. A concerted effort was made to be the first on the scene after a shooting. He helped set up a citizens’ violent-crime task force while allowing activists to get the credit. “In a lot of cities, the mayor is the face of it,” says Gladys Muhammad, a longtime activist. “He was the initiation, but he took a back seat so that it could happen.”
Buttigieg won back many South Bend African Americans. Still, a recent Prosperity Now study showed that 40 percent of South Bend African Americans live below the poverty level, a rate significantly higher than the national average. (To his credit, Buttigieg was the one who urged for the study to be done in the first place.) Williams-Preston gives him points for working hard to improve things for South Bend minorities, but she isn’t quite ready to sign off on a miracle.
“He started a conversation here in South Bend, and that’s great,” Williams-Preston tells me as we drive out of downtown toward neighborhood roads filled with potholes. “With Pete, he’s saying, ‘Well, I can be president because we’re this model for America.’ I don’t know about that.”
A few hours after I interview Buttigieg, the mayor is at Corby’s Irish Pub in South Bend, celebrating the mayoral-primary victory of his hand-picked successor, James Mueller, Buttigieg’s former chief of staff and classmate at St. Joseph High. Mueller is supposed to be the focus, but most of the turnout zeroes in on Buttigieg. There are red-flushed men in Notre Dame gear, and a drunk-off-his-ass, longhaired local reminding Buttigieg that he volunteered on his first campaign. Buttigieg patiently listens to all comers. His husband is here too, posing for selfies with grandmothers. “Chasten reminds me that getting my head out of politics at least every now and then is really important,” Buttigieg tells me. “What we want from each other is much deeper, and it’s not conditioned on what’s happening professionally.” Eventually, the couple want children, and they look like naturals as they pose for a picture with a baby in a stroller. There is something else I noticed before Buttigieg and his husband disappear in an SUV: A significant number of African Americans have filled the bar — from business types in sport jackets to working men in Timberlands. At this moment, a Buttigieg bridge to the black community doesn’t seem impossible.
But then the bridge blew up. On June 16th, a white South Bend cop shot and killed Eric Jack Logan, a 54-year-old black man who the officer said was breaking into cars and raised a knife toward him. The officer was wearing a body camera but the camera wasn’t turned on.
The South Bend African American community erupted, re-opening wounds Buttigieg had hoped were healing. He tried to face the issue head on, appearing at a community rally where he talked with grieving citizens, one who shouted, “You running for president and you want black people to vote for you?”
On June 23rd, Buttigieg held a town hall meeting in South Bend to hear more from the community. He was repeatedly heckled. People were incensed over the shooting, but also because the South Bend police department has gone backwards in diversity — there were 26 black South Bend officers in 2014; there are now 13, only 5 percent of the total department. The fact that Buttigieg’s powers as mayor don’t allow him to unilaterally fire the officer who shot Logan was lost amid the rage. All Buttigieg could do was admit he had failed.
“The effort to recruit more minority officers to the police department and the effort to introduce body cameras have not succeeded and I accept responsibility for that.“
This didn’t satisfy some citizens. One shouted, “We don’t trust you!”
Buttigieg appeared on the verge of tears talking to the press after the town hall. It reminded me of something he had told me earlier about how those who feel the most learn at an early age to tamp down those emotions in public. But Buttigieg’s Obama-like cool was now gone. Asked whether it was wise to hold a town hall when the city was still enraged, Buttigieg shrugged and said quietly, “I don’t know if it’s smart or not, I don’t know if it’s strategic or not, but this is my city and I have a relationship with everybody who looks to the city to keep them safe.”
That relationship — which enabled Mayor Pete to run in the first place — now holds his presidential hopes in its angry hands.
PETE BUTTIGIEG’S FATHER died in January, just as he was launching his presidential exploratory campaign. In his last days, Joseph was on a ventilator, but father and son still talked politics. From a love of Joyce to heartfelt conversations around the dinner table, Buttigieg was very close to his parents; his mother still lives a few blocks away.
“One thing I learned from them is a sense of the way big, big forces and little things interact,” says Buttigieg. He says that there was some of his father’s work he didn’t understand, but it didn’t lessen its importance: “An idea that happens in a very theoretical, abstract space, centuries later, winds up moving the history of an entire country. That can happen in good and bad ways. It’s how America got started, right?”
I ask him if the fresh tragedy gave him pause about running, but he didn’t think about taking a pass.
“The medical advice that we were getting contemplated the question of whether it was worth being more aggressive just so he could see more of this, in pain,” says Buttigieg. “In the end, it wasn’t medically right for him. A really important part of our last few days together was him seeing this process play out.”
The process, Buttigieg has learned, involves endless air miles. There have been trips to L.A. to harvest lucrative political funds. An appearance at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, where he would probably be elected president by acclamation, had a line two blocks long. Name a podcast, and Buttigieg has been on it. But in the end, it’s about retail politics, connecting to individual voters in Iowa.
“Running around the country to 18 different states and feeling like you’re a front-runner may feel great, but with the field this big, it gets back to this: Go beat Biden in Iowa or take second,” Trippi says. “Do whatever that takes. Live in small towns in Iowa.”
It won’t be easy. While Buttigieg’s campaign heralded the recent hiring of close to 80 national staffers, Elizabeth Warren already has 50 on the ground in Iowa alone. He has a fundraising base in the Hollywood gay community, but in early-voting California, he runs up against a home game for Kamala Harris.
Maybe that’s why there are signs that the campaign is becoming more aggressive. In the coming days, Buttigieg charges that Trump “faked a disability in order to avoid serving in Vietnam.” This is in direct contrast to the discomfort Buttigieg tells me he had earlier about calling Trump a “chicken hawk.”
“It’s the whole Dr. King ‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness’ thing,” Buttigieg says with a sigh. “It’s not like I’m wracked with guilt for that decision, but I noticed after that I thought, ‘I’m not sure that’s me.’ ”
Campaigns have a way of changing candidates, and rarely for the better. But there are still glimpses of what you could call the Best Pete. The day after his Ulysses shout-out in Des Moines, Buttigieg emerges before 600 fans hanging from every beam and cranny at Iowa City’s Wildwood Smokehouse & Saloon. A young councilwoman begins her introduction with “We are Gen X’ers, we are millennials, we’re the micro generations,” and then welcomes Pete.
Buttigieg bounces up the steps and waves, looking sheepish about the applause. Onstage, a supporter plucks audience questions out of a fish bowl while Buttigieg reminds Iowans, “We are lucky and unlucky enough to live in a moment of transition,” he says. “Whatever we do now will decide . . . what the next 40 years will look like.” He gets some strong applause, but nothing rapturous. And then comes the question.
“Rebecca is 11 and wants to know, ‘Do you have any advice about bullying?’ ”
The crowd goes quiet until Buttigieg locates the girl up in the balcony. He makes eye contact and tells her that just asking the question is brave and admits he had been bullied as a kid too: “Everybody who’s different can be bullied, and the secret is everybody’s different in some way. You have nothing to be ashamed of.”
He then asks her to have mercy for her tormentors. “Remember that there’s a person in there too, probably a person who’s been hurt in some way,” he says in a quiet voice. “Which is why they’re turning around and hurting you. . . . But you have control. You have control over whether that bully makes you into a worse version of yourself, or a better version.”
Someone in the crowd shouts what everyone is thinking, about bullying and the current president.
Buttigieg answers: “It really matters that we have a president who doesn’t show that kind of behavior. It’s one of the reasons I’m running for president.”
There are cheers, but Buttigieg steers the rest of his answer far away from Trump. “When you’re being bullied, somebody else is watching, and they don’t know what to do, maybe they’ll laugh along with the bully, because they’re . . . afraid too,” he says. “So when you show that it doesn’t get to you, when you show that you’ve got the bigger heart, there are people who you won’t even realize are going to follow your lead. You ought to think of yourself as a leader, especially in that moment when somebody’s trying to break you down.”
Moms and cynical reporters have tears running down their faces.
Afterward, I ask Buttigieg if he thinks there is a straight line from Trump to more kids in America being terrorized. He looks at me as if I was a little slow. “Of course,” he says. “Look at the way that hate crimes have gone up on the watch of this president. It matters what message comes out of the Oval Office, what style of leadership is projected. And what we have right now is something that basically gives voice to bullies and gives them cover. This isn’t just a policy job, it isn’t just an administration job, it’s a moral job.”
Buttigieg finishes speaking and disappears into a crowd clamoring to touch him. The smile is still there, but the campaign trail is a killer even for thirty-somethings. He looks dead tired. George Michael’s “Freedom! ’90” blasts from the speakers. The Iowa caucus is still eight months away, but something lingers in the air. Maybe it is something as corny as hope. Maybe it is the possibility of awakening from our national nightmare. For a moment, it does not seem impossible that the man to lead us out of darkness is a gay mayor with an unpronounceable name and an actual heart.
This story appears in the July print edition of Rolling Stone and was updated here to include the events surrounding the June 16th police shooting in South Bend.