Pete Buttigieg and I were teaching assistants for the same professor, Sacvan Bercovitch, probably America’s leading interpreter of American Puritan literature, me at Columbia, Buttigieg nearly a quarter-century later at Harvard. This being our common ground, the differences between our experiences and how we would describe them are telling. I recall Professor Bercovitch as being singularly disinterested in his TAs. He would task you with a bit of research while conveying that he had no particular expectations of you, almost as if to say, “You might do this, you might not, doesn’t matter much to me either way.” He was immersed in whatever he was immersed in, and I imagined he assumed that you had your obsessive immersions too, if you were lucky, and they weren’t likely to be the same as his, and you should follow yours, not his, because—well, for obvious reasons.
Buttigieg’s Bercovitch is different. In Shortest Way Home, the South Bend mayor’s 2019 memoir, he shares that Professor Bercovitch’s first name, Sacvan, was a gesture of imaginative radical solidarity on the part of his parents, an amalgam of the names of the wrongfully executed anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. More importantly, Buttigieg (unlike me) closely read Bercovitch’s books and was greatly influenced by them. In his senior thesis at Harvard, Buttigieg returned to Bercovitch’s ideas about Puritan literature and applied them to the Vietnam War, and considered how in Americans’ still-Puritan frame of mind, we see ourselves as fundamentally different from other nations, chosen by God in a way other nations aren’t. Buttigieg’s senior thesis contrasts that sense of identity with the skepticism toward American values expressed in books like Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. I’m going from Mayor Pete’s own description of his senior thesis here, as he describes it in his book.
I don’t know who the typical reader is of presidential-candidate books. Seriously conscientious voters mostly would be my guess, God bless them. Biography readers are already a unique breed. Any good biography always has another main subject besides the person it’s about, and biography readers grow adept at reading stereoptically: like you’re looking straight at someone, but you’re really focused on what’s to their left or right, or behind them, at a milieu, a sense of time and place. Political autobiographies of presidential candidates, on the other hand, are something else—part of the campaign, something every candidate has in his or her travel bag, the little black dress you can always throw on when the occasion demands it.
I’d like to think, though, that these readers of political autobiographies take them more seriously than that. We have a personal relationship with our presidents unlike what we have with other elected officials. We think of them as part of our immediate circle of family and friends. We expect to see one or another of them at breakfast or after dinner. And this election, well, it’s arguably the single most important election in our nation’s history, right? So we read their books to sustain that illusion of an intimate relation, because we feel we have to know who they really are.
And right now Buttigieg seems to be the presidential candidate we most want to know. So I’m studying the self-portrait he gives in his autobiography, and trying my best to ignore the commentary about him that’s all over the map, from a New York Times paean to a salacious Dale Peck essay calling Buttigieg “the gay equivalent of Uncle Tom” that the The New Republic posted and then took down.
As I read Buttigieg, the audacity of this 37-year-old’s writing his autobiography rubs me two ways. Even JFK, with Profiles of Courage, didn’t think he was ready to find meaning in his own story yet, and instead wrote profiles of the people he most admired. If Buttigieg were any younger he might have taken on the project of his autobiography as a practical joke. And I begin to realize that in every chapter of Shortest Way Home—indeed, almost on every page—there is an expression of the same underlying idea, which is that you can substitute experience with problem-solving skills, and approximate perspective, ideology, even morality with sheer intelligence and boldness.
This closely resembles the arrogance of tech billionaires who believe that although they have neither the knowledge nor the experience nor the wisdom, they can solve the world’s problems anyway, because, well, because look how successful they’ve been at everything else. You almost want to cheer them on. Until you realize that they are dead wrong, that if they want to help solve the world’s problems they had better stop sucking all the oxygen and money out of the room and start paying taxes and letting there be a return to a balance of power that lets us hear from the scientists, philosophers and, yes, the politicians, who are deeply versed in how worlds are lost or saved.
At a similar point in his campaign for president of France, Emmanuel Macron also wrote a book. It’s called Revolution, and in it he portrays himself as a kind of techno-socialist, thumbing his nose at the two encrusted main parties, and positioning himself as a hedge against Marine Le Pen, the charismatic daughter of Jean-Marie and earthy far-right threat to French democracy whom everyone saw as the greatest danger. I am not ashamed to admit that Macron’s book impressed me—for its French vision of tolerance—of Islam, in particular—and cooperation among nation states, and especially for his insistence that better-off nations must guarantee the welfare of those less well-off, and help refugees by welcoming them, encouraging them to embrace residency and citizenship.
Almost certainly Macron, like Trump, never expected to win when he wrote Revolution. In any case, reading his book, I thought he sounded credible and likable, despite the fact that people at The Nation and elsewhere were already telling me that the guy was bad news. And Macron as president turned out to be quite different from the author of Revolution, pretty much as my friends at this publication had predicted.
Interestingly, Macron’s book wasn’t called La Revolution. He had dropped the omnipresent French article before the noun—and I wondered as I read it what that signified. Not sudden radical change then, but rather exhortation, the shout at the barricades but without the barricades themselves and all that they stand for? Or something even more unsettling: not the Beatles, but the Beatles in an Apple ad? Trust, community, democracy. Ask anyone in advertising. Great words, great concepts.
Buttigieg, as we know, is even younger than the very young Macron. He is the youngest candidate in the US presidential race, at 37, and would be our youngest-ever president if elected. (Teddy Roosevelt was 42, JFK 43, and Barack Obama a seasoned 47 and a half; Buttigieg would be 39!)
And in Buttigieg’s title, that damned missing article again! Not The Shortest Way Home but Shortest Way Home, tout court. And, yes, I think these two youthful leaders hurry on to the noun in their books’ titles for similar reasons, something to do with their youth and how everything is speeding up and heating up in the present historical moment, and they’re telling us not to worry, they can handle this, in part by traveling light and throwing overboard anything that isn’t absolutely necessary—like articles before nouns. But what else? How about a reasonable strategy to offset the outsize dominance of the corporate class’s influence if ever they happen to come to power? Will they throw that possibility overboard as well, along with the article?
Buttigieg writes well, even brilliantly at times, describing how much the country changed between the time he entered Harvard and the time he graduated, 9/11 and the second Iraq War intervening to change—as he sees it—everything. He writes beautifully about various experiences he has already had, despite his youth—as a McKinsey consultant, helping businesses around the world, until he finally had to say to himself one day that he didn’t care. Then as a Navy reserve officer serving in Afghanistan, and finally as the upstart Democratic mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
And then, reading Shortest Way Home, I’m suddenly feeling just so grateful for old people. Reading the autobiography of a 37-year-old has given me that insight, that emotion, as its singular gift.
There is a reason why some of the leading Democratic candidates in the presidential race now are elderly—another reason besides the obvious ones. It is this: At a moment when our collective memory is being rapidly erased, an act of collective violence, by the daily onslaught of new information coming through our cell phones and our computer screens, and maybe also from so much dazzlingly awful news coming at us almost daily about our natural environment and our political institutions, we can no longer assume that our younger politicians are informed, as they once would have been, by the lessons of history.
Some of our oldest politicians, however, lived through the history, searingly, and having done so informs their motivations and actions each and every day. Bernie Sanders lived through the Great Society of the Voting Rights Act; the Vietnam War; and the civil rights, gay liberation, veterans, women’s, and anti-war movements. Elizabeth Warren, like Sanders, was formed in the crucible of the post-’60s years that saw the rise of the women’s health movement, the post-Watergate years, the rise also of the environmental movement.
That era of sweeping social transformation—with all its lessons, good and bad—formed them both and emboldens their actions and aspirations today. They’ve seen our democracy actually function as a democracy, seen a corrupt president deposed, a US attorney general put in jail. They know the people really do have the power, if only we decide to use it. Bankers and corporate heads all know this too; they just hope the people themselves have forgotten. (And as we are seeing, most tellingly, Biden was there too—mostly on the wrong side of the defining issues of the day.)
Buttigieg’s story is moving. As to the sheer audacity of writing your autobiography at the age of 37, we can dismiss him for his hubris, or maybe admire him for his self-regard and competence. As an ultra-proficient, hyper-educated young man of his generation, he understands big data, the sheer power of it, and understands, too, how to harness it. At the same time, as the mayor of a good-sized Midwestern city, he’s learned its limitations. And there are many evocations in the book, almost parable-like, that tell the story of common sense and experience providing greater efficiency than big data on its own ever could—whether it be the foreman who knows better than the data does what the best approach is to fixing potholes; or why a test of drug remnants in sewage water that can delineate exposure to opioids in specific neighborhoods won’t help you solve the opioid crisis; or why software that can tell you the exact location of every shot fired in the city of South Bend won’t tell you why residents fear cops and don’t report crimes, or how to improve policing of troubled neighborhoods.
But the news of recent weeks has highlighted how challenged he remains when he faces tests of character that don’t have tech or even practical solutions. For all his overdetermined virtuosity—an accomplished pianist! a Rhodes scholar! a polyglot!—he has demonstrated no political artistry: He did nothing to address the South Bend police department’s longstanding and deep-seated troubles, and ultimately did nothing to prevent the death of Eric Logan.
Just before seeking a second term as South Bend mayor in 2016, Buttiegieg decided it was high time to come out as a gay man. The reader on the East or West coasts might be amazed that he waited so long. How could he have? Closeted throughout college and graduate school (at Oxford, no less!), through three years as a McKinsey consultant, then as a Navy officer, and finally as a politician and mayor of South Bend for four years? There is a fairy-tale quality to much of his narrative, but none more so than that sexuality and love seems to have played no part in it until it became the last piece of the puzzle to fall into place.
His description of telling his parents, his colleagues, and, in a public statement, the people of South Bend, is genuinely moving, a testament to his apparent belief that his connection to his constituents is a truly personal one, that he owes them complete candor.
Vice President Mike Pence plays a cameo in Buttigieg’s story. Pence was governor of Indiana through most of Buttigieg’s first term of office as South Bend mayor. Buttigieg needed Pence’s backing for state support for many of the initiatives he was undertaking to bring vitality back to his city, and got it partly by looking away rather than confronting many of Pence’s fundamentalist oaths and actions. But he did also confront, if not Pence himself, then the substance at least of his discriminatory March 2015 Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The episode shows Mayor Pete kicking the tin can down the road for as long as he can—not exactly presidential of him—but then, when he finally does decide to act, doing it unstintingly and to good effect.
There is an undercurrent in Buttigieg’s book, what Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall might have called its “radical assertion.” It is this: We can chart our way forward, find our footing as a nation again, without any political ideology whatsoever, and in this way bring together Republicans and Democrats, old and young, LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ. It sounds naive, because to do so is to toss away nearly all the lessons of history. It is, on the other hand, awfully tempting to a nation as tired and dismissive of all political parties as we have grown to be. Can America be run effectively like a giant version of a small Midwestern city, or managed back to health, McKinsey-style, using good analytics and a president with a winning personality?
We’re in a moment of acute crisis. There are now 24 candidates in the race not only for reasons of personal vanity and ambition, but also because they might genuinely believe they can help. But we need to at least acknowledge—in a way we haven’t been doing—the outsize contributions of some of the older candidates in the race, people with little to prove, and who have been fighting the good fight for decades and decades, who bring an enormous wealth of experience and wisdom, who have learned firsthand the great lessons of history in America all through the last half-century.
The right candidate really could be someone of any age: Certainly, many insurgent millennial politicians understand aspects of our political economy with a depth that eludes our ostensibly more seasoned politicians. But to make a dent in the status quo, the next American president can’t rely exclusively on data, procedure, or any of the other totems of managerialism. To bring about change on the big issues that really matter to people, they will need something that eludes Mayor Pete: an ideology.