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Pete Buttigieg’s Undeniable Allure

The mayor of South Bend knows how to enchant an audience. Is it enough to overcome his age and inexperience?

Scott Olson / Getty Images

Before Pete Buttigieg was born in 1982, the now-shuttered brokerage house, E.F. Hutton, began running a famous series of TV commercials touting their ability to predict the fluctuations in the stock market. In one emblematic spot, the mere mention of the firm’s name in a posh restaurant prompts everyone, including the waiters, to eavesdrop for investment tips. The tag line from the ad campaign: “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.”

Watching the way that people listen to a presidential candidate is a surprisingly good indicator of raw political talent. In September 2006, at the annual Tom Harkin Steak Fry near Des Moines, a fledgling Illinois senator named Barack Obama (not yet a presidential candidate) mesmerized 3,500 Iowa Democrats. I knew then, studying the rapt expressions on people’s faces as they listened to Obama deliver his first political speech in Iowa, that 2008 would be his year. The Iowa Democrats all looked like extras from Frank Capra’s movie Meet John Doe. 

Needless to say, in 2016, neither major Democratic candidate rewarded intense listening. Hillary Clinton offered predictable bromides and Bernie Sanders has a passion for yelling. But this time around, Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old gay mayor of a small Indiana city (South Bend) half the size of Des Moines, is acing the listening test. His words, even in a stump speech, tend to be more thoughtful and more surprising than the standard political applause lines of his rivals. Elizabeth Warren often elicits cheers, Joe Biden gets the occasional affectionate chuckle, but Buttigieg summons up a different reaction. I first noticed it while seeing him at a Des Moines house party on a sparkling Saturday morning in June. As with Obama in 2006, members of the audience leaned forward to listen to Buttigieg speak rather than sitting back to applaud politely. What struck me at the time was that Buttigieg was pulling off this listening trick even though he lacked the national political profile that Obama boasted back in 2006, from his electrifying speech to the 2004 Democratic convention. 

I looked for a repeat of this response when Buttigieg spoke at the sprawling Polk County Steak Fry in September. A clump of Democrats—not visibly aligned with any candidate although there were a few “Beto” signs around—were seated in lawn chairs 300 feet from a stage filled with pumpkins and hay bales. Seven other presidential candidates had already made their 10-minute pitches when Buttigieg stood up to deliver his. 

“If everything is going well in this country, a guy like Donald Trump never is able to take over a political party, let alone get within cheating distance of the Oval Office,” Buttigieg declared. Then he added the tried-and-true follow-up line that quietly challenged Biden’s belief in the politics of restoration: “And we’re not going to be able to replace this president if we think he’s just a blip, just an aberration. It’s going to take more than that.”

Yes, Buttigieg got a laugh with the phrase “cheating distance of the Oval Office.” But as I panned the crowd, I once again saw an atypical level of attentiveness. In the klatch of voters watching from their lawn chairsa woman in a blue windbreaker, maybe in her late twenties, sat ramrod straight, the phone tightly gripped in her hand forgotten for the moment. A guy with glasses and greying light brown hair strained to catch every word as if he were listening to the reading of his favorite aunt’s will.

Four months before the Iowa caucuses, it is time to reckon with the reality that Buttigieg probably has a better chance to be the Democratic nominee than anyone aside from Biden and the surging Warren. With Sanders ailing and Kamala Harris sputtering, Buttigieg has enough money to go the distance (he has raised $44 million in the last six months) and enough polling support to guarantee his place on every debate stage. Whatever happens next, this youthful candidate with a long resume (Harvard, Rhodes Scholar, McKinsey analyst, failed statewide candidate, mayor, and intelligence officer in Afghanistan) has already emerged as the political surprise of 2019. 

And that raises a new question: Is Buttigieg, who would be four years younger than JFK if he were inaugurated in 2021, ready for the White House? Not ready in the way that Donald Trump was ready (a random first-grader eating paste would undoubtedly do a better job), but ready to be a successful president who would lead America out of the wreckage of the Trump years?

As a veteran of the Jimmy Carter administration, I am perhaps more sensitive than most to the challenges of governing for a Democrat. But I also covered Bill Clinton in the Oval Office—and know from those years, too, how easily a president can stumble if he or she does not understand Washington. Clinton’s improvisational approach to the presidency paved the way for Newt Gingrich’s stunning 1994 House victory, and in hindsight, Obama would probably also have benefited politically from a longer Senate career (and the relationships that it fostered) rather than declaring for the White House after just two years in Washington. 

In theory, a fledgling candidate like Buttigieg, without Washington credentials or a lengthy stint as governor, might be tempted to hide from the press out of fear of being exposed as little more than a walking set of talking points. But he, to his credit, has gone to the opposite extreme by making himself more accessible to the press than any other major presidential candidate since John McCain in 2000. 

Last week, Buttigieg embarked on a four-day Iowa bus tour with an important twist—virtually everything that the Indiana mayor said to reporters en route would be on-the-record. The trip was a conscious echo of McCain’s “Straight Talk Express,” which propelled the then-Arizona maverick to victory in the 2000 New Hampshire primary. On the bus last week, I was the only journalist who had also covered the McCain campaign, and I can testify that the South Bend mayor lived up to that laudable tradition for openness as he cheerfully answered questions, large and small, from a press contingent that topped out at 15 reporters. 

Sitting in a swivel chair in the middle of a rock-star bus that had carried the likes of Justin Timberlake and Gloria Estefan, Buttigieg displayed flashes of the agile mind that has made him a favorite, along with Warren, among the high-SAT-score wing of the Democratic electorate. At the same time, he was working to differentiate himself from the rest of the field, on issues from guns, to health care, to paper straws, displaying a keen sense of nuance and a willingness to challenge party orthodoxy on nuclear power. 

On the road from Boone to Webster, Buttigieg described how his opinion on guns changed after he was first deployed to Afghanistan in 2014. “Early on, there’s a sense of toughness that goes with having a gun,” he said. But, “on a few occasions, when I felt it was necessary to have my pistol under my pillow, I realized that having a gun made me feel smaller—rather than bigger—because of this idea that I needed it.” 

In his stump speech, Buttigieg often warns his fellow Democrats, “We can’t water down our values. But we also can’t get so caught up in purity tests that we shut out half the country before we get to November.” 

Aboard the bus, Buttigieg replied to a question I had asked by outlining some of the “purity tests” in the current Democratic race that trouble him. He began, as expected, by restating his opposition to the proposed elimination of any role for private health insurance in the Medicare for All plans ballyhooed by Sanders and Warren. But the next purity test he listed was surprising: the calls to outlaw plastic straws. “Anybody who thinks we ought to ban plastic straws should first have a conversation about disability,” Buttigieg said. “Plastic straws are actually important for a lot of people. But that’s way to the side. I just think we need to have a level of focus on what’s most important in dealing with the planet.” 

Buttigieg went on to challenge the absolutism on nuclear power that animates many Democrats. (“At least in the short term, I don’t think we need to build new nuclear. I think that waste storage and disposal are a real issue.... But I don’t think we can afford to be dogmatic.”)

Of course, on some points, he simply refused to engage, dismissing, for instance, a question about why he chose to work for the famously arrogant management consulting firm, McKinsey & Company, by saying “it’s not something that I think is central in my story.” But some details were more revealing. The candidate claims to iron his own white shirts (he owns more than a dozen), a skill that his mother taught him when he was about 10 years old. (Needless to say, as a veteran of many campaigns, I cannot imagine Bill Clinton ironing his own shirts.)   

No Democratic presidential nominee since Alton Parker—a New York state judge who was the party’s pick to challenge Theodore Roosevelt in 1904—has boasted as light a political resume as Buttigieg’s. Several times, I struggled to find a polite way to ask Buttigieg if he really felt ready to move from mayor of South Bend to Leader of the Free World. 

At one point in our rolling conversation, I noted that in 1960, Democratic elders like Eleanor Roosevelt opposed John Kennedy in part because they felt that at 43, he was too callow and inexperienced to be president. At the time, JFK had spent nearly 14 years in Congress. 

Buttigieg responded by rattling off world leaders who are roughly his generational contemporaries from French President Emmanuel Macron (now 41) to New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden (39 years old). “So there’s a generational shift happening among countries around the world,” the 37-year-old mayor said. “It’s the kind of thing that you expect the United States to be leading on. This time we’re kind of catching up.”

The answer seemed a little too glib and practiced for my taste. So I tried again when I sat down with Buttigieg for an interview the next morning in a corner of a hotel lobby in Waterloo. This time I quoted from memory Harry Truman’s words on becoming president after FDR’s death in 1945: “I felt like the moon, the stars and all the planets had fallen on me.” 

Choosing his words carefully and speaking more slowly than usual, Buttigieg—who is less than half the age of Biden and Sanders—said, “I think any sane person has to be aware of the daunting nature of the office. There is no function on earth that is comparable. At the same time, every person who’s done the job has been … at different stages of their lives. I think there is a lot to be said for experience. And that my experience is certainly as relevant as any experience that I could have in a legislative job in Washington.”

A few minutes later, I circled back to the experience question by asking Buttigieg what he wished that he had time to learn before embarking on this quest for the Oval Office; in 1994, for example, as president, with a genocidal war raging in Bosnia, Bill Clinton had lamented that he wished he had known more about the Balkans.

Once again, Buttigieg’s answer was unexpected. “One skill that I’ve developed which will need to be at a whole different level is the art of knowing what not to concern yourself with,” he said. “Because up to a certain point, you can convince yourself that if you stay up an hour later, or move a little quicker, you can touch everything that deserves to be touched. Even as mayor, I’ve learned that’s not true. And, as president, I’m sure it’s on a completely different level—incredibly important, consequential, and demanding. Urgent priorities need to be ignored because there are others that even more so. And the art of that you can only learn by doing.”

Mayor Pete, as he prefers to be known on the campaign trail, left me wondering if maybe I have been too rigid in inventing imaginary criteria to identify successful would-be presidents. Maybe talent and temperament are enough. Maybe that old E.F. Hutton commercial holds the only relevant clue that Pete Buttigieg is indeed ready to be president in 2021: When he speaks, people listen.