Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks in Hancock, N.H., in August. (Cheryl Senter for The Washington Post)

Arts and Entertainment

The importance of being earnest

Pete Buttigieg, small-city mayor, is well cast as a clean-cut vote seeker in the towns of rural New Hampshire.

HANCOCK, N.H. — It’s a gorgeous day in the eye-squinting New Hampshire sunshine, a becoming natural setting for a 37-year-old candidate who seeks to embody youthful vigor and hope. Soon enough the Democratic mayor from the Midwest with the tongue-tying surname, Pete Buttigieg, appears before us. He sports snug-fitting blue jeans, a white long-sleeve shirt folded neatly up to the elbows and, for me, a genial decency reminiscent of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.”

You remember “Our Town,” don’t you? That canonical play from the 1930s that recorded the cycles of life in the unremarkable New England village of Grover’s Corners? Why, come to think of it, “Our Town” takes place in New Hampshire, too! Standing before us on a platform in the middle of rolling farmland, his silhouette framed by a red barn draped with the stars and stripes, the candidate seems as if he could indeed be a figure conjured out of Wilder’s imagination: a pleasant fellow of homespun virtues, the sort who would leap to help a little old lady cross a street.

Mayor Pete maintains a gentlemanly facade offstage. He’s preternaturally mild-mannered. In two days of watching him work New Hampshire crowds, from a meet-and-greet in a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in Manchester to a walking tour of downtown Lebanon and a boisterous college-town rally in Hanover, I never once saw the mask of calm come off. He never seems to get steamed up, rarely even raises his voice. Pete the Imperturbable.

“Look, we can throw an elbow if we have to,” he declares at another stop, with the confident reserve of an Atticus Finch.

So maybe, you start to think, it’s not a mask.

The Theater of Politics
Assessing the stage presence of the men and women auditioning to hold the highest office in the land.
Read more:

But who is Mayor Pete? Of all the presidential candidates I’ve followed so far, as a theater critic examining the distinct performance styles of a Democratic cast that includes Kamala D. Harris, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren, Buttigieg struck me as hardest to get to know through his public performances.

This may be intentional, for the South Bend, Ind., mayor (nee Peter Paul Montgomery Buttigieg) likes to present himself as a man of ideas, and to heck with personal disclosure. Over the course of eight events, I learned surprisingly little about his personal life, what makes him tick and even where he grew up. It’s not that the subject is verboten: He’ll mention his husband, Chasten, a drama teacher, and their two dogs, Buddy and Truman, who have a Twitter account with 85,000 followers. He’s just got a whole raft of other stuff he’d rather stress. When traveling with Pete, buckle up for a wonky ride. Yet, in his mellifluous baritone, the voice of a morning drive-time radio news reader, it is all easy listenin’.


Buttigieg runs to the stage to speak in Hancock, one of several stops in New Hampshire. (Cheryl Senter for The Washington Post)

“Let’s talk about liberty. Let’s talk about freedom,” he says to the crowd gathered at the Hancock farm. The cadence of his delivery is unmistakably reminiscent of another Midwestern politician whose poise he recalls: Barack Obama. He’s even adopted Obama’s penchant for a singsong intonation at the end of a phrase, and the 44th president’s famous whistling “s.”

“And let’s talk about a presidency,” Buttigieg adds, “in which freedom means more than cutting a regulation on a bank somewhere.”

The bank, the grocery store, the flag. The symbols he embeds in the minds of audiences in his seamless presentations are invested with mythic national status. They’re images in an updated Norman Rockwell painting, one that seeks to reclaim bedrock Americana as the trademarks of the liberal side of the conversation.

“We just have to break the spell of people thinking that values belong to one political party,” he says. “ ’Cause I’m not talking about conservative values. I’m talking about American values.”

The Midwestern politician says we "have to break the spell of people thinking that values belong to one political party."
Buttigieg's mayoralty, it seems, has taught him a kind of patient interest in everyone.
People shield their faces from the sun using campaign signs while listening to Buttigieg. (Photos by Cheryl Senter for The Washington Post)
TOP: The Midwestern politician says we "have to break the spell of people thinking that values belong to one political party." BOTTOM LEFT: Buttigieg's mayoralty, it seems, has taught him a kind of patient interest in everyone. BOTTOM RIGHT: People shield their faces from the sun using campaign signs while listening to Buttigieg. (Photos by Cheryl Senter for The Washington Post)

In “Our Town,” Wilder professed a similar kind of ecumenical philosophy about civility, and civic life. A moment arises in the play when the narrator, the Stage Manager, calls upon the local newspaper editor, Mr. Webb, to enumerate some vital statistics about Grover’s Corners, pop. 2,642.

“We’re lower middle class: sprinkling of professional men … 10 percent illiterate laborers,” the editor reports, and goes on to break down the numbers of Republicans, Democrats and Socialists. “Religiously, we’re 85 percent Protestants; 12 percent Catholics; rest, indifferent.”

The point of the recitation is that numbers don’t tell you much, and percentages that might seem definitive don’t define the truth of shared experience in a small town. It is only when the editor is asked whether there is any “culture or love of beauty” in the community that you get the richer sense of everyone being basically the same.

“No ma’am, there isn’t much culture,” Mr. Webb replies, “but maybe this is the place to tell you that we’ve got a lot of pleasures of a kind here. We like the sun comin’ up over the mountain in the morning and we all notice a good deal about the birds. We pay a lot of attention to them. And we watch the change of seasons, yes, everybody knows about them.”

I can almost hear Mayor Pete saying something of the kind, to distill the character of his citizenry to simple plain-spoken aphorisms. He’s a small-city executive with a capital city résumé — Harvard graduate, military veteran, Rhodes scholar — and you can intuit at times his determination not to sound supercilious, or to flaunt his achievements. (His Navy service in Afghanistan is the credential he trots out most often.) Only occasionally does he reveal a more cerebral side, as when, during a town hall at Nashua Community College, the question pulled out of a fishbowl by the student host is: What is your favorite symphony?


Buttigieg speaks in Nashua, N.H. While there, he revealed his favorite symphony during a town hall. (Cheryl Senter for The Washington Post)

Just imagine, for a moment, that inquiry being made of the current occupant of the White House. Or even of Joe Biden, for that matter. What does it tell us about Buttigieg that his reflexive reaction is to give a totally earnest reply, and damn any snickers or taunts of elitism?

“Beethoven’s Seventh,” he declares. “I gotta go with the Seventh.”

His mayoralty, it seems, has taught him a kind of patient interest in everyone. His focus on a questioner, whether at a country fair or in a college gymnasium, is canine in its intensity. And he’s of such altruistic demeanor, you can imagine a younger version of him sitting behind a folding table in a high school cafeteria, handing out homemade buttons for his student council run.

At a craft fair in Newport, in the western half of the state, a middle-aged woman took in Buttigieg’s trim physique approvingly as he shook hands and posed for photos. “It would be good,” she was overheard to say, “to have some cute guy in there, instead of that paunchy …”

Her provocative description of the current president cannot be fully elucidated here. But the observation about Buttigieg’s appeal does seem germane to a certain Kennedyesque feature of his campaign, and its most self-conscious aspect: his youth, in comparison, certainly, to the candidates currently at the top of the heap — 76-year-old Biden, 70-year-old Elizabeth Warren, 78-year-old Bernie Sanders.

Supporters and curious voters including Allie Campbell of Hollis N.H., sitting, wait to hear Buttigieg speak in Nashua.
The 37-year-old Buttigieg's youth stands out amid other candidates in their 70s. (Photos by Cheryl Senter for The Washington Post)
LEFT: Supporters and curious voters including Allie Campbell of Hollis N.H., sitting, wait to hear Buttigieg speak in Nashua. RIGHT: The 37-year-old Buttigieg's youth stands out amid other candidates in their 70s. (Photos by Cheryl Senter for The Washington Post)

That gaze of almost unsettling sincerity that he trains on an interlocutor has a habit, though, of making Mayor Pete seem a bit studied — an even-tempered robot. On a stage, like the portable one in Hancock, he tends to repeat the same gestures over and over, like an actor with only a rudimentary tool kit (where is Chasten when he needs him?). And he carries politeness to an extreme. During the lengthy question-and-answer portions of his appearances, which he genuinely seems to dig, he walks to the edge of the platform and listens as if he’s a grateful guest. He always remembers to thank the questioner — a proclivity shared by some other candidates — but with Buttigieg it can have an especially patronizing ring. It’s as if he’s following stage directions that say “display humility.”

In Lebanon, a city of about 14,000 just south of Dartmouth College, Buttigieg goes on a tour of downtown with some local officials, an event Wilder could have scripted. Over here is Scratch, the yarn store, where a bunch of women are gathered to knit; over on the other corner is the Salt Hill Pub, where New Hampshire residents Derry LaBombard and Claire Connolly show up to get the candidate’s signature on the requisite politician’s memoir, “Shortest Way Home,” published earlier this year. And then, Buttigieg and a small scrum of reporters and staffers make their way to the fire station, to greet the fire captain and a couple of Lebanon firefighters.

Mayor Pete knows this part of the script by heart. “How long are your shifts?” he asks the firefighters.

His stare is dialed up to laser beam. His manner is unfailingly courtly. The candidate is engulfed in a mist of affability so fragrant that one has no idea if he’s enjoying the attention, let alone feeling content with the results.

It’s the fourth event of the day in New Hampshire, and Buttigieg still has that campaign appearance in Hanover to get to. As the Stage Manager puts it in “Our Town,” “The day’s running down like a tired clock.”

But Mayor Pete never tires. Or, if he does, you’d never know it.


Even after days of campaigning, Buttigieg remains affable. (Cheryl Senter for The Washington Post)

Story by Peter Marks. Photo editing by Moira Haney. Video by Erin Patrick O’Connor. Design by Eddie Alvarez.

Credits: Peter Marks

We noticed you’re blocking ads!

Keep supporting great journalism by turning off your ad blocker. Or purchase a subscription for unlimited access to real news you can count on.
Unblock ads
Questions about why you are seeing this? Contact us