Pete Buttigieg’s mother isn’t sure if her son cries.
“I don’t know,” she said, when asked, pausing to think it over.
When would he have? There was his wedding. There was the time he visited her in the hospital after her unexpected heart surgery. And, of course, the death of her husband, Pete’s father, who succumbed to lung cancer just days after the then-South Bend, Ind., mayor announced he was exploring a run for president.
He’d given a eulogy, a beautiful one. People had cried. Had Pete?
In the past year, Pete’s life has changed in countless ways. He lost a parent who had always been his guiding light, got famous and had become a genuine contender to win this week’s all-important presidential caucuses in Iowa. Which is where he was now, sitting in the back of a Des Moines field office in his crisp white shirt, his mother — draped in a purple velveteen jacket and paisley scarf — by his side.
“I think as a family we’ve always taken crazy external events in stride,” Pete’s mom, Anne Montgomery, said, brushing her bouncy white curls out of her eyes.
“I think it’s safe to say that’s a family trait,” Pete deadpanned. “We’re pretty stoic. Pretty measured.”
It is perhaps the young politician’s greatest asset, this unflappability. On debate stages, at town halls, in interviews with the press, he always seems to have an answer, but rarely an emotion. Maybe it’s a skill that was honed during his time at the consulting behemoth McKinsey, filling out all those spreadsheets to help companies cut costs, or maybe it’s what got him the job in the first place. In any event, with a president in the White House that is all id and energy and rage, Pete surely comes across as a very stable genius, worthy of a seat in the situation room — to certain voters, anyway. Especially in Iowa. Especially to those in his mother’s demographic.
And yet, could this stoicism also be Pete’s greatest weakness? One year into a campaign, countless people have learned how to pronounce his last name, but figuring out who Pete Buttigieg really is has proved a more difficult task. Maybe that’s because he’s many things at once. He can seem to be a child in an adult’s world, like Tom Hanks in “Big.” But he’s also an old man in a young man’s body, like Brad Pitt in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” He’s an avatar for generational change, but in moderation. He’s from farm country, but has said he learned about the “real world” by joining a consulting firm. He can be so inscrutable that conspiracy theorists on the Internet have posited he’s some sort of undercover agent.
To win the presidency, Pete will probably need to be more than just an impressive résumé. He’ll need people to know who he is as a person.
Who knows Pete? Only natural to guess it would be the woman who saw him cry at least once: right after he drew his first breath.
Because a mother always knows.
“I’m just an observer, really, and I find it fascinating,” 74-year-old Anne said, sitting in a South Bend coffee shop on a recent afternoon. “How he uses language, how he comes up with a reply or a retort, the way he can take a discussion in new ways. It’s just really interesting.”
This boy of hers has never ceased to surprise her. He was telling fully formed jokes from the age of 3, reading before his classmates, writing words with the magnets on the fridge.
Certainly some of this was genetic.
Anne was a trained linguist, always interested in the patterns of language. Pete’s father, Joe, born and raised on the island of Malta, was an academic as well; a larger-than-life Notre Dame professor, a polymath equally able to discuss the works of Marxist scholar Antonio Gramsci and English soccer clubs.
Both Anne and Joe have been described as warm and welcoming by their friends, interested in other people, though hesitant to share too much about themselves. They were observers, and so was Pete.
“Whatever situation he was in, new school, or new group, he would simply stand there and watch what was going on,” Anne said.
When academics came to the Buttigieg house for dinner, Pete would be the person dispatched to the Encyclopaedia Britannica to solve thorny academic disputes. He surprised his mother one day by announcing he was “taking football” in school, but it made more sense when he explained why.
“I’m the only person who knows the rules,” she remembers him telling her.
Reciting the details of Pete Buttigieg’s staid, accomplished childhood can make one sound like Pete himself: orderly and fact-based, and all-too-satisfying — as if there was nothing about his particular human condition that could not be resolved by cross-referencing with a stack of encyclopedias. It’s disorienting, like staring at a funhouse mirror that reflects the body in perfect proportion.
He was the kid who kept all his Star Trek action figures preserved inside their original packaging. The captain of the Quiz Bowl team. The student voted most likely to be elected president.
“He seemed like he had it all together,” said his high school friend Mike Deogracias. “His friends would always put their problems on him, but I don’t remember him doing that as much. Maybe it was harder for him to open up.”
“It’s just more work than you realize,” Pete said, sitting in the back seat of a black SUV as it drove past snow-covered cornfields on his way to yet another Iowa town hall.
He was talking about the inner toll required to keep his sexuality secret. Pete has said it took him a long time to realize he was gay, and even longer to be comfortable with it. When he graduated from high school in 2000, not one of his fellow classmates was openly LGBTQ.
Pete says he was “well into adulthood” before he was able to acknowledge “the simple fact” that he was gay. And in the meantime, his friends had no idea that he was struggling, that it could feel like he was spending a lot of his time “filtering” out parts of who he was, trying to decide when his friends were talking about their girlfriends whether to chime in or keep quiet. His mother had no inkling either.
“I wasn’t looking for it,” she said.
Even if she had been, Pete was careful to show no signs. Coming out, he wrote in his memoir, felt like it could be a “career death sentence.” But in 2014, Pete deployed with the Navy to Afghanistan and realized career death might not be as terrible a fate as dying without having been in love. He was 33 when he came out of the closet, meaning that even as a young adult his years of experience with love, or to use a military term, his “training age,” as he put it in his book, was essentially zero.
It didn’t take much time for Pete to catch up, however. Just months later, with the help of a dating app, he met Chasten Glezman. The teacher from Chicago and the up-and-coming politician from South Bend met for beers and a baseball game. Chasten asked what the future held for Pete, and Pete said honestly, “In 2020 there’s a possibility I might be considered for governor.”
“We got back to the car just as the post-game fireworks began, and as the explosions and lit colors unfolded over us, he went in for a kiss,” Pete wrote of his first date. Whether this was his first kiss with a man, Pete would only say, “let’s not get into that,” but one thing was becoming clear: It was the first time he was falling in love.
When Pete opened up about his sexuality, first to friends and family, and then in an op-ed in the local paper ahead of his run for mayor, Anne still noticed no change in Pete. No sense of relief, no lightness in his step. Of course he felt it, Pete said. It allowed him to fully be himself, which would have benefits both personally and professionally.
“More than anything, it goes better for you when people know you for who you are,” he said.
But he also wasn’t surprised that his mother wouldn’t notice a difference. He’s always been good at compartmentalizing, something he probably inherited from Anne to begin with.
When Pete told her that he would be shipping out to Afghanistan as a member of the Navy Reserve, the news almost took the wind out of her. She was shocked that a sitting mayor would be sent to a war zone, and she couldn’t get the image of her grandmother’s Gold Star pin — the one she received after losing a son, Anne’s uncle — out of her mind. But Anne never let her son know she was worried, what good would that do?
Instead, she took a blue star flag, the kind mothers of servicemen get, placed it in her window, and decided to store her dark thoughts there.
“You transfer your anxiety into some symbolic thing,” she said.
By the end of 2018, life and death seemed to be happening all at once for Pete. In September, his father was diagnosed with lung cancer. In October, Anne woke up in the middle of the night feeling like she’d eaten something strange and went to the local clinic, only to be sent to the hospital for emergency heart surgery. (“Something’s come up,” she texted her friend that night to let her know she would be missing their dinner plans.)
Pete was a newlywed at the time. He was bouncing between hospitals and settling on the idea of running for president. In a strange way, within the chaos came clarity. Suddenly the idea of waiting your turn in this life didn’t make as much sense.
With encouragement from his dad, Pete headed to Washington to announce an exploratory committee for a presidential campaign. Four days later, Joe Buttigieg was dead.
“A bit cruelly, it is in preparing for an occasion like this that I would be most likely to turn to Dad for advice,” Pete said at a memorial service for Joe held at Notre Dame. “I look back, I followed his suggestions so often, and found that they always led me somewhere I needed to be — and wanted to be.”
Stephen Fredman, a fellow Notre Dame professor and friend of the family, was there for the eulogy. It was, he said, a master class in speech-writing and delivery, something he could imagine teaching in class one day. And yet, those who see Pete campaign might not be familiar with this story at all.
Pete isn’t tugging at heartstrings on the trail, he’s keeping it together like the Very Fine Young Man he’s always been. He makes intentional eye contact. He speaks in a steady, sonorous voice that can sound like he has practiced Barack Obama speeches in his bedroom.
A keen observer of others since his days on the school yard, Pete has made his candidacy often seem like a reflection of what seems to be going on in the Democratic Party. He entered the race during a time of liberal ascendance, jumping in with talk of Medicare-for-All, packing the Supreme Court and abolishing the electoral college. But as the primary season became more about “electability,” Pete seemed to seamlessly become a more moderate, more pragmatic version of the same candidate. He now favors a more limited public option for health care, and critics say his climate plan is less sweeping than they had hoped.
He talks about “revenue” and “reducing the deficit” and “the heartland,” and the older Midwestern voters watching him see their ideal version of a young person.
“I think he would be an inspiration to young people,” Warren Erickson, 83, said after an event in Newton, Iowa.
“Why can’t my kids be like Pete?!” Dale Vander Broek, 64, asked with a laugh. “Why can’t my kids wear white shirts?”
The downside has been to turn off many members of Pete’s own generation, to be seen as not only an apple polisher, but someone whose mind operates so much like a consultant that he’s prone to blind spots.
After crunching data at McKinsey, Pete showed a technocrat’s flair for development as mayor. But he could sometimes lack emotional connection to the community, famously firing the city’s first black police chief. As a candidate for president, his bottom-line thinking has brought him to at least one decadent wine cave, not a great look for a candidate appealing to the working class.
For former vice president Joe Biden, another Democratic candidate for president vying for some of the same voters as Pete, emotion, especially grief, has become a central part of his candidacy. He lost a wife and child in a tragic car accident as a young senator. His elder son, Beau, died of brain cancer. Part of Biden’s appeal is his empathy. You might not want to see your president cry, but you’d like to think he knows what it feels like.
Buttigieg’s calculus is different from Biden’s. Perhaps there are external factors that keep his emotions in check. To be the first viable openly gay candidate for the presidency is a big enough hurdle without being called “emotional.” To be the youngest candidate in the field gives him an extra incentive to be seen as serious. He’s been through a lot, but doesn’t like to talk about it. He has, he said, never seen a therapist.
Perhaps Pete hasn’t had the chance to fully grieve his father’s loss. Maybe, like his mother, he’s found a way to transfer that anxiety into a symbolic thing: his campaign.
“We’re in constant motion,” he said at the Iowa field office. “I always wish we had more time to process and reflect.”
The campaign has been something of a distraction for Anne, as well, a welcome one. She reads and writes letters on behalf of the campaign, touched by all the people who have been touched by her son. She travels to debates, part of a community of political families, technically opponents, but all ultimately in this thing together. Sometimes she’ll offer Pete advice from her focus group of friends at the gym, but she is mostly, as she said, an observer. The activity certainly beats the alternative: missing a husband, worrying about the direction of the country.
“If I didn’t have his career secondhand,” she said, “I don’t know what I would do. I would be in anguish.”
Not that she, or Pete, would ever let it show.
Photo editing by Moira Haney. Design by Beth Broadwater.