Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., and usurper of O’Rourke’s role as Democratic media darling, has a few things in common with the man he has displaced. They’re both relatively young, relatively good-looking totally white guys from parts of America that the Democrats could stand to win over. They’re progressive to a point, but they’re not ideologues. And they love the same book. Sort of.
O’Rourke, a former representative from Texas, has said several times that not only has he read and reread “The Odyssey,” but he even named his first-born son Ulysses — because, as O’Rourke declared in perhaps the most eye-rollingly masculine statement made on the stump so far, he “didn’t have the balls to name him Odysseus.”
Buttigieg, on the other hand, doesn’t have any kids with his husband, Chasten. If he did, though, Ulysses might be his top pick, “balls” be damned. The Harvard grad, Rhodes scholar and Navy veteran (it’s impossible to weigh in on Buttigieg, it turns out, without reproducing his résumé) has told interviewers that James Joyce’s modernist masterpiece is “the basis" for his politics.
It’s not so surprising that these two men seeking the highest office in the land have chosen a Homeric epic to undergird their own myth-making. But the differences between the original "Odyssey" and its 20th-century interpretation say something about the differences between O’Rourke and Buttigieg as candidates, too — and they may help explain how the latter has gotten his edge, however long it lasts.
First there’s O’Rourke, who said of the presidential race to Vanity Fair, “Man, I’m just born to be in it.” He likes “The Odyssey,” and he likes Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey,” which spells out a theory of heroic narrative O’Rourke plainly believes he can match. A man — and, yes, it’s generally a man — strikes out to achieve something, and though he suffers, he prevails. That man is special, and by using his specialness, he can deliver wonders to the unanointed.
“Every word was pulled out of me,” O’Rourke said of an early speech during his Senate campaign last year against Ted Cruz. “Like, by some greater force.”
O’Rourke, like Odysseus, has drifted to and fro, amassing adventures before finding his way home. His rocker road-tripping then and his countrywide pre-campaigning now are all about the self-discovery necessary to lead others.
There are, of course, more complicated ways to read “The Odyssey.” But Betomania has never been about being complicated: It has been about charisma, about how hopping up on countertops is a suitable substitute for the sort of wonkery that can tend to turn voters off.
In “Ulysses,” on the other hand, complication is key. Joyce both mimics and mocks the heroic narrative — chronicling his protagonist’s travels to the outhouse instead of across wine-dark seas. Odysseus is traded out for Leopold Bloom, who is more or less a loser in the way all of us are more or less losers, and a hero in the way all of us are heroes. The novel aims to capture the fullness of humanity not in the extraordinary, but in the ordinary.
Buttigieg claims that this interest in the everyday is at the core of his politics, too. He wants Democrats to be “talking in terms that are nearer to the ground, really explaining what we mean in terms of everyday lived experience. . . . And that’s how good political narrative works.” There’s that word: narrative. This time, though, the stereotypical heroism is left out of it. O’Rourke live-streamed himself getting his teeth cleaned. Buttigieg live-streamed himself filling in a South Bend pothole.
Buttigieg-mania isn’t really a thing, and that’s not only because it’s a mouthful: It’s because Buttigieg is appealing not for being larger than life, but for being regular-sized. That’s refreshing in an era where, as Buttigieg himself pointed out, one nominee in the last presidential election put “I’m with her” on campaign buttons and the other was Donald Trump. Refreshing, too, is Buttigieg’s insistence on Democrats developing a “vocabulary” that redefines high-level values such as “freedom,” as well as his focus on reshaping democracy with a larger Supreme Court and an end to the electoral college. Joyce used modern literary methods to capture modern problems; Buttigieg is trying to do the same thing in politics.
There’s something else about “Ulysses,” though. It’s big and bold, but it’s also a pastiche of centuries of English literature. It’s a riff, in other words, on what we’ve done before. The orientation to everyday detail that seems to define Buttigieg could be as radical as Joyce, or it could tend to perpetuate the status quo that the insurgency on the left and those blue-collar voters alike want to leave behind. His desire to reclaim faith and community for the left could be a foray into the future, or it could end up calling Americans back to the past. Until we really see his policy positions — and we haven’t, yet — it’s impossible to know for sure.
Heroism is obviously alluring; if it weren’t, we’d all have stopped reading “The Odyssey” a long time ago. There’s something striking, if a bit silly, about seeing O’Rourke standing astride those countertops like he’s conquering the country cafe by cafe. It’s also possible that someone who aspires to face the most me-oriented politician of all in the general election needs a certain oomph. The question about O’Rourke is whether his personal questing is too much. The question about Buttigieg is whether the everyday version of the epic is enough to get voters to say “yes.”