Pete Buttigieg, conversational in Norwegian, Spanish, French, Italian, Maltese, Arabic, Dari and, of course, English, would rather his face speak for him. It is a young face, a pleasant face, and one that explains why he is running for president. “My face is my message,” he said recently on “Morning Joe.”
That face, and certainly the brain behind it, has Buttigieg unexpectedly on the rise in Iowa, where a recent poll of Democratic presidential candidates had him third behind Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and suddenly affluent, with $7 million raised for his campaign in the first quarter. That’s a phenomenal showing for a candidate who has a name that consistently thwarts my spellchecker. He is only 37, which is, really, the whole idea.
“Right, a lot of this is simply the idea that we need generational change,” he continued. “That we need more voices stepping up from a generation that has so much at stake in the decisions that are being made right now. That’s why I often talk about how the world’s going to look in 2054, when I get to the current age of the current president. It’s to remind us that this isn’t just about one election. This is about an era. The decisions that are being made in our politics right now will decide how the next 20, 30 or 40 years will go.”
Memory suggests we take Buttigieg’s prominence with a grain of salt. The presidential race is a bit like “The Voice.” It is always discovering new stars and then forsaking them for someone even newer. It was only about eight years ago that Herman Cain thrilled much of this jaded nation with his “9-9-9” tax plan (don’t ask), won some straw polls, got into the presidential debates and has not been heard from since.
Will this be Buttigieg’s fate? Could be. But he has a precursor of sorts in this regard. Twenty-nine-year-old John F. Kennedy — now, there was a face! — ran for Congress in 1946 with posters of his face along with the slogan, “The New Generation Offers a Leader.” He won. And he won the White House 14 years later with a similar message about youthful energy. (Never mind that he was sickly; he looked great.) Kennedy, though, was exceptionally handsome: “the most perfect blue eyes I had ever seen on a man,” wrote Gene Tierney, one of Hollywood’s most glamorous stars. She promptly fell in love.
If American politics offers a rebuttal face, it certainly has to be Abraham Lincoln’s. It was crumpled with worry, scarred by life, sad with romance gone wrong, anguished by such backbreaking toil that, as Sidney Blumenthal noted in “A Self-Made Man,” Lincoln once said, “I used to be a slave.” Lincoln himself appreciated that he was ugly. When Stephen A. Douglas, his opponent in a Senate race, called him two-faced, Lincoln responded, “I leave it to my audience: If I had two faces, would I be wearing this one?”
Buttigieg’s is not the only fresh face in the race. Beto O’Rourke is also young at 46, and perfect to play Robert F. Kennedy in some movie. He, too, is doing well. Either one of them — or the exuberant Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) — at 54 could emerge as this year’s pied piper, leading the kids away from Sanders, 77, whose ideas seem new but are even older than he is.
Buttigieg is clearly the sort of guy we all hated in high school. He was always first in his class, then on to Harvard, where he was festooned with Latin honorifics (Phi Beta Kappa, magna cum laude), and then on to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. He worked the usual high-prestige jobs, joined the Navy Reserve and served in Afghanistan. He was elected mayor of his town, South Bend, Ind., at the age of 29 with 74 percent of the vote. As could be expected, he won reelection with 80 percent of the vote, after announcing he was gay. In 2018, he got married. His face is magic.
But it is only a face, and if, as I believe, advanced age has to be taken into account in choosing a president, so does youth. Energy and exuberance and an appalling lack of body fat are not all that matter. With furrows on the flesh, a sadness in the eyes and the cruel vandalism that gravity inflicts sometimes comes wisdom. If Buttigieg’s face is his message, it is not yet complete. It lacks lines.
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