E.J. Dionne Jr. is a Washington Post columnist, a professor at Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book (with Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann) is “One Nation After Trump.”
‘Shortest Way Home” was written by a man who is seeking the shortest route to the White House. Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind. (pop. 102,245), is running for president, having decided against stops in the Senate or at the statehouse on his way to the top. With young voters becoming an increasingly powerful force inside the Democratic Party, he sees his age and freshness as features, not problems. And given the mess we baby boomers have left the country in (this includes especially the current baby boomer in the Oval Office), Buttigieg’s presidential candidacy certainly does not lack for a plausible rationale.
You might think that 37 years on this Earth wouldn’t provide a lot of grist for a memoir, but then Barack Obama wrote “Dreams of My Father” when he was only 34. The comparison is probably not lost on Buttigieg, who canvassed Iowa farm counties on Obama’s behalf in 2008.
I should say that I got to know Buttigieg (pronounced, roughly, “Buddha-judge”) seven years ago through academic links and have spoken with him from time to time. When I first met him, I had much the same reaction as I had after my initial encounter with a young Obama in 1997: This guy’s trajectory is definitely upward. Nothing in this book changes my mind about that.
Still, membership in the pundits union requires me to state the obvious: No matter how much I like him, it’s still hard to see how Buttigieg will manage to skip even more political grades than Obama did. And the very small-town normality of Buttigieg’s life — he springs from a loving academic family — means there is far less personal drama in his story than in Obama’s Indonesia/Kansas/Hawaii/New York/Chicago saga of growing up without a father.
There are moments here where Buttigieg seems to be pushing things a bit: The story of his piano recital with the South Bend Orchestra is cute but not the stuff of greatness. On the other hand, his candid discussion of what it’s like to come out as gay while serving as a small-city mayor and, especially, his warm and engagingly hokey description of falling in love with the man who would become his husband break important new ground in a pre-presidential autobiography.
He uses his love story to make a good point along the way: His aspirations, like those of many LGBTQ people, are to a rather old-fashioned form of family life, which shows, as he writes, how “mystifying” it is to hear it said that being gay is “a lifestyle.” It’s not a “lifestyle.” It’s just who people are.
And in his description of his military service in Afghanistan as a Navy Reservist, the lack of drama is admirable. He identifies himself with the rank-and-file; there is no puffed-up heroism here. He is, however, properly critical of the failure of those who share his elite educational pedigree to join the military in a time of war. He writes that “whole communities” in the rural Midwest “seemed to be emptying out their youth into the armed services, while so few people I knew had served at all.”
In a sense, Buttigieg’s book is a kind of antidote to J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” a story of broken people in a broken place. Buttigieg is a local politician, so he is not about to put down his constituents. But there is unforced affection here for the stuff of everyday life in South Bend — “everyday life” being one of his favorite phrases — including its ethnic festivals, its social clubs and its people. This is a comeback story of a place that got hit hard, survived and then began thriving again. For those interested in why some battered places come back and others don’t, the evidence here is of a community that maintained a thriving civil society even in the most difficult years, as well as a local media strong enough to pay serious attention to city government.
I would often joke with my brilliant departed colleague David Broder that while he loved governors, I was devoted to mayors because their problems (and their voters) were right in their faces. This is a book for mayor lovers. Policy wonks will appreciate Buttigieg’s descriptions of “smart sewers” (there are such things) and how data really and truly helps politicians make better decisions. He speaks joyfully of “a mayor indulging his inner geek.” An enlightening example of his practical geekiness is his explanation of how “responsiveness” and “efficiency” are often sharply at odds.
But a mayor steeped in metrics is at his best describing the limits of data, the importance of experience and the fact that “mercy” must sometimes prevail over everything that formal rules and analysis tell you. He speaks of an old-school City Council member reminding him that Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and his whiz kids made a mess of Vietnam policy. He also describes wrestling with racial division and issues around policing. You sense that he still struggles with these questions. His humility and tentativeness are far more appealing than false confidence.
The other trait that comes through in these pages is Buttigieg’s interest in sympathetically understanding those who disagree with him. It shows up most clearly in his account of the 2015 battle against then-Gov. Mike Pence’s “religious freedom” bill. The measure, which was promptly repealed after an outcry from the business community, effectively enabled discrimination against LGBTQ people. Buttigieg was unabashed in opposing Pence’s law, but he also worried that the bitterness of the controversy might turn off those struggling with how rapidly attitudes surrounding sexual orientation had changed. What was “exhilarating” for him, he acknowledges, could be disorienting for others.
His book does not make the case for his candidacy directly, but the core argument of his campaign, if it gets off the ground, is summed up by the title of his last chapter, “Not ‘Again.’ ” The “again” he is targeting is the last word of President Trump’s slogan calling America back to greatness. Buttigieg insists that the rearview mirror is a poor guide to future triumphs. “There is no going back,” he writes.
He makes his case using the story of his hometown, home to Notre Dame, where his Maltese immigrant dad was a distinguished humanities professor and his mom, a linguistics PhD, taught in the English, business and art departments. It is a classic story out of flyover country. Buttigieg uses the term as a matter of pride but also as a rebuke to the coastal elites whose ranks he could easily have joined after making the requisite stops at Harvard, Oxford (as a Rhodes Scholar) and McKinsey, the consulting firm whose name conjures (often young) outsiders firing analytics at experienced managers and CEOs by way of telling them what to do.
South Bend was once an industrial hub that hosted, among other enterprises, Studebaker, a legendary and now-defunct auto company that most members of Buttigieg’s generation have never heard of. The young mayor totally gets, without any condescension, why the city’s older residents yearn for the old days. For industrial workers and for cities like his, those old days were pretty damned good. It is thus probably easier for someone of his age to see that there can be no return to the economy of old. He grew up not with bustling factory buildings but with abandoned, decaying hulks crying out for repurposing. Lacking any memories of a buoyant past, he had no nostalgia for it and could thus focus on bringing his city into the new economy.
The old days, he points out, were also a long way from Nirvana for African Americans and LGBTQ folks, for women and religious minorities. The air and water were dirtier, the technologies slower, the availability of knowledge more limited. “We don’t actually want to go back,” he writes. “We just think we do, sometimes, when we feel more alert to losses than to gains.”
At the end of a book of this sort, you inevitably ask: Should this politician be seeking the presidency or not? For all the improbability of his candidacy, Buttigieg’s campaign could be powerfully useful by showing that standing up for the heartland — yes, “flyover country” — is an act of faith in the future, not a tribute to a glorious past. And he can argue, from very gritty experience, that while government will never be perfect, it can help make it a little more likely that more people will thrive.
Mayors have to be both practical and visionary, and they don’t need high-powered consultants to point out when they’re failing. Citizens are right there, on the streets or knocking on their office doors, telling them that they’re bums. It’s entirely true that a leap from mayor to president has been impossible in the past. But these pages make a pretty good case that city halls just might be better training schools for the presidency than attendance at any five years of congressional hearings combined.
By Pete Buttigieg
Liveright. 352 pp. $27.95