Frank Bruni: The case for Pete Buttigieg

Democratic presidential candidate former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks at the National Action Network South Carolina Ministers' Breakfast, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020, in North Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

In different circles at different points over the past year, it has been fashionable to hate Pete Buttigieg: He’s too clearly full of himself. He’s too far ahead of himself. What business does the 38-year-old former mayor of a relatively small city have running for president? What real claim to the job?

How about this: He has drawn closer to it than prominent senators who came out of the gate with much more heat on them and were gone even before Iowans caucused. He outpaced and outlasted seasoned governors whose popularity across a broad section of the political spectrum was supposed to be electoral magic. Before hitting a snag in Nevada, he had more delegates from Iowa and New Hampshire than any of his rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination, including Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, who began building their political bases and growing their political careers before Buttigieg was born. His surname is a nearly impenetrable thicket of consonants (BOOT-edge-edge), and yet tens of millions of Americans can now pronounce it just fine.

You cannot chalk that up to novelty. You cannot call it a fluke. It’s a powerful testament to his knacks for fashioning a message that resonates with Americans, delivering it clearly, avoiding unnecessary trouble and mobilizing support. Those talents are precisely the ones that the person sitting at the Resolute Desk needs most. Buttigieg’s campaign is his credential, and it’s a compelling one.

Undertaking a bid for the White House at his age indeed suggests hubris. But getting this far reflects a phenomenal work ethic, a stubborn optimism, extraordinary intelligence and preternatural poise. Those traits, too, are ideal for a president, and none of his rivals possess them in greater measure.

I do wish that he had more miles on his odometer. The way you manage the curves in the road ahead is to draw on the lessons of the hairpin turns before. I’m also concerned about his apparent blind spots on race, but I appreciate his refreshing acknowledgment of missteps. He means to be better. And the thing about students determined to get straight A’s is that they do the homework necessary to make the honor roll.

Buttigieg understands the greatest problem that America faces, which isn’t income inequality, racial injustice, climate change or an obsolete infrastructure. It’s fragmentation. That makes progress on all of those other fronts impossible. America is too divided to move forward. Americans dwell on too many islands with too much fury in the air and too few bridges between them. Buttigieg has not only talked about that more frequently and eloquently than many of the other Democrats in the race, he has made life choices that push against it.

He signed up for military service after he went door-to-door for Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign and observed the wildly disproportionate representation of some American communities in the armed forces, which don’t exactly teem with Harvard-educated wunderkinds like him. To work in government, he didn’t head to Washington. He planted himself and deepened his roots in South Bend, Indiana, the frumpy Rust Belt city in which he’d grown up.

His detractors look at those lines on his résumé and see the eerily perfect machinations of an upstart who scribbled drafts of his inauguration address in crayons when he was still in diapers. Maybe. But, out of diapers, he put in time in places where similarly privileged young men and women typically don’t.

Buttigieg, who is married to another man, has also taken gorgeous aim at tribalism and prejudice. Last year, addressing Mike Pence’s creed-driven homophobia, he said: “Your problem is not with me. Your quarrel, sir, is with my creator.” More recently, he questioned many conservatives’ invocation of “family values” by comparing his commitment to his husband with President Donald Trump’s payment of hush money to a porn star.

In those words I heard more than pithy sound bites. I heard a declaration that Americans can’t and shouldn’t tuck one another into categories. I heard his own claim to transcend any single identity: to be many identities at once. That’s the very definition of this country. With uncommon grace, Pete Buttigieg embodies it.

Frank Bruni

Frank Bruni is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.