The question was simple enough, but Sen. John Edwards squirmed painfully. For 49 long seconds, the North Carolina Democrat, a masterful courtroom orator, sputtered before a crowd at Harvard, unable to settle on a favorite movie.
Taunted by MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews, who accused him of scrambling political calculations in his head, Edwards eventually supplied a thoroughly inoffensive answer: “The Shawshank Redemption.”
Pete Buttigieg watched in horror.
Two weeks later, in October 2003, Buttigieg vented his dismay in The Harvard Crimson. Contrasting Edwards’ hollow presentation with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s brazen campaign for governor of California, Buttigieg wrote that Republicans had cornered the market on political swagger.
“Across the aisle,” Buttigieg lamented, “members of a Democratic Party, aghast at the hypocrisy of their counterparts’ personalities, seem themselves reluctant to demonstrate any personality at all.”
Sixteen years later, that observation informs Buttigieg’s underdog campaign for the White House, an enterprise driven powerfully by personality. Other candidates have anchored their candidacies in ideological or social causes, like Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s opposition to corporate power or Sen. Cory Booker’s concern for racial justice.
Buttigieg’s distinctive political passion appears to be storytelling, wrapping conventional liberalism in an earnest, youthful persona that Democrats might see as capable of winning over the middle of the country.
Dan Glickman, a former secretary of agriculture in the Clinton administration who knew Buttigieg at Harvard, said he saw him as a “tonal” moderate with a “calm, sensible demeanor.”
“He’s got this way of articulating a vision, which is progressive but not off-putting,” said Glickman, 74, who led Harvard’s Institute of Politics at the time.
A Times review of Buttigieg’s writings, starting in college, found that rhetorical task to be a consistent preoccupation. As a student, Buttigieg, now 37 and the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, habitually discussed Democrats’ challenges in terms of language and argument, rather than policy or ideology. Buttigieg urged liberals in his student columns to speak in terms of “effective political values,” and he recalled corresponding in college with the University of California, Berkeley, linguist George Lakoff, who in 2004 published a best seller about political communication.
In an interview, Buttigieg said his college writings were no longer fresh in his mind. But then, as now, he acknowledged, he was focused on the interaction of “narrative and politics,” and how parties connect with people beyond policy decrees.
“The story that we tell, not just about government but about ourselves, and the story we tell people about themselves and how they fit in, really grounds our politics,” Buttigieg said.
Buttigieg said in the interview that Democrats in 2004 faced a “crisis of authenticity,” with too many “pretending to be more hawkish than their consciences were.”
He channeled that frustration at the time into columns that ripple with disappointment about the “spineless Democratic Party.” Buttigieg wrote in passing about policies he found intriguing, like enacting single-payer health care and eliminating oil as a fuel source. But campaigns hinged on wider themes, he wrote: “Americans need a narrative.”
“As long as the events can outpace the media’s ability to construct a novelistic story around them, the voters may have some control; but it doesn’t take long to spin a tale,” Buttigieg wrote in January 2004.
He continued, “What no one seems able to understand is why some narratives are chosen, and others aren’t.”
For now, a good number of Democrats appear to be choosing the one Buttigieg has crafted. He has made an unlikely splash in the race, becoming the first openly gay major presidential candidate and captivating both elite opinion-shapers and swaths of rank-and-file Democrats with his self-assured intellectualism and rhetoric about generational change. Despite lacking traditional qualifications for the presidency and declining, so far, to detail a distinctive policy agenda, Buttigieg has risen to the middle of the Democratic field in polling numbers and fundraising.
Propelling Buttigieg is an anxiety-free persona of the kind he once identified as lacking in Edwards. He has presented himself as a cerebral type of Jimmy Stewart character, plain-spoken in manner but boasting degrees from Harvard and Oxford, discoursing happily about James Joyce and flaunting his proficiency in Norwegian.
Buttigieg often appears beside his husband, Chasten Buttigieg, a teacher and emerging social-media star. Both men speak with unselfconscious pride about their marriage, and they display public affection of a kind never seen before in a presidential campaign.
That full package, Buttigieg said in a recent television interview, makes him “about as different from this president as it gets.”
If Buttigieg shares anything with President Donald Trump, however, it is his reliance on comportment and biography to carry his campaign. Trump climbed to the White House on the strength of a voluble personality projected over mass media, waxing enthusiastic not about Scandinavian literature but about celebrity gossip and fast food. Even some Democrats appalled by Trump envy his crude ease with mass communication.
In this respect, Buttigieg’s campaign is also an echo of his early writings, when he expressed alarm about Democrats struggling to appear as genuine as a president, George W. Bush, whom he viewed as dishonest.
In one column, Buttigieg wrote with something like admiration about Bush’s commercials that showed him striding with a “West Wing gait” and declaring: “I know exactly where I want to lead this country.”
“I believe him,” Buttigieg wrote.
His preoccupation with language was widely shared among Bush-era Democrats. Liberals’ conviction that their defeats stemmed from failing to communicate made a 2004 tome about political argument, Lakoff’s “Don’t Think of an Elephant,” into an influential commercial success. Buttigieg confirmed through a spokeswoman that he had read the book, and said he corresponded as a student with Lakoff but doubted the linguist would remember.
Lakoff said in an interview that he did not recall interacting with Buttigieg, but praised him as a communicator with a gift for breaking down ideas for voters.
“He knows how to talk plainly,” Lakoff said. “Usually, Democrats are saying: What are your 10 most important policy areas? And he doesn’t do that.”
Buttigieg is likely to face pressure, however, to define a clearer governing agenda. At this early stage, he has no equivalent of Sen. Kamala Harris’ call to hike teacher salaries or Warren’s proposed wealth tax, or the pledge by Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington to focus single-mindedly on climate change.
As mayor of a city with about a fifth the population of Staten Island, Buttigieg lacks the kind of wide-ranging record that has given credibility and depth to other competitors’ rhetoric.
Buttigieg has stirred suspicion among some Democrats for his hazy commitments on policy. In the left-wing magazine Current Affairs, editor Nathan J. Robinson ridiculed Buttigieg as a clever political marketer without ideas or a record undergirding his ambition.
“He’s from the Rust Belt so he’s authentic, but he went to Harvard so he’s not a rube, but he’s from a small city so he’s relatable, but he’s gay so he’s got coastal appeal, but he’s a veteran so his sexuality won’t alienate rural people,” Robinson wrote. “This is literally the level of political thinking that is involved in the hype around Buttigieg.”
There are policy elements in Buttigieg’s pitch, many of them tethered to the theme of generational change. He has called for creating a government-backed health insurance option and for aggressively regulating consumer data online, and speaks with fluency about the threats posed to young people by climate change and the replacement of human workers by machines. He has pushed back on the left here and there, rejecting the idea of making free college a government goal.
More provocatively, Buttigieg has backed two long-shot proposals to restructure the Supreme Court and abolish the Electoral College. And he has praised, without quite endorsing, ideas for taxing carbon fuel and experimenting with a universal basic income policy, whereby the government would issue cash payments to give citizens a minimum sum to live on.
Buttigieg said he would outline more proposals with time. But he rejected the idea that the Democratic race might hinge on “who has the most elegant policy design.” Because a president cannot execute his plans freely in office, Buttigieg argued, it would be “inauthentic” to make too many detailed promises.
“I actually think I’ve been plenty specific; it’s just that we don’t lead with it,” Buttigieg said. “I don’t want to drown people in minutiae.”
Buttigieg’s instinct for simplicity and vagueness appears deeply rooted.
In 2004, he co-wrote a New York Times column describing research into the platforms of political parties, concluding that winning parties tended to have shorter platforms. And in his final column in his college newspaper, Buttigieg urged Democrats to focus chiefly on reclaiming terms like “morality” and “compassion” from the right.
He acknowledged that recommendation was “about as specific as President Bush’s plan for rebuilding Iraq.” But Buttigieg said he aimed to help “turn these principles from clichéd and overused words into effective political values.”
That theory of politics reappeared in Buttigieg’s 2019 memoir, “Shortest Way Home,” in which he concluded, after his bid for party chairman, that voters craved a “values-led message.”
And perhaps with Edwards’ stumble as a faintly-remembered cautionary tale, Buttigieg did not hesitate in the interview to disclose some favorite films, naming “The Godfather” and “Gangs of New York,” Martin Scorsese’s violent tale of 19th century New York City.
Of the latter, he conceded: “I don’t know that it’ll enter into the canon of great films.”