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Mayor Pete: Portrait of the B.S. Artist as a Young Man

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The very traits that usually impress—his fluency in political language, the go-getter’s resume, intense ambition carried in the vessel of a calm, well-mannered persona—increasingly are being greeted with skepticism and even derision. Notably, this is coming from his peers.

“Buttigieg hate is tightly concentrated among the young,” a writer at the Atlantic observed. “Why Pete Buttigieg Enrages the Young Left,” read a headline in POLITICO Magazine. “Swing Voter Really Relates to Buttigieg’s Complete Lack of Conviction,” said the headline in The Onion. The satirical site has been vicious toward him for months, in ways that evoke the wisecracking cool kids at the back of the class mocking the preening overachiever in the front row.

The Buttigieg backlash, by my lights, flows from origins that are less ideological than psychological. I noticed it some time ago with some—certainly not all—younger journalistic colleagues in particular. He torques them in ways that seem personal.

They are well-acquainted with the Buttigieg type. They find his patter and polish annoying. They regard his career to date—Harvard, Oxford, McKinsey, the mayoralty—as a facile exercise in box-checking: A Portrait of the Bullshit Artist as a Young Man.

Above all, they wonder why the artifice and calculation that seems obvious to them is them is somehow lost on others.

These Buttigieg skeptics in my experience typically overlook another possibility: His admirers aren’t oblivious to fact that he’s partly B.S.-ing. It just doesn’t much bother them. I’ll go a step further: Viewed in the right light, his teacher’s-pet glibness and implacable careerism are desirable traits.

The essence of modern American politics in recent years is contempt. The decades-long erosion of respect for nearly all institutions—the federal government, business, academia, the media—was what tilled the soil for Donald Trump’s election. His insults of adversaries, his gleeful shattering of familiar norms and precedents, are the living expression of the contempt Trump backers feel toward an established order they believe is not remotely on the level.

The opposite of contempt is a deferential faith that, on balance, the established orderison the level. Its most prestigious prizes are worth the effort, worth the ass-kissing along the way. B.S. ultimately is a form of respect. The fact that Buttigieg has spent a lifetime standing on his toes to pluck these apples—president of the Institute of Politics at Harvard, a Rhodes Scholarship, and now a shot at becoming the youngest person ever to reach the White House—is the living expression of that faith.

It’s not just young people who have ambivalent feelings—a stew of admiration, disdain, envy—toward his precocity and candlepower. Sure he’s smart, but probably no smarter than Ken Jennings; no one is asking the Jeopardy champion to run for president. The question is: To what end are intelligence and ambition harnessed?

“The words are great, but he has no soul,” said one senior Democrat whose name would be familiar to any POLITICO reader. “All head and no heart,” said an operative who helped make Bill Clinton—another young man in a hurry, for whom smoothness sometimes came off as slickness—president a generation ago.

The questions about Buttigieg’s B.S. quotient, however, are the same ones that might go to any politician, or arguably to successful professionals in any field in which words, argument, the management of image (as opposed to measurable statistics like runs batted in or ordnance dropped on target) are coin of the realm.

Buttigieg was born in 1982. I was born a couple weeks before the JFK assassination in 1963. Thinking about his birthday, it dawned on me that I was about the age he is now—after years as a reporter that included a long stint covering the Clinton White House—when I began to realize that almost everyone in Washington is a semi-fraud.

There’s a big difference, of course, between whether the emphasis is more on “semi” or on “fraud.” The point is that most people in the political arena are wearing an impressive uniform of some sort—senator, White House aide, news anchor—that from a distance disguises infirmities and insecurities. Up close these are plainly visible.

It was initially a shock to learn that the presidential chief of staff who I initially had found so imposing was made fun of behind his back by his own staff for being substantively over his head, or insecure about losing influence, or unduly vain about media coverage. When I became an editor, after years of being a reporter, I was startled to learn that some well-known Washington journalists were not fully on the level—they might be good at filling up a notebook with news, for instance, but the actual stories that appeared under their bylines were heavily rewritten.

At some point—usually at an age older than those young political activists who find Buttigieg insincere and presumptuous—one learns to shrug at these contradictions, or even genuinely to appreciate them. The fact that Buttigieg in his 20s was probably wagging his tail at landing a job at McKinsey—another validation that he is one of the smart kids—and this achievement now is a source of embarrassment in a party that has turned anti-corporate is kind of funny. But it is hardly an outrage. He served in Afghanistan; does it matter that he was well aware the military tour would be good for his political career? Just because someone may be slightly unctuous in his or her ladder-climbing doesn’t mean they have no genuine convictions, or their achievements aren’t impressive.

Activists on the left are surely correct that Buttigieg does not represent the disruptive spirit of the age, nor is he an especially plausible vessel for the kind of foundation-shaking change they seek. Looked at through the prism of temperament and character, as distinct from his policy positions, he may be the most conservative candidate in the 2020 race, Trump included.

Buttigieg surely would be too conservative for his party and the moment alike—too establishment, too cautious, too Clintonesque—were it not for two things. The first wave of coverage that greeted his early presidential campaign tended to emphasize the potential of his campaigneven thoughhe is young and gay. It’s clear over time that both these are essential elements. Imagine tweaking those parts of the bio. A 48-year-old straight former mayor of a small city would hardly be quickening pulses on the 2020 presidential campaign trail.

Two radical developments made it safe for someone like Buttigieg to be conventional in most respects. One of the developments—the legal and cultural embrace of gay marriage—is now so accepted that it’s hard even to recall that twenty years ago it was unthinkable, and even a decade ago it was a bridge too far for Barack Obama. The other radical development—Trump and his presidency—is even more consequential. If Trump hadn’t shredded the concept of plausibility, turning“I can’t imagine something like that happening”into an obsolete phrase, few people would find Buttigieg plausible in 2020.

But Trump did shred the old standards, and Buttigieg is plausible. What’s more, as he makes the turn from “mid-30s” to “late 30s,” it’s a little easier to ask: How young is he really?

He is one year younger than Al Gore was when he first ran for president, in 1988, and just a few years younger than Dan Quayle was when he was elected vice president that year, or when Theodore Roosevelt was when he was elected vice president in 1900, and ascended to the presidency less than a year later. Or, in a 2020 context, he is eight yearsolderthan Joe Biden was when he first became senator, and the same age that Amy Klobuchar was when she was elected top prosecutor for Hennepin County, Minnesota—a jurisdiction with more than eleven times the population of South Bend.

Too young, too impatient, too nakedly ambitious? Maybe for some voters, maybe not for others. But on Mayor Pete’s birthday, admirers and skeptics are both right on one count: We’ve seen his type before.

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