Pete Buttigieg deadpanned the stage, barely out of view on the eve of disaster.
For nearly a year, he had practically lived in Iowa, as he competed with a veritable boatload of Democratic presidential candidates. Despite the outlandishly crowded field, he had risen from what the Washington Post described as "the most interesting mayor you've never heard of," to a front-runner in the presidential race, edging his position among the seven remaining candidates.
Super Bowl Sunday. With the first-in-the-nation-vote Iowa caucuses in 28 hours, this "Get Out The Caucus" rally was Buttigieg's last pre-caucus event. Not a parking spot for 10 blocks by the time Buttigieg was supposed to have appeared.
A couple thousand people packed inside the Roundhouse, a gymnasium that resembled an ant colony, with its spiraling dome built in 1965. Situated on the campus of Abraham Lincoln High School, with its imposing Collegiate Gothic architecture, hilltopped on the south side of Des Moines, near Gray's Lake — which, on that Feb. 2, 2020, had succumbed to Iowa snow and shortened days, so the water was frozen. Not solid, not deep — only on the surface.
Inside the gymnasium, a profusion of red and yellow. Sultry, humid. People sweating. Warmed by a nagging fluorescence. And bustling. Frantic.
Abraham Lincoln High School, home of the Rail-SplittersPhoto by Kevin Ryan
Periodically, the crowd shouted "BOOT-edge-edge" to the cadence of "U-S-A." Some of their far more elaborate chants had surely been scripted.
Then, lightning shook the gymnasium in the form of Panic! at the Disco. An instrumental loop of their once-ubiquitous single "High Hopes," which you have definitely heard. Over the past year, it has become Buttigieg's campaign song, especially after this video went viral. The choreographed dance routine became a meme, and more videos appeared of Buttigieg-supporter flash mobs, at parks, in conference rooms, at Irish pubs.
Saturday Night Live took a few jabs, with Weekend Update anchor Colin Jost joking, "It's all part of Mayor Pete's strategy to get a negative percentage of the black vote."
And, just like that, Buttigieg, 38, took the stage. Behind him, a giant American flag and risers full of Pete-gear-bedecked supporters shouting "BOOT - EDGE - EDGE. BOOT - EDGE - EDGE. BOOT - EDGE - EDGE."
The floor rumbled. The bleachers and stairs and blinking scoreboards shook. It was a tribal war ceremony. A pep rally for a game that could cost us everything. Our freedom, our lives, our fast food whenever we want it.
The Maltese Chicken
In many way, Buttigieg represents the anti-Trump.
He's polite. He's intellectual. He's young. A church-going Episcopalian, a Rhodes Scholar, a veteran, a former McKinsey management consultant, a Harvard grad, a piano player. He even once accompanied Ben Folds for a performance of "Steven's Last Night in Town," a song about an enigmatic guy who's always about to leave but never does. Afterward, Folds said, "It was a very difficult song he pulled off. I'm serious. He's a fine player."
He's well-spoken, decorously well-spoken. Also fluent in French, Spanish, Italian, Maltese, Arabic and Dari, a dialect of Persian that he learned while serving overseas. Oh, and Norwegian.
Like presidential candidate Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, he's a veteran. He joined the Navy Reserve at 27, achieved the rank of lieutenant, with a Joint Service Commendation medal. Then, In 2014, he took a leave as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, to serve a seven-month deployment in Afghanistan, where he worked as an intelligence officer as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.
"I was packing my bags for Afghanistan while [Donald Trump] was working on Season 7 of 'The Apprentice," he said at a May 2019 rally.
In his autobiography, "Shortest Way Home: One Mayor's Challenge and a Model for America's Future," he says that, during his time in Afghanistan, he was mostly "behind a sophisticated computer terminal in a secure area," although he served as a vehicle commander on convoys through Kabul 119 times.
I would heave my armored torso into the driver's seat of a Land Cruiser, chamber a round in my M4, lock the doors and wave a gloved goodbye to the Macedonian gate guard. My vehicle would cross outside the wire and into the boisterous Afghan city, entering a world infinitely more interesting and ordinary and dangerous than our zone behind the blast walls at ISAF headquarters.
Like fellow candidates Andrew Yang and Bernie Sanders, and former candidate Kamala Harris, Buttigieg is a second-generation American. His father emigrated from Malta in 1979, became a naturalized American citizen, then taught as a professor. "Buttigieg" is Maltese for "lord of the poultry."
History in the Making
Two types of people at the rally — Buttigieg supporters decked in PETE 2020 gear, and journalists, strutting or looking bored. Meanwhile, I desperately fished through my backpack for my Houston Astros hat, failing, dropping everything, a human spill. But with a smirk, because the Astros had just been disgraced following revelations that they cheated their way to a World Series win, something about banging a trash can like it was a kettledrum.
All through Buttigieg's speech, various media chattered. With their PETE press badges stuck to their arms, they gabbed like people do at annual conferences or family reunions, indifferent to the presidential candidate 80 yards away.
Chuck Todd, host of NBC's "Meet the Press," gabbed right beside us. Media pundits, anchors, columnists, all the important people, had converged on Des Moines.
It was like a journalism catwalk. It was like homecoming, for us, the media — the eloquent vultures who stomp around with our wings stretched as a show of dominance or a remedy to fear, compensating always.
Fox News anchor Bret Baier strutted up the aisle, flanked by an entourage. It looked like he'd deep-fried himself in orange baby powder.
Baier lacked the ordinariness that I'd sensed when I met him in Houston at the third Democratic debate. I liked Baier, even if he did snub me when I told him I write for Blaze Media. Now, he was a puffin of confidence, resembling some American emperor as he walked, parting the crowd.
Didn't any of these journalists want to know what Buttigieg had to say? Sure, when you cover an election, you hear a stump speech 40 times and it loses its spark. But our whole job was to comb for lice.
Buttigieg asked the audience, "So, are you ready to make history one more time?"
They'd be making history, all right, far more than they expected, but not like they'd imagined. By the end of the next day, American democracy would take a pie to the face.
Youth and Inexperience
If elected president, Buttigieg would be the youngest in our nation's history, just two years over the minimum age. He got his start as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, at the age of 29. After serving two terms, he left office on Jan. 1, 2020.
In a field of seasoned, older politicians, including a former vice president, Buttigieg has faced relentless scrutiny for his lack of political experience — it has come up every single debate. Most recently, in a now-viral campaign ad from former Vice President Joe Biden, who like Buttigieg, coincidentally, entered politics at age 29 when he became the sixth-youngest senator in American history.
So much of this campaign has been about age, and not in a charming way. A 73-year-old Ronald Reagan responded to a question about his age by saying, "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."
Buttigieg has often championed the idea of "Intergenerational justice" as a means of establishing an "intergenerational alliance." Connecting the generations.
During a May 2019 town hall for Fox News, Chris Wallace asked Buttigieg about the constraints of age for a president. Here's Buttigieg's response:
At 38, Buttigieg is technically a millennial, and the first to become a serious presidential candidate.
"We're not a generation that feels sorry for itself," Buttigieg told one journalist. "But I think when somebody says, 'Gosh, why are you guys less likely to leave the home?' It's like, well, because college is unaffordable, most of the best opportunities are in cities that are unaffordable. And we graduated into a recession. So what do you expect?"
Politics Politics Politics
Despite all the chaos in the Roundhouse as Mayor Pete chanted to the crowd, I found Justin Robert Young, host of the Politics Politics Politics podcast.
The Buttigieg rally was the first time we'd met in person.
Justin gave intermittent commentary into his ZOOM portable recorder, the kind with dual external microphones.
In person, as on his podcast, Justin Robert Young discusses politics with the grace and off-handedness and clarity of a philosophy professor explaining Immanuel Kant. Like a surfer gliding a wave.
But then he throws in some humor. He is what you could call an outcast of the media world. Same as me. There aren't all that many of us. We work for different publications, networks, podcasts — media of every political orientation. But we take umbrage with the politics of new media, it's Trumpian snarl and disdain, it's blunt sense of apathy.
He asked me for my prediction, my "1, 2, 3, 4" on who would win Iowa.
I get asked questions like this fairly often. I don't pretend to be a political expert. But if you're at the horse races, you pick a horse, and sometimes you just go with the horse trotting the wildest and maybe it will win.
"For my number one," I said, "I'd guess Bernie. Two, Biden. Three, Warren. Four, Klobuchar."
"No Pete?" Justin asked.
"I mean, that would really surprise me."
Outside the Wire
Buttigieg is the first openly gay Democratic presidential candidate. He came out in 2015, at the age of 33, near the end of his first term as mayor, with an essay in the South Bend Tribune:
Like most people, I would like to get married one day and eventually raise a family. I hope that when my children are old enough to understand politics, they will be puzzled that someone like me revealing he is gay was ever considered to be newsworthy. By then, all the relevant laws and court decisions will be seen as steps along the path to equality. But the true compass that will have guided us there will be the basic regard and concern that we have for one another as fellow human beings — based not on categories of politics, orientation, background, status or creed, but on our shared knowledge that the greatest thing any of us has to offer is love.
Ten days later, the Supreme Court struck down all state bans on gay marriage, making same-sex marriage legal on the federal level. He married his husband, Chasten Glezman, a schoolteacher from Michigan, in 2018. The following year, he appeared on the cover of TIME Magazine, with his Chasten, and the words "First Family."
The Atlantic said a Buttigieg presidency could "transform the relationship between gay and straight America for the better." One op-ed in the New York Times praised Buttigieg for changing America with what the author called "Mayor Pete's gay reckoning." Another noted that "Mr. Buttigieg's ascent has made a sudden and unexpected reality of something [LGBT] donors thought was still years away, if not decades." Although the author added that the LGBT community is by no means monolithic.
Any criticisms of his gayness, or his being a white gay man, have come not from conservatives or Republicans, but from the left, from LGBT groups and openly left-leaning activism-journalists — a discord that the right has crudely exploited for their own benefit, with concern-troll schadenfreude. Because most of the writers who've criticized Buttigieg are themselves LGBT. And, while they may focus far more on differences than unity, it's their prerogative.
Either way, it's complicated. All of it. For everyone. But especially for the people in the middle of the chaos.
The most cited Buttigieg hit piece is probably the one from The Outline, titled, "Why Pete Buttigieg is bad for gays."
The author dislikes Buttigieg's ordinariness, his lack of overt gayness, and, finally, his status as a "democratic capitalist." The author concludes,
But it is hard to escape the way that American capitalism and American democracy have worked in tandem both to dissipate and to assimilate the radical democratic energies of queer liberation by giving a very circumscribed sort of gay a conditional membership to the club.
LGBTQ Nation responded with an article titled, "Why Pete Buttigieg is good for gays," rebuking the Outline article, "That isn't an argument. That's self-hatred."
A journalist for Slate wrote that
in a primary for the overwhelmingly pro-gay Democratic Party, Buttigieg can be more accurately lumped in with his white male peers than with anyone else.
Senior politics reporter for HuffPost Jennifer Bendery wrote,
[H]is candidacy is already exposing tensions in the LGBTQ community between gay white men, who benefit from the economic and social privileges of being white men, and all the other queer people who don't.
Buzzfeed wrote, "You Wanted Same-Sex Marriage? Now You Have Pete Buttigieg."
Vice wrote, "Why Do White People Love Pete Buttigieg?"
The Root wrote, "Pete Buttigieg is a lying MF."
The New Republic published an article in which author Dale Peck, who is also gay, referred to Buttigieg as "Mary Pete." LGBTQ Nation called the article disgusting. Within a day, New Republic editors removed it, saying that it crossed the line into "inappropriate and invasive." The removal of the article caused its own controversy.
Buttigieg addressed the negative press on "The Clay Cane Show,"
I just am what I am, and, you know, there's going to be a lot of that. That's why I can't even read the LGBT media anymore because it's all, 'he's too gay, not gay enough, wrong kind of gay.' All I know is that life became a lot easier when I just started allowing myself to be myself and I'll let other people write up whether I'm 'too this' or 'too that'
Outside, among the snow of things and the ice-veiled football field, a vendor wearing a Los Angeles Lakers beanie sold Buttigieg T-shirts and hats, prowling behind two poker tables.
"Buttigieg gave quite a speech," I said to Justin. "But it was so neat and tidy."
"Nice, is the word," he replied. "What we saw was a coordinated effort to be the nice guy."
"That's not so bad."
Buttigieg has repeatedly championed the importance of dialogue between the left and the right. Which would involve broadening the information we consume. Twitter, obviously, perpetuates echo-chamber tribalism. But the news media are guilty of ideological round-abouts as well, so it's a matter of media literacy, what Buttigieg calls "correcting our media diet." He was the first Democratic candidate to appear on FoxNews.
"I also think sometimes there's a sense of condescension coming from our party," he told Bill Maher. "I think a lot of people perceive that we're looking down on them." Which can lead to radicalization. A loss in the sense of belonging.
Later, Justin and I drank cheap beer and watched the Super Bowl at Beechwood Lounge in Des Moines' Historic East Village, with its boutiques and microbrews and gay bars and pedestrians. Hell of a place to watch the Super Bowl. That long narrow room, steep, a revamped house of some kind. Low lighting. No frill from the bartenders, just abrupt conversation so you know they meant what they said. Home to fashionable outcasts, such as ourselves. The less militant kind with their passion and their certitude, the profound disquiet, a disgust with the status quo.
2020 marked the centennial Super Bowl. Also, it was Shakira's birthday, a fact that everyone in the nation buzzed with, later, during the halftime show, on account of her and J-Lo being hosts, and both giving acrobatically flawless performances.Photo by Kevin Ryan
Toward the end of the night Justin raised his finger, squinted his left eye, and said, "For your series. You should find a universal truth. Something everyone knows but hasn't said or can't express. Give them a universal truth."
On the flight to Des Moines, I read Forrest Gander's Pulitzer-Prize-winning poetry collection "Be With." All week, I kept thinking about one line. A seeming non sequitur. A sentence fragment. "Intuition of the infinite."
Is that truth? When we discover truth, are we grasping something infinite? A constant strain. Reaching for feathers as they float through the breeze. Chasing a rabbit near a busy road and all you want to do is save a creature but it's just too fast and now the danger has spread. Still, in the words of Robert Browning, "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?"
Our era already resigned itself to a life of mistruth, the Age of Fake News Supreme. We know the chaos of doubting whether something is the truth or a lie. A pattern that seems to worsen each day. So it has become harder than ever to apply a universal truth to hundreds of millions of people. But I would do it.
"You're going to see some ads saying there's only two ways to go," Buttigieg had said earlier that day at the rally. "Either you're for a revolution or you're for the status quo. But the good news for Americans today is we have a historic majority ready not only to rally around what we're against to get a better president, but to come together in the name of what we are for as a country."
During an appearance on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert," Dr. Phil perfectly described how this is possible.
"Why do you think that nobody can talk to each other anymore?" Colbert asked.
"You know, to tell you the truth, I don't think anybody's trying to get along right now," Dr. Phil said. "Everybody is pissed off and it's like they don't want to get along. If I'm negotiating with somebody — if I'm negotiating with you, the first thing I'm going to do is figure out how to get you the most of what you want I possibly can."
Colbert recoiled. "Is negotiating all about winning?" he asked.
"Certainly you want to win," said Dr. Phil, "but you gotta define 'win.' If 'win' is all one-sided, that's not gonna last very long. If you and I make a deal and I say, 'Okay, here's the deal, you do all the work and I'm gonna get all the money,' I might talk you into that today, but three-four days later you're gonna go, 'Excuse me, can we — kiss my ass, I'm not doing that anymore. Nobody's gonna go along with that, you've gotta have a sense of saying, 'All right, let's start by saying, what do we agree on?"
"Okay, that's it," replied Colbert. "What do we agree on? Because it seems like, right now, during the campaign and right now, too, people are having trouble agreeing on reality. People are having trouble agreeing on what is a fact, what is an alternative fact … Why is this happening, Dr. Phil?"
"Any time there's a dispute," Dr. Phil responded, "the first thing I do is say, 'Okay, let's figure out what it is we agree on, because we might agree on more than we think, and then we can have these things over to the side that we disagree on.'"
He added, "So. What do we agree on? Everybody agrees that we're all Americans, that we all enjoy the freedoms that we want, we all want to be safe — everybody agrees with those things, right? If you say, 'What do we not agree on' — okay, now we're talking about the disagreements, but we at least have some common ground. Nobody's talking about that."
New stories come out every Monday and Thursday. The next few will take you through the chaos of the Iowa caucuses. Check out my Twitter. Send all notes, tips, corrections to firstname.lastname@example.org