The Future

Shortest Way Home: One Mayor’s Challenge and a Model for America’s Future by Pete Buttigieg

Getting to know Mayor Pete, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend Indiana who wants to be your next President.

Liveright, 2019.

D. Saint Germain

Click on the Amazon page for Mayor Pete Buttigieg's new book, and beyond the Buttigieg-stans declaring him the next president of the United States in the comments, you'll see recommended books by his opponents for the 2020 Democratic nomination for President:

The Truths We Hold: An American Journey by Kamala Harris, This Fight Is Our Fight: The Battle to Save America's Middle Class by Elizabeth Warren, United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good by Corey Booker, The Right Answer: How We Can Unify Our Divided Nation by John K Delaney, An Unlikely Journey: Waking Up from My American Dream by Julian Castro, The War on Normal People: The Truth About America's Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income Is Our Future by Andrew Yang, and The Senator Next Door: A Memoir from the Heartland by Amy Klobuchar. Tulsi Gabbard's Is Today the Day? Not Another Political Memoir will be out in August of this year.

A few 2020 contenders released books prior to this election cycle, so we may be spared new memoirs before the election: John Hickenlooper's The Opposite of Woe: My Life in Beer and Politics came out in 2016, while Kirsten Gillibrand published hers in 2014, Off the Sidelines: Speak Up, Be Fearless, and Change Your World. Jay Inslee wrote Apollo's Fire: Igniting America's Clean Energy Economy in 2009, though its been updated a few times since.

In fact, Beto's the only one of the declared candidates1 that doesn't have a book out about his policy ideas, leadership credentials, or vision for America (though he did co-write a book about drugs in the US and Mexico ten years ago, Dealing Death and Drugs: The Big Business of Dope in the U.S. and Mexico. However, you can work out your despair over his lack of policy vision with some adult-coloring time shading his face in the Beto O-Rourke adult coloring book.) Don't worry Beto, a former Obama aid told NBC in your defense that "campaigns aren't typically won based on a side-by-side of issues, but instead by voters judging the character and vision of candidates." So why bother with substance?

It's a bit of a drag that writing a memoir / vision for America book has become a prerequisite for running for highest office; as a checkbox on a to-do list for presidential candidates, it makes a book more of a vanity project rather than a contribution to knowledge. But publishing houses continue to crank out books written by people trying to raise their public stature and build the perception of authority, while increasing their business prospects and standing in their communities. This presidential prerequisite has the potential to provide a nice living for political ghostwriters, I guess.

The Shortest Way Home is a getting-to-know-you book. Along the way you learn about Pete's childhood in South Bend, Indiana, the child of two Notre Dame professors, a city that in the 80s hadn't recovered from the closure of the Studebaker car factory in the 60s. How he got into Harvard, and then Oxford, and how it shaped his prospects. How he became a traveling McKinsey consultant after graduating Oxford with honors, and how he worked to be placed in Chicago so he could be close to home (he found it fortuitous when, interviewing in Chicago for McKinsey, he could see around the curve of Lake Michigan to the Indiana state line from the interview room).

He traveled four days a week for McKinsey and realized the Firm didn't care where he lived the rest of the time; so he moved back to South Bend to be closer to his folks. He was also feeling the drag of consulting, writing "work can only be meaningful if its fundamental purpose is in things that would matter even if no one would pay you to care about them.... The churn, which at first had been stimulating, now made me feel unmoored." As he explored what might be next for him, he felt pulled toward serving his country in a more significant way. So he applied to be a Navy reservist and took a month off to campaign for Obama in Iowa.

By then, the economy was in free fall, and the local news in Indiana was bleak: Chrysler and Delphi were laying off thousands of workers. The collapse of the auto industry was a serious problem for Indiana, not only for workers in those companies, but for all the secondary jobs those factories created: thousands of families in South Bend worked for companies that made parts and supplies for the auto industry, and with up to forty percent unemployment in some towns, "no business--from Applebee's to the Cone Palace, my favorite family-owned ice-cream shop--would stand much of a chance."

A "weird subplot" of this local crisis ultimately brought Buttigieg to run for office: the state treasurer, Richard Mourdock, sued the federal government to stop the bankruptcy of Chrysler to try to force its liquidation instead. As Buttigieg puts it – "an elected official in Indiana was attempting to stop the president from saving the livelihoods of thousands of Indiana families." It outraged Buttigieg that Mourdock was using the office of treasurer, a non-partisan position, to make a name for himself so he could move into higher office. He writes, "When else would an obscure state treasurer get a chance not only to assert free-market principles and deal a blow to labor, but also to provoke a showdown with the hated Obama administration over a major policy priority?"

Had Mourdock's lawsuit won, he recounts, 38,000 Chrysler employees would have been out of a job; 23 factories and 20 parts depots would have closed; 3,000 Chrysler dealers would probably have gone out of business, and health and pensions benefits for former and current Chrysler employees would be out billions of dollars. It seems Mourdock was more concerned about the loss Chrysler stockholders would encounter rather than what it would do to his home state. Buttigieg felt strongly that someone should hold him accountable / try to unseat him from office for what he had done, and so he found himself at 29 quitting his job to run for state treasurer as a Democrat, "trading a stable and prestigious role for an unlikely and unheard-of effort." He fought hard and built a serious grassroots effort, but sustained less than 40 percent of the vote in a very red Indiana.

Less than two months later, Newsweek ran an article about “America's Dying Cities,” naming South Bend #8 in the death spiral rankings (a cynical ranking process, for sure). As you’d expect, such judgment rankled the locals. Young people particularly resisted this narrative, with one of Pete's high school classmates reminding people "if you live here, stop complaining and do something to fix this town." Local dems who had gotten to know Pete during his treasurer run encouraged him to run for Mayor; he was reluctant to do so, as his competitors would be people he knew well. He ran on a platform of dealing with vacant boarded up houses in the community, simplifying business procedures, and setting up a 311 line for people to get city services / address city issues. As we all know, he won the race, a fact he attributes in part to the fact there wasn't a strong Republican contender, and many Republicans crossed over to vote for the guy with a business and military background.

He goes on to discuss the leadership challenges of being mayor and his relationship with Mike Pence (cordial, until Pence passed the bill that damaged Indiana's reputation and economy, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act). Next, he talks about meeting Obama, the event that led Obama to call Buttigieg one of the future leaders of the Democratic Party.

From there, he accounts his time serving in Afghanistan as a "dirt sailor" – the parlance for deployed Navy in Afghanistan – and how his time there (and the "just in case" letter he wrote to his family before he left) made him realize it was time to get serious about having a partner, a family, a life. The problem, though, was that he wasn't out of the closet and had chosen two very public jobs (military & politics in conservative Indiana) where homosexuality was not necessarily embraced. Yet he knew that the only way to pursue a personal life of meaning was to reveal this fact to the public, which he chose to do in an op-ed in the local newspaper.

Yes, there was blowback, some of it particularly nasty; but Buttigieg by his account chose to just keep focused on the work of running the town and his record of doing so as he went into his reelection campaign. He didn't know if his coming out would sink his reelection bid, but focused on how he'd helped to rebuild downtown, attract a new tech data center, and bulldozed vacant houses. He won reelection by over 80 percent of the vote, just as he met the man he would marry, Chasten. Their romance and story are sweetly told, (the chapter is called "becoming whole") and he writes that their marriage has made him more stable, more family oriented, and a better man.

From marriage the story moves on to his failed bid to chair the DNC after Trump was elected, to what happens next, his vision of America in the age of Trump. There is no going back in time, he asserts. "Nothing is more human than to resist loss, which is why cynical politicians can get pretty far by offering up the fantasy that a loss can be reversed rather than overcome the hard way. This is the deepest lie of our recent national politics," he writes. Instead, we have to look to the future and pay attention to the everyday in order to move forward, he proposes. It's a pretty ending, if not also pretty vague.

It is refreshing to read a book by a man of some success that acknowledges all the people who helped him along his path, giving credit where credit is due, rather than riding on a "great man who pulled himself up to greatness by his own bootstraps" narrative. As he writes, "no one invents himself, and a good South Bender is raised to know that his achievements rest largely on the support and indulgence of countless others." It's also an important sign of grounded leadership, the kind of leadership that builds goodwill, confidence and support around it.

However, I'd hoped the The Shortest Way Home would contain more policy vision, to expand further on the topics Buttigieg has been discussing since announcing his candidacy: intergenerational justice, rebuilding America for the future, etc. This book was not that. It'll be interesting to see where he goes from here.

1. Since this writing, Eric Swalwell has also joined the race, and also does not have a book.


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