BOOK REVIEW: ‘Shortest Way Home’: The making of a presidential candidate

Shortest Way Home
Pete Buttigieg
Copyright © 2019 by Pete Buttigieg
Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10110

Having just read “The Uninhabited Earth,” David Wallace-Wells’ recitation of the forthcoming ravages of the climate crisis, I have felt the darkness descending upon me, and so I am grateful for the message of hope that comes to us from Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Yes, it is the gay mayor of the small Midwestern town, South Bend, Indiana, who’s providing me with a renewed sense of possibility—offering decency, honesty and respect.

I confess that I’ve found it difficult to choose what to share with you—“Shortest Way Home” is so well-written and so refreshingly smart and authentic; there is so much that deserves to be highlighted.

His recent elevation in the public square is, in itself, a major victory for America because we have vilified, often continue to vilify, our gay compatriots. Having survived, and now thrived, as a gay man in Indiana, Mayor Pete is obviously far ahead of many when it comes to appreciating the burdens the members of the LGBTQ community face. Sadly, discrimination, bias, hate and hate crimes in all their many manifestations have a long history here. And sometimes it seems there is no end to the list of those some people can hate.

His former governor, now Vice President Mike Pence, has insisted being gay is an insidious choice, claiming that preventing gays from marrying is God’s idea. In this age of Trump’s multiple adulteries and self-confessed sexual harassment, Pence continues to trumpet the illusion of godly heterosexuality.

Buttigieg teaches: “Someday, politicians won’t have to come out as gay any more than one ‘comes out’ as straight. Someone like me would just show up at a social function with a date who was of the same sex, and everyone would figure it out and shrug.”

Mayor Pete’s “Shortest Way Home” offers the opportunity to get to know and understand him. His parents came to Indiana: “from El Paso, Texas, where they had lived and commuted to work at New Mexico State University in nearby Las Cruces … The daughter of an Army officer who retired at Fort Bliss in El Paso, my mother had attended high school in a sun-washed building less than two miles from the border with Juárez in Chihuahua State, Mexico …” His father “had emigrated from the island nation of Malta … By the time my parents’ U-Haul appeared on College Street in May of 1980, little remained of South Bend’s industrial heyday but a widespread plague of empty factory buildings.

Mayor Pete back from Afghanistan with Parents Joseph and Jennifer. Photo courtesy Facebook

Mayor Pete writes, talks with a millennial directness. He and his generation have to come to age in an America in decline. Many of the industries that enabled an American middle class to own homes and send their children to college have relocated overseas to nations without labor unions. Their now-shuttered buildings haunt the Rust Belt. The jobs that provided a living wage and some sense of meaning for the working class have evaporated, replaced by lower-paying jobs in the service economy. It is not surprising that a once-compelling American optimism now seems hollow.

Buttigieg, a fine writer, captures what the 1963 death of Studebaker meant for South Bend: “Social science research hadn’t yet confirmed that sudden job loss can be the psychological equivalent of losing a loved one, but everyone must have sensed the depth of harm this news would bring as thousands of jobs were wiped out in a matter of days … We’ve lost over thirty thousand people since the 1960s, the population falling to about a hundred thousand while our per capita personal income sank by 2010 to $18,805, half the national average …

“By the time I was born, shops and residents had started to flow from the heart of the city. You no longer went to get your first Communion suit from Gilbert’s or Robertson’s downtown anymore, you went instead to J. C. Penney at the mall in nearby Mishawaka … Swiftly and inexorably, the cornfields and wetlands that ringed the outer limits of our metro area were marked for development and transformed into suburban plazas of chain stores and office parks, great angular islands in a sea of parking lots.”

Obviously, Candidate Pete will encounter vociferous, occasionally vicious criticism from Pence-like evangelicals convinced that, as a gay man wedded to another gay man, he is a walking abomination. But he is a man of faith and his youthful Catholicism, a mixed bag of “do unto others” and hell and brimstone, was shaped by a teacher who appreciated irony:

“Father Bly … presided from an elevated desk with a dog-eared Bible on it, as he had since the 1960s, teaching the Old Testament … rumor had it that with an imperceptible movement he could send that Bible flying into the forehead of any student caught sleeping.

“Once, he distributed an issue that contained satellite photos of subdivisions and golf courses being built in the deserts of Arizona, made possible by irrigation schemes that diverted water from the Colorado River. You could see the giant green squares in the satellite imagery, surrounded by barren sand and mountains. There are whole towns in Mexico, he explained, where the riverbed now runs dry because the water is drained upstream in the American Southwest …

“This weekend, you will probably go to the University Park Mall, and you may run into some atheists … These atheists will tell you, ‘There is no God, there is no heaven, and there is no hell.’ And how will you answer them? You will tell them, of course there is a God, and a heaven and a hell. There must be a hell. Because where else would you put the man who built this golf course!”

Mayor Pete, as you can tell, is quite smart, and so: “by senior year a flow of mailed college recruiting brochures accumulated into an avalanche on our dining room table … There was something distant and even intimidating about the imagery—confident, smiling, diverse students … It was hard to picture myself at ease like these students; I wasn’t even at ease in the halls of my own high school, even as a class president …

“When I got home one day and saw a letter from Harvard on the mail table, I didn’t get my hopes up too much … Pulling out the page of watermarked paper, I read the opening line over and over again: ‘I am delighted to inform you’ … All I had to do was leave South Bend.” 

And it was quite a change: “to an eighteen-year-old freshman out of northern Indiana, navigating a subway unsupervised seemed nothing less than an initiation into the ways of the metropolis …” Buttigieg, focused on American studies, wrote a thesis comparing Samuel Danforth’s Puritan belief in “America’s civilizing mission, to go out into wild and savage lands …” with “America’s Cold War insistence on invading Vietnam to ‘save’ it from godless Communism, leading to a different and doomed errand into the jungle.”

9/11 transformed the academic to the actual: “We seemed, for those few days, not just wounded but morally aware. Within days President Bush was visiting a mosque, eloquently distinguishing between Islamist terrorism and Islamic people. ‘Islam is peace,’ he said … We might have lost our innocence and learned something about the world, but we did not suddenly become wise … 

“It took a while to catch on to the idea that this was an attack on the United States not by the country of Afghanistan, but by Al-Qaeda, protected by the Taliban … a transnational network, hosted by a rogue regime presiding over a failed state. The responses were largely knee-jerk; a PATRIOT Act that undercut the freedoms that define America … At the same time, little was said about personal sacrifice at home for the purpose of winning a national conflict. Kids in World War II saved tinfoil from gum wrappers for the war effort, women reused nylon stockings as many times as possible, and everyone then knew why they were being asked to pay much higher taxes. This time around, it seemed that the war effort was wholly outsourced to those few Americans who served in uniform …”

Mayor Pete between Harvard and Oxford. Photo Courtesy Pete Buttigieg

Then reminding us: “We were not, as the administration had promised, ‘greeted as liberators.’ A well-functioning democracy did not emerge. And the ensuing chaos made it clear that the administration had not planned for the aftermath of the invasion, as Iraqi cities became a kill zone for our troops …”

For Pete Buttigieg, life seems a series of intense learning experiences, taking place in and out of classrooms. After Harvard, he worked for the Kerry-Edwards campaign. In 2005, he was teaching in Tunisia, then won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford where he studied philosophy, politics and economics. Back home, in 2007, Buttigieg worked in Chicago at McKinsey & Company, where his “classroom was everywhere—a conference room, a serene corporate office, the break room of a retail store, a safe house in Iraq, or an airplane seat—any place that could accommodate me and my laptop.”

His 2008 visits to small Midwestern towns for the Obama campaign changed his life: “The Iraq troop surge was winding down but not yet over. Afghanistan, mostly out of view, was simmering. Yellow ribbons were everywhere, and more than once I would knock on a door and get into a conversation with a young man who told me he would love to go to the caucus on Thursday and vote, but couldn’t because he was packing up for Basic Training …

“It seemed like every other teenager I met was signing up for the Army or the Guard. I was only twenty-five years old, but these freckled young Iowan recruits looked like children to me. And I began asking myself how it could be that whole communities in this part of the country, just like those in rural Indiana, seemed to be emptying out their youth into the armed services, while so few people I knew had served at all.”

But back to his resume: “I would leave Oxford with a degree in economics, but knew little firsthand about the functions—from logistics to finance—that made the private sector operate … the time had come to learn what wasn’t on the page and get an education in the real world …Which is why I went to McKinsey.”

Candidate Pete’s time at McKinsey is working its way up to the top of the list for those who doubt his progressive credentials. While McKinsey has transformed its public face to emphasize social responsibility, critics regard McKinsey as part of the problem, not the solution. The New York Times just told the story of the no-expenses-spared annual meeting in the China desert, replete with red carpets upon the sand, just miles from an internment/re-education camp for ethnic Uighurs. Titled “How McKinsey Has Helped Raise the Stature of Authoritarian Governments,” it noted: “At a time when democracies and their basic values are increasingly under attack, the iconic American company has helped raise the stature of authoritarian and corrupt governments across the globe, sometimes in ways that counter American interests.”

At McKinsey & Company’s retreat in China, red carpets linked the various tents. Photo courtesy New York Times

No polishing the image of pro-Putin Ukrainian puppet Yanukovych for Mayor Pete. He was doing something a lot less venal: “imagine a list of the most interesting subjects in the world … topics such as television, religion, warfare, food, sports, space travel, the presidency, and sex. Now ask yourself where, on that list, you would put the subject on which I became an expert during the winter of 2010: North American grocery pricing … commuting to Toronto every week to help a client in the grocery business figure out how to update its prices …

By manipulating millions of data points … I could simulate millions of shoppers going up and down the aisles of thousands of stores, and in my mind I pictured their habits shifting as a well-placed price cut subtly changed their perceptions of our client as a better place to shop.”

Pete Buttigieg thinks systematically, describing these varied life experiences as a multidimensional map of time and place and function: “Geographically, the arc of these years was a sort of looped boomerang, a first departure from home that took me east, then farther west, then back east; then across the Atlantic; and then at last closer to home, to Chicago, less than a hundred miles from South Bend, and finally all the way back to the neighborhood where I grew up … A Tunisian souk, an Oxford exam room, and a Great Lakes office park all had something to teach me, and each place nudged me closer to home.”

With each life adventure, he better honed his analytical temperament, his ability to see the interconnecting lines. But, what makes him a bit different, is that he never forgets the human consequences that inevitably follow from the decisions made by the analysts.

The complex, controversial issue of the auto bailout prompted him to run for office: “Anyone from South Bend knows exactly what it looks like when an industry collapses.” Kokomo, Indiana, an hour-and-a-half drive from South Bend, had four Chrysler plants and a Delphi factory. “Thousands were suddenly out of a job … The area could see 40 percent unemployment. No business—from Applebee’s to the Cone Palace, my favorite family-owned ice-cream shop—would stand much of a chance … Even at rock bottom during the crisis, the auto industry employed sixty-nine thousand people in Indiana … thousands of families in our city depended on good jobs at companies that made parts and supplies for the industry …”

A Studebaker plant after Studebaker. Photo: David D. Jackson

While polls showed a majority of Americans were against using public monies to bailout the private auto industry, President Bush created a $17.4 billion loan package. And Obama added more. “At work one day in the spring of 2009 … An article caught my eye: ‘Indiana Pensioners Object to Chrysler Sale.’ I clicked and read the unbelievable news that the state treasurer of Indiana, Richard Mourdock, was going to sue, demanding that a judge block the bankruptcy and liquidate Chrysler instead. …”

Mourdock, a free-market advocate, disliked labor unions: “Services would have to be cut, families would have to reconsider plans to send their kids to college, and the entire population of the town would begin to drain away …” 

Buttigieg was most concerned with the real effects of policy on the lives of people: “the most important issue was that families’ lives could be ruined by the same kind of economic disaster that had nearly killed my hometown half a century earlier … Much of the confusion and complication of ideological battles might be washed away if we held our focus on the lives that will be made better, or worse, by political decisions, rather than on the theoretical elegance of the policies or the character of the politicians themselves.”

For Buttigieg, the task now was to learn how to run a political campaign for state treasurer: “Over rubber chicken, ham and beans, chili, or sweet potato pie, I listened to stories in one town after another coming to terms with the kind of devastation that had ripped through my own city a generation before.

“An introvert by nature, I slowly became comfortable with the outgoing disciplines of campaigning … The call time was the hardest. It meant reaching out to everyone you had ever known to ask if they would send you money … I spent hours on this daily, and often wonder if most Americans realize this is how many elected officials spend most of their time …

A lover of literature, Buttigieg offers an almost poetic perspective on campaigning: “You can read the process of the campaign calendar in the condition of the corn. After you announce and begin campaigning in the early spring, you drive between great squares of rich black soil, freshly turned up, with innocent two-leaf sprigs ornamenting the earth geometrically with dots of green. Then the stalks grow into fair and parade season, well past ‘knee-high by Fourth of July’ if all goes well. When you can’t see over the top of the corn, such things as corn mazes become possible, and it’s almost back to school. Harvest means it’s right around Labor Day, and by now you also have at least a rough sense of what kind of year it’s going to be for your party. You’re in the home stretch when the harvest is over and you can again see across the fields over the tops of the chopped-off stalks …

“Election Day itself is torture for candidates. You’ve made the arguments, raised the money, and shaken the hands, and there’s not much left to do but tell reporters you’re confident of victory… By eight p.m. it was clearly over, and I called my opponent to congratulate him …

Then, Newsweek reported on America’s Ten Dying Cities, naming South Bend No. 8. One cup of coffee at a time is the way Buttigieg describes how he decided to run for mayor. “So I became a regular in the Main Street Coffee House … I sat listening to anyone who would give me time—the redevelopment commission president, the head of the local community foundation, the most respected black pastors on the West Side—to see what they thought of the city’s future, and to gauge what they might think of me …

“I promised to grow jobs by simplifying business process, to set up a 311 line for customer service, and to deal with the hundreds of boarded-up vacant homes in our neighborhoods … This time the campaign was for the future of my hometown … We had won a majority in the five-way race, decisively securing the party’s nomination in our Democratic city. The Republicans had not found a strong nominee on their side; indeed, many Republicans had crossed over to vote for me in the Democratic primary, knowing that a Democrat would likely win in November and hoping that it could at least be someone with a business and military background. Almost certainly, this was the ball game …

Mayor Pete in a newly developed area of Jefferson Street in South Bend, Ind. Photo: Robert Franklin/AP

Then the task of governing: “My first year in office, 2012, was our city’s deadliest year of gun violence in a decade. By the end of 2012, there would be eighteen homicides, double the previous year. In 2013, I would assemble community leaders, engage experts, and initiate a new evidence-based strategy for dealing with the gang-related violence that had been driving this spike in crime …”

Here’s some insight into the person, not the politician: “One murder got my attention even more than the others. It was the first double homicide we’d seen in years, and both of the victims were only nineteen. Then, a few months later, an eighteen-year-old was killed in an unrelated incident at the same address … So, on the quiet Saturday morning after that crime, I drove to the location, a few blocks from my boyhood home on College Street … seeking some kind of insight or understanding by virtue of being there. But the scene seemed totally ordinary …

“Family, friends, and neighbors were converging, and soon it was clear that I had inadvertently crashed a kind of impromptu wake. I joined the neighbors in the headshaking, muttered condolences, and tried to think of something meaningful to say …

“The grieving mother stepped out of the car, composed but devastated, leaning on a relative for support as she walked up the slight slope of the small lawn … I approached her, and she recognized me. I shook her hand, which seemed like an absurd thing to do. I tried to think of something comforting to say, something about how the whole community was holding her in our hearts. ‘I know you,’ she said. Then, out of nowhere: ‘Didn’t you go to Saint Joe?’ ‘Yes, I did.’ ‘I went to Saint Joe, too. So we have something in common!’

“Small talk felt unnatural in the midst of grief—but isn’t that what we need, sometimes, when grieving? Just someone to talk to, about nothing in particular. Nothing profound. Just being there … Yet later, occasionally, I would run into her or another relative who would let me know how much that conversation had meant … What mattered to her was that I showed up … Not that I, Pete, was there, but the mayor was there—a walking symbol of the city, and therefore a signifier of the fact that the city cared about her loss.”

Then there’s his effort “to confront a thousand vacant and abandoned houses in a thousand days. It would become one of the defining projects of my administration … Previous administrations had torn down hundreds, but never seemed to get ahead of the contagion of blight … It was through this effort that I began to understand the difference between my job and everyone else’s. The experts on the task force could evaluate the market conditions in the various neighborhoods and identify the legal tools for addressing neglected property. The council could allocate funds for dealing with the problem. The code enforcement staff could press landlords to address the condition of the houses. But only a mayor could furnish the political capital to get the project done, by publicly committing to a goal and owning the risk of missing it …

“Two months before the deadline, on a sunny September morning in 2015, I stood with the Jara family on the porch of their newly repaired home on Clemens Street. The gray ranch-style house had been on the affirmed demolition list when they bought it, but the family was repairing it with their own hands … a reminder that repair was as important as demolition. By the thousandth day, our community had addressed not just a thousand but over eleven hundred homes, and was finally poised to pay more attention to preventing future abandonment than to dealing with the backlog …

“Over time, I’ve learned … to make sure the use of data makes sense, and does good … when we installed ShotSpotter technology using microphones to acoustically pinpoint gunshots, we were enhancing our ability to deal with gun violence. An officer could be immediately dispatched to the scene of a shooting … [and] officers would work that block the next day, letting residents know they were concerned … explaining why they had visited and how to follow up …”

Mayor Pete has been criticized for firing a popular African-American police chief. But, as he explains it, the issue is more complicated. After interviewing him and two others during his transition, Buttigieg decided to reappoint the chief, “my first serious mistake as mayor.”

He writes: “in the months before I took office … The chief, believing that some other officers were gunning for his job, allegedly confronted them with tape recordings that could embarrass them if disclosed … As court filings would later document, the chief threatened to take action against at least one officer he had come to consider disloyal …

“The story … affected my relationship with the African-American community in particular for years to come … The technicalities became dizzying, with one branch of the city government suing another; some parts of the case are still in litigation years later as we look to the courts to answer the basic question of whether I can lawfully authorize the recordings to be released.

“The most important lessons of this painful episode were not about the finer points of federal wiretapping laws, but about the deeply fraught relationship between law enforcement and communities of color … their urgency grew from the same root: the fact that many of the worst historical injustices visited upon black citizens of our country came at the hands of local law enforcement. Like an original sin, this basic fact burdens every police officer, no matter how good, and every neighborhood of color, no matter how safe, to this day … Like so many police officers and Americans of color dealing with the long reach of such past wrongs—and the present-day wrongs that flow from their legacy—I found myself answering not only for myself but for history.”

And then Mayor Pete’s call to duty: “Because I was a specialist in counterterrorism, Afghanistan represented the best place in the world to practice my craft … But I had only been on the ground for a few days when someone told me to leave the idea of winning and losing behind … ‘The war’s over, Pete’ … If the war’s over, why are you here? Why am I here? If the war’s over, what the hell was that rocket attack last night? If the war’s over, then somebody should tell whoever keeps shooting rockets at us, they might like to know …

“His point was that America wouldn’t confront Pakistan over ISI support to fighters wreaking havoc on the Afghan side of the Durand Line. The U.S. wasn’t going to endanger its strategic, sixty-year relationship with Pakistan over some little thing like the Afghanistan War. It was 2014, and we might still be getting rockets shot at us from time to time, but there was only so much America could or would do about it … And yet, here we were on a cold night in dusty Parwan Province, because wars like this one don’t just end. I would spend the rest of my deployment wondering exactly what it means for one of today’s wars to be truly over, and how anyone would be able to tell … (Emphasis added.)

Pete Buttigieg in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy

In Kabul, Buttigieg often left his analytical skills behind: “it turned out my services were more often needed as a driver or vehicle commander on convoys moving people or gear in and around Kabul … 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 …

“Truth number one: The vast majority of people you see through the windshield are just regular people, just like at home … You have a moral as well as a strategic obligation to respect them, to drive carefully so you don’t hit a kid on his way to school or a widow begging in the street … Truth number two: With your rifle, your gear, your vehicle, and your passengers, you are quite obviously an American soldier (or sailor, in my case), and accordingly you must recognize that a small but nontrivial number of the people you see around you are spending their every waking minute figuring out how to kill you and your passengers, and will do so if given the slightest opportunity unless you avoid them or kill them first …

“The longer I was there, unable to answer the question of how you can tell when a war is over, the more a second question rose in my mind alongside it. If you manage to get killed in a war that’s “over,” what does that make you? … I did not believe the Afghanistan War was a mistake. But as I weighed my place in a war most people at home seemed to think was already ending, I couldn’t stop wondering, how do you ask a person to be the last to die for anything? …

“And then, one day in September, the dust, noise, beauty, and danger of Afghanistan were all in my past. A C-17 lifted me and about a hundred other Americans off Afghan soil for the last time … The next day I sat with Lieutenant Jason McRae … Thumbing through his iPhone, Jason read a headline aloud: suicide attack in Kabul … Major Donahue had been with me on a trip to deliver clothing and school supplies to an orphanage … Someone took a photo of me and Donahue standing in a classroom with a group of the kids … Now I looked at that same face, squared toward the camera in the serious and dignified look of a standard service portrait, alongside the text of a news story announcing his death. His war and mine had both ended, very differently, just one day apart … so why was the loss of this almost casual acquaintance the one my mind couldn’t stop turning toward?

“Perhaps it was the timing, the knowledge that the war took him just as I left it behind … he died the way I probably would have, if I hadn’t made it: the brutal luck of being chosen by an IED, never knowing who or what hit you.”

In an odd way, it was the war that brought love and a new contentment to Mayor Pete: “If not for the deployment, I might never have found my way to Chasten … something about exposure to danger impresses upon you that a life is not only fragile but single, with one beginning and one end … For me, that meant sudden urgency around a question that had lingered unanswered for all of adulthood: how to reconcile my professional life with the fact that I am gay …

“Steadily … the force of this simple truth gained ground against my awareness of the professional peril holding me back. But that peril was real. My military career was theoretically safe, now that the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy had been repealed … But what about my civilian job? South Bend had an ordinance forbidding discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation—I myself had signed it into law in 2012 after it passed in our council—but it was not exactly applicable in my case. As an elected official, your boss is the people of the city. If the people fire you for being gay, it might be discrimination, but it’s not like you can sue them … [Still] it was obvious that if I did come home all right, I needed to come out so I could get on with some kind of personal life. After I safely returned, it was simply a matter of when …

Photo: Ryan Pfluger/TIME

I began taking notes for a short piece for the South Bend Tribune … Still believing that “coming out” should someday be a non-event, I titled it “Why Coming Out Matters, and Why It Shouldn’t Have To,” but the paper’s editors shortened the headline to only the first half.

“I asserted that sexual orientation doesn’t define someone, and should be accepted simply as part of who we are. “Being gay has had no bearing on my job performance in business, in the military, or in my current role as mayor … I hope that residents will continue to judge me based on my effectiveness in serving our city—things like the condition of our neighborhoods, our economy, and our city services …

Mayor Pete understands the fear behind the hate: “In my view, the biggest thing to turn the tide on LGBT issues wasn’t theological or political evolution. It was the discovery that many people whom we already know turn out to be part of this category. The biggest obstacle wasn’t religion, or hatred. It was the simple fact that so many people believed, wrongly, that they didn’t even know anyone who was gay … 

“It is easier to be cruel, or unfair, to people in groups and in the abstract; harder to do so toward a specific person in your midst, especially if you know them already … Common decency can kick in before there is time for prejudice to intervene. Of course, humans can be cruel to people we know, too, but not as often—and we’re rarely as proud of it.

When Mayor Pete won re-election, he acknowledged: “when it came time for me to step away from the job and the home that I love to go overseas and take up arms under the colors of our nation you supported me as a brother. Earlier this year when I was at the most vulnerable moment in my public and private life, you embraced me as a son. The City of South Bend means the world to me. I love South Bend.’

As for his new out life: “we quickly formed the habit of conducting ourselves like any other couple, and found that we were generally treated that way. … One day, not long after we had begun to live together, Chasten was making an evening grocery run to Martin’s … he pulled open a glass door to select a carton of yogurt [and] suddenly heard a tapping sound next to his ear. Startled, he turned to the right … Chasten closed the door between them and asked how he could be helpful. The constituent’s request was simple enough: ‘You tell your husband to stop fucking up the streets downtown!’

Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., and his husband, Chasten. Photo courtesy

And now Mayor Pete’s analysis of the challenges of 2020: “To some, the 2016 election was a kind of revenge by ‘flyover country,’ long ignored and misunderstood by the coastal elite in general and by the Democratic Party in particular. I certainly felt that our region had been ignored and misunderstood, but to me that did not have to lead to this kind of electoral outcome; our own story in South Bend showed that an honest and optimistic politics could resonate just as well in economically challenged communities …

“I knew that bedrock Democratic values around economic fairness and racial inclusion could resonate very well in the industrial Midwest, but not if they were being presented by messengers who looked down on working- and lower-middle-class Americans.

And his essential message to the voters: “There is no going back … This is the deepest lie of our recent national politics, the core falsehood encoded in “Make America Great Again.” Beneath the impossible promises—that coal alone will fuel our future, that a big wall can be built around our status quo, that climate change isn’t even real—is the deeper fantasy that time itself can be reversed, all losses restored, and thus no new ways of life required …

“If manufacturing is to grow around here now … It will come from those of our employers who seek to compete in new ways—and from new arrivals, like the Silicon Valley–based start-up that bought the entire facility housing the old commercial Hummer production line … Backed by investment from China, the company is making partially automated electric vehicles, using local union labor. Enterprises like this take globalization and automation as their point of departure, and work through these forces rather than against them …

“South Bend, for all our struggles, has formed my faith in a great future … The problem, politically, is that we keep looking for greatness in all the wrong places. We think we can find it in the past, dredged up for some impossible ‘again,’ when in reality it is available only to those who fix their vision on the future. Or we think it is to be found in some grand national or international adventure, when the most meaningful expressions of American greatness are found in the richness of everyday life …

“The primacy of the everyday is brought home to me every month or two on the lacquered floor of a middle school basketball court, where I set up shop for … Mayor’s Night Out. We invite residents to meet with each other, local council members, city department heads—and me. Sleeves rolled up and taking notes, I sit with my colleague Cherri at a folding table and meet anyone who wants to talk, one-on-one, a few minutes at a time. We may see twenty people or more a night this way, back-to-back …

“A woman is at her wits’ end because of the drug house on her block and asks what else we can do about it … A landlord says he had no idea that the vacant house with the tall grass on Fassnacht Avenue was on the demolition list when he bought it, and swears he can fix it up if we could just ease up on code enforcement for six more months … if I’ve seen 500 city residents at these meetings, that leaves some 99,500 that I haven’t. More people call our 311 system in a day than I can meet this way in a year. But it matters, not only as a venue for problem-solving but as a refresher on why we even have governments and politics in the first place: to support people going about their everyday lives.

Image courtesy Facebook

I’ve learned from Mayor Pete that there’s a difference between how a Congressman/woman, senator, a nationally based politician and a mayor sees the world. Mayor Pete has been, and I imagine he will be, criticized in the future for not offering specific large-scale programs to solve our problems—free college education, Medicare for all, a two trillion dollar infrastructure initiative. “The Shortest Way Home” reveals a thoughtful, caring man who brought his penchant for analytics and statistics and rationality back to his hometown. Some of his efforts were quite successful, some conflicted with the common-sense experience of people who had spent years just doing their jobs; and, yes, his desire to rehabilitate a decaying housing stock penalized those who weren’t adept at the new information age—they purchased a house and tried over many years with limited funds to slowly fix it up, unaware it was still on the list to be demolished.

It was an often difficult lesson in the very real, human effects of policy. And in a small city, those contradictions are impossible to ignore. Congressmen and -women, and senators to a greater degree, represent so many and, because of that, are often immune to paying a price for their mistakes. Mayor Pete has gained an important sense of humility. And along the way, as his monthly Mayor’s Night Out reveals, he has an undiminished commitment to participatory democracy. I think his willingness to be present, to hear from and respond to the concerns of his constituency, his neighbors, is shown in the unpretentious and authentic way he presents himself. If “Shortest Way Home” is any indication, he will impress many Americans in the days to come.



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“How McKinsey Has Helped Raise the Stature of Authoritarian Governments”
Walt Bogdanich, Michael Forsythe, December 15, 2018, New York Times

“This year’s McKinsey & Company retreat in China was one to remember.

Hundreds of the company’s consultants frolicked in the desert, riding camels over sand dunes and mingling in tents linked by red carpets. Meetings took place in a cavernous banquet hall that resembled a sultan’s ornate court, with a sign overhead to capture the mood.

“I can’t keep calm, I work at McKinsey & Company,” it said.

Especially remarkable was the location: Kashgar, the ancient Silk Road city in China’s far west that is experiencing a major humanitarian crisis.

About four miles from where the McKinsey consultants discussed their work, which includes advising some of China’s most important state-owned companies, a sprawling internment camp had sprung up to hold thousands of ethnic Uighurs — part of a vast archipelago of indoctrination camps where the Chinese government has locked up as many as one million people.

One week before the McKinsey event, a United Nations committee had denounced the mass detentions and urged China to stop.

But the political backdrop did not appear to bother the McKinsey consultants, who posted pictures on Instagram chronicling their Disney-like adventures. In fact, McKinsey’s involvement with the Chinese government goes much deeper than its odd choice to showcase its presence in the country.

Participants in the retreat chronicled activities like camel rides on Instagram …

At a time when democracies and their basic values are increasingly under attack, the iconic American company has helped raise the stature of authoritarian and corrupt governments across the globe, sometimes in ways that counter American interests.

Its clients have included Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy, Turkey under the autocratic leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and corruption-plagued governments in countries like South Africa.”