With his rich résumé and his data-driven approach to running South Bend, Buttigieg has drawn attention from national Democrats and been suggested as potential presidential material by, among others, Frank Bruni in The New York Times. Just in case there was any doubt, Buttigieg announced this week that he was forming an exploratory committee, the first step toward a run for the White House. And no wonder: His hometown, once devastated by the shuttering of a Studebaker plant — he writes of passing “the acres of collapsing Studebaker factories” on his way to school — is now thriving. If the underlying point of this book is to draw attention to himself as a future Democratic leader for a party aching for one, then his thumping re-election as mayor in a state Trump captured with 56 percent is quite a selling card.
No small part of the fascination is that he is openly gay, twice elected in what he has sardonically described as “flyover country.” Yet until the final chapters — personal, beguiling and quite moving as he talks about coming out and getting married — it is a subject he largely glosses over. It takes more than 40 pages until he clearly alludes to being gay, in a quick detour as he describes witnessing the rise of the infant Facebook at Harvard.
Buttigieg takes us through growing up in South Bend, attending an Ivy League school, becoming a management consultant, joining the Navy Reserve. Much of his attention is on City Hall, with a green-eyeshade description of his methodical approach to dealing with 1,000 shuttered homes or increasing the efficiency of picking up the trash. There really is a chapter titled “Talent, Purpose and the Smartest Sewers in the World.” But this is what mayors do.
Until he recounts writing his coming-out essay for The South Bend Tribune, I had begun to wonder if Buttigieg had decided to airbrush his life story, with an eye to some future opposition researcher combing through these pages. This lends a cautious, sanitized feeling to some episodes. When he writes about dealing with Mike Pence (who was then the governor) as Pence championed a “religious freedom” bill that critics argued would let organizations discriminate against gays and lesbians, Buttigieg comes across as just another player at the table. I would have liked to learn, for example, if he ever wondered whether Pence was aware that this unmarried eligible bachelor was actually gay.
But the book lifts off as he returns from Afghanistan and decides it was “time to get serious about sorting out my personal life.” He recounts in satisfying detail the complexities of coming out when you are the mayor of South Bend. “The scenario of a 30-something mayor, single, gay, interested in a long-term relationship and looking for a date in Indiana must have been a first,” he writes. The story of his meeting a man (you guessed it: online) is all the more moving for its understatement and delayed delivery. Buttigieg represents a new generation of gay Americans, one whose sexuality is not intrinsic to their identity.