The Mystery of Pete Buttigieg

A new Amazon documentary asks where the U.S. transportation secretary’s unflappable demeanor comes from—and what it might accomplish.

Pete Buttigieg in front of a mirror
Cheriss May / Getty

Here’s a surprise from President Joe Biden’s time in office: One of the most prominent figures in the debate over paid parental leave—a right that 186 other countries give at least to mothers, and that could boost the national birth rate and strengthen the traditional family unit—is the gay, male secretary of transportation.

Starting in August, Pete Buttigieg left work for several weeks to care for the twins that he and his husband, Chasten, had just adopted. In doing so, he took advantage of the kind of lenience for federal workers that Ivanka Trump lobbied to secure and that many Republicans say they support. Yet Buttigieg’s leave also kicked up a culture skirmish. The podcaster Joe Rogan called it “weird” for fathers to take time off. Representative Lauren Boebert contrasted his leave-taking with her own story of giving birth in a truck. Tucker Carlson cracked that the secretary was probably learning how to breastfeed. Note how these remarks weren’t really about the costs or efficacy of leave policies. They were jabs suggesting that Buttigieg was unmanly and unnatural—or, in the most seventh-grade sense of the term, so gay. For being a dad.

Buttigieg did not appear to take the nastiness personally. “Obviously the negativity was unfortunate,” he said on The View in October. “But in a way, maybe some good comes out of it too, because it helped us have a conversation about parental leave.” He then listed the economic and moral reasons for making leave available to all Americans, which Democratic legislation could soon do. As he spoke, he deployed his patented rhetorical style—blending the unflappability of a DMV agent, the strategic smiling of a grief counselor, and the morality-embossed wonkishness of Barack Obama. Watching him, I felt, as I always do with Buttigieg, both alienated and impressed by his preposterous dispassion—and amazed that he, of all people, has become the center of so much attention.

The new Amazon Prime documentary Mayor Pete attempts to dissect how Buttigieg’s aw-shucks performances of ordinariness have helped him stand out. The film’s subject is his improbable 2020 presidential run, but it also suggests how he has since managed to parlay the unglamorous job of transportation secretary into a role as one of the White House’s chief media surrogates. (Some reports say that Vice President Kamala Harris’s team is worried about getting into a primary fight with Buttigieg if Biden declines to run in 2024.) In an era when anger and confrontation are the norm, hype and ridicule naturally swirl around even the most mild-mannered political star—but Buttigieg’s shell, Mayor Pete argues, isn’t likely to crack soon.

Do you have nostalgia for the 2020 presidential campaign? Mayor Pete certainly won’t give you any as it travels to the queasy days just before the pandemic, when President Donald Trump’s impeachment was top news and when his would-be challengers were arguing about wine caves. The audience for this tour through all-too-recent history will primarily be Buttigieg’s fans—and anyone who wants to understand why such fans exist.

The movie does capture the excitement of an underdog campaign, and the director, Jesse Moss, who previously co-created the award-winning doc Boys State, received a striking amount of access to Buttigieg’s team. But Mayor Pete is not entirely an ad for its star. The camera takes a contemplative, clinical vantage on state fairs, diners, and hotel rooms. It doesn’t cut away from frank, even heated, strategy conversations. Moss tries to pry behind Buttigieg’s facade, and the director told Politico that the candidate turned out to be a frustratingly cagey interview subject.

In other words, the film asks the same thing Stephen Colbert once did to Buttigieg on The Late Show: “How real are you?” As a Midwest-raised Rhodes Scholar, Navy veteran, and devout Christian who also happens to be gay, Buttigieg seems assembled from a checklist of what the next great Democratic hope might look like. He also has, by his own admission, lived his life with an eye toward building a résumé worthy of higher office. Some on the left gripe that Buttigieg strategically downplays his sexuality in order to come off as just another white-guy politician, like the one who ended up winning the presidency. Yet most straight white guys don’t see their mannerisms and motives picked over quite like he does—and no accounting of Buttigieg is complete without noting how he has been shaped in anticipation of such scrutiny.

Viewers of Mayor Pete may be unsurprised to find out how laboriously he prepares for speeches and interviews. But what’s haunting is that the camera never captures him even close to losing his cool. In one amazing scene, Buttigieg and his team get stuck in an elevator that lurches and shakes ominously. While his communications director, Lis Smith, chatters anxiously about them falling to their death, Buttigieg folds his arms and holds himself like he’s waiting for a sandwich at a deli counter.

Throughout Mayor Pete, Smith generally comes off as the burr stuck in Buttigieg’s polo shirt. In debate-prep sessions, she sputters both to the candidate and his team that the then-mayor seems “like, fucking, an anthropologist,” like “the fucking Tin Man,” and like someone reading “a fucking shopping list.” Her fear is that he won’t connect with voters unless he shows more vim, but Buttigieg seems unwilling or unable to take her advice: The most we see him do in response is rewrite a metaphor he uses to describe racism. “One of the things they say I’ve got going for me is authenticity, right?” he tells the filmmakers. “The last thing I want to do is do or say something that’s not me to satisfy some desire for me to be more emotional.”

What a mind-bending notion: Is Buttigieg’s reservedness actually the realness that voters respond to? Maybe. The film opens with Chasten advising the filmmakers to ask how the closet has shaped Buttigieg, noting, “He did everything to climb every ladder without being his authentic self.” Buttigieg never quite affirms that interpretation of his life, but he does say, “In my way of coming at the world, the stronger an emotion is, the more private it is.” What goes unstated is how hardening oneself and performing palatability doesn’t necessarily mean a person, especially a queer person, is faking something. It means their identity is informed by their circumstances.

In this case, that identity ends up scanning as a productively novel one in our political environment—even if the most ready adjectives to describe it include boring and safe. For all of Smith’s urging that a more expressive Buttigieg would have made for better television during the primaries, his buttoned-down approach clearly has real appeal to many voters. Perhaps that is because Buttigieg is the “polar opposite” of Trump types, as one supporter puts it in the film. Or perhaps it is because Buttigieg puts a gentle face on an identity that many people are threatened by. Either way, Mayor Pete ends up suggesting that his alleged roboticism, and all the things it implies but doesn’t say, is a feature and not a bug of his political potency.

The recent brouhaha over parental leave offers a reminder of the challenges facing Buttigieg’s politics of comfort and calm. A leader of what is often derisively termed “the childless left” has bucked the stereotype by having kids. Yet certain commentators have portrayed that turn of events as something freakish. He has every right to go nuclear on such critics, and yet instead he reroutes to stumping for the infrastructure bill. The political mode of rage and bigotry has not really reformed itself in the time since Trump left office, and Buttigieg’s committed, at-times-eerie graciousness continues to seem like another era’s artifact. Maybe, however, it’s really his edge.