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Reading Buttigieg Told Me Everything I Need to Know About the 2020 Presidential Race

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Pete Buttigieg and I were teaching assistants for the same professor, Sacvan Bercovitch, probably America’s leading interpreter of American Puritan Literature, me at Columbia, Buttigieg nearly a quarter-century later at Harvard. This being our common ground, the differences between our experiences and how we would describe them are telling. I recall Professor Bercovitch as singularly disinterested in his TAs. He would task you with a bit of research while conveying that he had no particular expectations of you, almost as if to say, “You might do this, you might not, doesn’t matter much to me either way.” He was immersed in whatever he was immersed in, and I imagined he assumed that you had your obsessive immersions too, if you were lucky, and they weren’t likely to be the same as his, and you should follow yours not his because—well, for obvious reasons.

Buttigieg’s Bercovitch is different. In Shortest Way Home, the South Bend mayor’s 2019 memoir, he shares that Professor Bercovitch’s first name, Sacvan, was a gesture of imaginative radical solidarity on the part of his parents, an amalgam of wrongfully executed anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. More importantly, Buttigieg (unlike me) closely read Bercovitch’s books and was greatly influenced by them. In his senior thesis at Harvard, Buttigieg returned to Bercovitch’s ideas about Puritan literature and applied them to the Vietnam War, and considered how in Americans’ still-Puritan frame of mind, we see ourselves as fundamentally different from other nations, chosen by God in a way other nations aren’t. Buttigieg’s senior thesis contrasts that sense of identity with the skepticism toward American values expressed in books like Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. I’m going from Mayor Pete’s own description of his senior thesis here, as he describes it in his book.

I don’t know who the typical reader is of presidential-candidate books. Seriously conscientious voters mostly would be my guess, God bless them. Biography readers are already a unique breed. Any good biography always has another main subject besides the person it’s about, and biography readers grow adept at reading sterioptically: like you’re looking straight at someone, but you’re really focused on what’s to their left or right, or behind them, at a milieu, a sense of time and place. Political autobiographies of presidential candidates, on the other hand, are something else—part of the campaign, something every candidate has in his or her travel bag, the little black dress you can always throw on when the occasion demands it.

I’d like to think, though, that these readers of political autobiographies take them more seriously than that. We have a personal relationship with our presidents unlike what we have with other elected officials. We think of them as part of our immediate circle of family and friends. We expect to see one or another of them at breakfast or after dinner. And this election, well, it’s arguably the single most important election in our nation’s history, right? So we read their books to sustain that illusion of an intimate relation, because we feel we have to know who they really are.

And right now Buttigieg seems to be the presidential candidate we most want to know. So I’m studying the self-portrait he gives in his autobiography, and trying my best to ignore the commentary about him that’s all over the map, from a New York Times paean to a salacious Dale Peck essay calling Buttigieg “the gay equivalent of Uncle Tom” that the The New Republic posted and then took down.





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Thanks !

Thanks for sharing this, you are awesome !