Pete Buttigieg is going to be the President of the United States. That is something I believe, and have from virtually the moment I first saw him — though I don’t suspect it’s going to happen for 10 or maybe 20 years. If you watch the fascinating new documentary “Mayor Pete,” which was shot during the year leading up to the 2020 Democratic primary season and its aftermath, you may end up believing it too.
There’s a spark that certain politicians have, and it’s not about media training or visionary policy or the deep aura of decency. You need all those things, but you’re either born with the spark or you’re not. John F. Kennedy had it. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher had it. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama had it. (Hillary Clinton, for all her virtues, does not have it.) It’s the X factor, the natural-born leadership charisma that makes a politician feel like a protector and a commander and a wise moral overseer but — somehow, miraculously — one who is just like you.
The X factor is a combination of elements, of course. It is confidence. It is intelligence. It is warmth. It is strength without the appearance of narcissism. (Obviously, one or two presidents who’ve had the X factor are, in fact, pathological narcissists. I’ll leave it to you to identify them.) Any number of good politicians possess any number of these traits, but the secret ingredient — the X factor within the X factor — is joy. And since the politician who radiates that quality can communicate it while discussing even the wonkiest of policy issues, the joy, to be clear, isn’t about putting on a party. It’s not about giving a speech of trumped-up boosterism (pun intended). It’s about the joy of connection.
Pete Buttigieg possesses that rare quality. It’s there even in his look. Sure, you could say that he resembles a handsome Alfred E. Newman, or a mid-level bank executive, or the medium-size-town mayor he was, but there’s an eager bite to his smile, to the light in his eye, to his combination of avidity and inner calm. In his boyish genius way, he’s magnetic, like Jimmy Fallon’s cute-geek kid brother crossed with a beagle puppy, and with the thousand-yard stare of the combat veteran he is. Clinton was greeted as the heir to JFK, and Obama, in his real-world centrist way, was seized on by the Democratic Party as a once-in-a-generation sequel to Clinton, but Buttigieg may actually be closer to JFK than either of them. He’s the idealized version of an ordinary person, and the most dramatic thing about him — the fact that, if elected, he would be the first openly gay American president — is at once movingly central and fantastically incidental.
All of which gives “Mayor Peter” a compelling but still slightly oddball place as a documentary. Much of it was filmed in the months leading up to the Democratic caucuses in Iowa, when Buttigieg looked like he had a real shot. So the film, in a sense, is like a 21st-century media-world version of “Primary,” the landmark vérité documentary that followed JFK (and Hubert Humphrey) on the trail through the 1960 Wisconsin primary. But the fact that JFK went on to win the presidency gave that movie its meaning; watching it, we were the privileged witnesses to the first act of an extraordinary campaign, back when JFK was just a contender. “Mayor Pete” works in the opposite way. Since Buttigieg lost, the first act we’re seeing is all there was (and we know just where it went). The challenge for a movie like this one is: What makes it more than a redundant recap?
In this case, the Buttigieg mystique does; we get to know him better than ever. He gave the filmmaker, Jesse Moss, full access, so there’s plenty of opportunity to hang out with Pete and his slyboots husband, Chasten, in their cozy two-story 1905 neoclassical house in South Bend, Indiana, and on the workaday city beat with Mayor Pete, and in the first days of the campaign, when it consisted of an office with four hired hands. In 2012, Buttigieg took over as mayor of South Bend just weeks after Newsweek declared it “one of America’s dying cities,” but he made great strides toward turning the city around, which became the basis for his campaign: Why not run Washington with the results-oriented common sense required to be a Midwestern mayor?
As we see, the other quality that Buttigieg brought, apart from the awesome nimbleness of his virtuosity as a speaker — a blend of plainspoken eloquence and bull’s-eye sharpness — is the way that he presented his struggle with his sexuality as a personal odyssey that could connect with the lives of ordinary Americans. Closeted until his early 30s (he says, only half-jokingly, that he came out so he could finally start dating), Buttigieg went through extraordinary struggles with who he was, to the point that he wanted to take whatever it was that made him gay and “cut it out with a knife.” He says this right on the campaign trail. It’s an extraordinary testament for a politician to make about his own pain, his own spiritual formation, and the bigotry of his society.
Yet somehow, Buttigieg says it to his audience while making it seem like they’re family. In South Bend, explaining what it was like to come out and run for a second term as mayor, he says, “My community lifted me up like a brother and like a son.” That’s confronting a political question about being gay with an answer that’s like a Frank Capra movie in 10 words. As Buttigieg explains it, he felt, as a gay man, that he did not belong, and he believes — quite rightly, I would say — that that’s a feeling that now defines increasing numbers of Americans. He is using what was his own alienation as a lightning rod of empathy for the alienation of others. And he’s turning his honesty about his emotional roots into a master narrative as surely as Abraham Lincoln used his own story of growing up in a log cabin. If that’s not the stuff that presidents are made of, I don’t know what is.
The Buttigieg we see in “Mayor Pete” is quite funny in a gregarious way. He tells a roomful of potential voters, “This is the only chance you’ll ever get to vote for a Maltese-American left-handed Episcopalian gay war-veteran millennial.” But he’s also self-aware enough to ask, “How do you master the game without it changing you?” That’s the question confronted half a century ago in the Robert Redford campaign drama “The Candidate,” and we now live in a media culture that’s three times as corrupting.
“Mayor Pete” shows us the trial by fire of it all, and also the jubilant grind. We see Buttigieg meet the Rev. Al Sharpton for lunch in a Harlem soul-food restaurant, the two silently saying grace. We see Lis Smith, Pete’s “killer instinct” communications director, tell him about a TV opportunity and order him to refrain from speaking in full paragraphs. We see him in the CNN Town Hall that launched him into orbit, talking about his definition of scripture — that it’s about talking in the stranger, the poor person, “that idea of welcome.”
We see him confronting the deadly police shooting of a Black man that happened in South Bend just as his campaign was taking off, and the crowd at the town meeting he organizes is raging at him. (It was a situation in which he made mistakes, but didn’t try to hide them.) We see his debate training, where at one point Lis Smith says, “He’s coming across like the fucking Tin Man up there,” which sounds like a problem, except that Buttigieg tells the filmmakers he’s prized for “being himself,” and that to work too hard to make a crafted “emotional” statement…wouldn’t be him. (It would definitely be Bill Clinton.) That’s Jedi-mind-trick thinking. It’s also the words of an honest person.
We see a brief encounter between Buttigieg and Joe Biden in Iowa: The two exchange pleasantries about the Democratic Party, but you can feel the dance, with Biden trying to out-power him. We see Buttigieg walk into a packed arena rally to what became his theme music, the funky trumpet fanfare of Panic! at the Disco’s “High Hopes” — which, I have to say, is the coolest rock-star entrance I’ve ever seen a politician make. We see Pete and Chasten talk about having children (which recently happened), and talk about whether they should talk about it on the campaign trail. And, finally, we see Buttigieg grow as a candidate and as a competitor; when he turns on the weaponry during the debates, he can leave blood on the floor. Which is what presidents have to do. (It’s what Joe Biden needs to do with Joe Manchin.) And then we see him lose, and the air, however briefly, goes out of him. Wanting it that badly is what presidents have to do too.