Mayor Pete has found his format: the five-minute, remote-feed evisceration.
He always looks so nice, Pete Buttigieg — handsome in that white, Midwestern, college yearbook way, with a smile that seems bucktoothed but isn’t and those perfectly, and apparently naturally, arched eyebrows.
Last year, as we got to know him during the Democratic presidential nomination race, he bore the weight of being the first openly gay presidential candidate easily, as if it was no big deal. Sure, it takes a certain level of, shall we say, personal confidence to imagine that going from mayor of South Bend, Indiana, to the White House is a possible career trajectory, but his was a quiet, respectful confidence, befitting a Rhodes scholar and a Naval intelligence officer.
So maybe it should not be surprising to discover that when Buttigieg swore to do whatever he could to ensure the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, that “whatever” turned out to include “speak softly and carry a sling blade.”
Last week, having served as stand-in for Vice President Mike Pence during Harris’ debate prep, Buttigieg must have seemed a natural choice for a predebate interview. Fox News’ Martha MacCallum and Bret Baier certainly thought so, asking Harris’ former rival a preloaded question about her public policy differences with Biden. Standing in front of Kingsbury Hall in Salt Lake City, Buttigieg gave his now viral-famous answer:
“Well, there’s a classic parlor game of trying to find a little bit of daylight between running mates,” Buttigieg said. “And if people want to play that game, we could look into why an evangelical Christian like Mike Pence wants to be on a ticket with the president caught with a porn star, or how he feels about the immigration policy that he called ‘unconstitutional’ before he decided to team up with Donald Trump.”
Cue stunned silence in the studio and the sound of a kajillion social media posts.
Steve Doocy must have missed the segment and the tweets because he had Buttigieg on “Fox and Friends” the next morning. When asked a question about President Trump refusing to participate in a virtual debate, Mayor Pete answered: “I don’t know why you’d want to be in a room with other people if you were contagious with a deadly disease, if you care about other people. But maybe the president of the United States doesn’t care about other people.”
Later in the interview, when Buttigieg brought up the president’s denigration of fallen American soldiers, Doocy, having learned nothing even from his very own interview, interrupted to insist the president had denied those reports. Buttigieg let him down easy with a classic “If you really believe the president now on this kind of stuff,” he said. “I’ve got a bridge to sell you.”
Then, during an MSNBC interview on Sunday, Buttigieg followed a touching response to National Coming Out Day with a calm, cool and collected shredding of Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett’s just-made opening statement ahead of her confirmation hearings. “This is what nominees do. They write the most seemingly unobjectionable, dry stuff,” Buttigieg said. “But really what I see in there is a pathway to judicial activism cloaked in judicial humility.”
Then he launched into a soliloquy that evoked the award-winning play “What the Constitution Means to Me.”
“At the end of the day, rights in this country have been expanded because courts have understood what the true meaning of the letter of the law and the spirit of the constitution is,” he said. “That is not about time-traveling yourself back to the 18th century and subjecting yourself to the same prejudices and limitations as the people who write these words. The Constitution is a living document because the English language is a living language. And you need to have some readiness to understand that in order to serve on the court in a way that will actually make life better.”
He went on to add that even the Founding Fathers — the guys that these “dead-hand originalists claim fidelity to” — understood the importance of changing with the times.
It’s tough to make a term like “dead-hand originalist” go viral, but Buttigieg pulled it off — and from the comfort of his irritatingly immaculate kitchen, no less.
Certainly, he’s come a long way since April, when Room Rater gave him a 4/10 for a “Morning Joe” interview conducted in front of a bookshelf with a highly regrettable haircut. “Pete on the dangers of cutting one’s own hair,” the arbiter of work-from-home backgrounds tweeted.
Now, with his quarantine buzz cut ‘n’ beard grown back and gone, respectively, Mayor Pete is scoring nothing but perfect 10s, at least on liberal social media, which just last night circulated his 2019 answer to questions about late-term abortions, often with grateful weeping emojis.
The Biden/Harris campaign, naturally, has expressed gratitude for Buttigieg’s high-visibility support (on top of everything else, he does a mean Mike Pence impersonation), and it would be wise for them to continue to do so. It is easier for candidate supporters to offer lacerating commentary than it is for the candidates themselves — that’s why every candidate has a coterie of surrogates. But it’s hard to think of one who has been quite as effective, particularly during a news cycle that threatens to be overrun by the president’s reaction — physical, political and psychological — to his COVID-19 diagnosis.
Never mind the Room Rater score; during the Democratic primary race, Buttigieg was often dinged for seeming dull, intellectual and, frankly, a bit nerdy. Even then, this was pretty hilarious, given the fact that he was not only the first openly gay presidential candidate but also the first openly gay presidential candidate who saw active service in the military.
Now it’s even more hilarious and, frankly, a bit startling because now we know better. Now we know that what lies behind that white shirt, dark tie and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” face is not a policy wonk but a rhetorical assassin. With a loving husband, a really nice kitchen and deadly aim.
So, as Lin-Manuel Miranda (of whom Buttigieg and his husband, Chasten, are fans) asked in “Hamilton,” what do we think, “Treasury or State?”
Mary McNamara is a culture columnist and critic for the Los Angeles Times.