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Few in the national political world had heard of the then-34-year-old South Bend, Indiana, mayor with the difficult-to-pronounce name when New York Times columnist Frank Bruni went out to dinner with former Obama strategist David Axelrod.
It was spring 2016, as two candidates with a combined age of 142 vied for the party’s presidential nomination. Which young Democrats, Bruni asked, could one day lead the party?
“The very first name out of his mouth was Pete Buttigieg.” Bruni recalled in an interview with POLITICO. Bruni soon headed to South Bend, where he spent a couple days with the mayor, who just a year earlier had come out as gay. Bruni wrote a June 2016 column headlined, “The First Gay President?”
Now three-plus years later, Buttigieg has emerged at a top-tier 2020 presidential contender, recently surging atop the pack in Iowa, and Bruni’s question looks prescient. It also looks, in at least a small way, like a self-fulfilling prophesy. That 2016 column was the first of numerous Times pieces, many by Bruni himself, to call attention to Buttigieg’s talents.
Two weeks after his initial column, Bruni included Buttigieg on his list of 14 young Democrats to watch, along with other emerging politicians like Stacey Abrams, Julián Castro, Andrew Gillum and Ayanna Pressley. Later that summer, at the Democratic convention, Bruni sat down with two of those future leaders, Buttigieg and Abrams, for a Facebook Live interview.
Still, Bruni says he wasn’t envisioning Buttigieg to rise so quickly.
“When I put the headline on it, ‘The First Gay President?’, I didn’t mean in 2020,” recalled Bruni. “Maybe 2024,” he added. “If I had anything in my mind, if all the cards fell the right way, and he was healthy and interested, maybe 2028.”
Though Buttigieg had gotten attention two years earlier in The Washington Post column “The Fix” for deploying to Afghanistan as mayor, Bruni’s column was the first on Buttigieg as a potential presidential contender in a leading national outlet and immediately elevated his profile, prompting South Bend Tribune reporters to ask the mayor about his White House ambitions.
“I get that headlines are written to be provocative and get clicks, but it’s obviously pretty far-fetched,” Buttigieg told the Tribune at the time. “I’m dealing with potholes and animal control, and I’m really excited about the job that I have, which is mayor.”
Nonetheless, Times readers looking for a Democratic savior long before 2024 or 2028 might’ve been swayed by Bruni’s introduction to the mayor of South Bend.
“If you went into some laboratory to concoct a perfect Democratic candidate, you’d be hard pressed to improve on Pete Buttigieg,” Bruni began the column, which noted the mayor’s education at Harvard and Oxford, his military service and Christian faith, and accomplishments when it comes to TEDx talks, half-marathons, speaking Arabic, and playing piano.
Indeed, elements of Buttigieg’s resume — Rhodes scholar, military veteran — have provided fodder for numerous profiles this election cycle. But his decision to come out as gay, which hadn’t happened when he deployed to Afghanistan and got mentioned in “The Fix,” added an unusual element to his unique political ascension that played a significant role in Bruni’s 2016 column.
“Could we look up a dozen or more years from now and see a same-sex couple in the White House?” wondered Bruni, who is also gay. He closed the piece by urging readers to “keep an eye on him.”
At that point, the Midwestern mayor had little footprint in the Times. Buttigieg co-wrote a couple of op-eds during his 20s on political party platforms and Somalia, respectively, and appeared in a two stories from South Bend on fixing abandoned houses and at a Studebaker event.
Bruni and Buttigieg met publicly again in early February 2019, two months before the mayor officially became a presidential candidate. Bruni interviewed Buttigieg at the Brooklyn Public Library upon the publication of his memoir. Bruni and fellow columnist Gail Collins also invited Buttigieg to the Times to meet with some opinion colleagues, an informal discussion that they’ve similarly had this year with candidates such as Sens. Kamala Harrris and Cory Booker and Montana Governor Steve Bullock.
Bruni has interviewed Buttigieg this year for the Times, while also revisiting his 2016 column when arguing in April that Buttigieg is “gay enough" – a response to critics who claimed that Buttigieg’s straight-laced demeanor doesn’t fully embody gay culture. Bruni also cited his 2016 piece in a column last month headlined, “The Agonizing Imperfection of Pete Buttigieg.”
“If I dreamed up an ideal Democratic opponent for President Trump in 2020, I’d locate that candidate in the industrial Midwest,” Bruni wrote. He listed other attributes: “relatively young,” not a Washington insider, fluent on religion, and can “lay claim to being a trailblazer.” Buttigieg met all the criteria.
“But I have the damnedest time imagining him in the White House in 2021, and that’s depressing the hell out of me,” wrote Bruni, who believes Buttigieg’s age, 37, remains a glaring imperfection.
Bruni, who is 55, has held roles at the Times ranging from White House reporter to restaurant critic. He became an opinion writer in 2011. While Bruni has written approvingly of Buttigieg and more harshly of other candidates, such as former Vice President Joe Biden — and once dreamed of a Harris-Buttigieg ticket — he doesn’t see the columnist’s role as telling readers whom to support.
“Even if it was within the tradition and the norm for columnists to say, ‘Here’s who you should vote for,’ I would be stumped,” he said. “The number one consideration is who has the best chance of beating Trump,” said Bruni, adding that anybody who claims to know that answer is guessing.
Bruni hasn’t been alone at the Times in imagining Buttigieg’s name on the ballot in November 2020. Fellow columnist Nicholas Kristoff floated the idea of a Sen. Elizabeth Warren-Buttigieg ticket, or perhaps Buttigieg-Warren.
The candidate has also received praise from conservative columnist Bret Stephens, who called Buttigieg “by far the most politically gifted person in the field.” Columnist David Leonhardt wrote early on that the millennial Buttigieg “deserved a hearing,” and then did just that months later by interviewing him for “The Argument” podcast.
Buttigieg has received unflattering coverage, too, with columnist Charles Blow recently highlighting the candidate’s failure attracting black voters and arguing that homophobia isn’t to blame.
Bruni reiterated that he believes Buttigieg would have a better shot if he were perhaps five years older, though noted the weekend Iowa poll suggested “his age may be less of an obstacle for voters than I would have expected it to be.”
The nomination remains up for grabs, and Buttigieg has so far failed to gain African-American support, a major hurdle in states such as South Carolina. But Axelrod, who recalled meeting Buttigieg a year before recommending him to Bruni, said he’s been impressed.
“I am not surprised that he has exceeded expectations,” he told POLITICO, “but no one could honestly have predicted how well this would come together for him.”
While early pieces in the Post and Times helped put Buttigieg on the national media map, he has also embarked on an ambitious media strategy to boost his profile this election cycle, which has included engaging with a wide variety of outlets and fielding questions from reporters for hours during bus tours through Iowa and New Hampshire
Bruni credits Buttigieg’s facility with the news media, which he witnessed up close over two days in South Bend, as a major asset to his candidacy.
“He’s someone who has the mental acuity and the energy and the fluency to be talking all day long and to pretty much always say what he meant to say, and to react to things spontaneously with some precision and eloquence and wit,” said Bruni. “And that’s not easy.”