just asking questions

A Conversation With Pete Buttigieg, Who’s Stuck at Home Like Everyone Else

The new, more hirsute Pete. Photo: pete.buttigieg/Instagram

At the beginning of March, Pete Buttigieg was still a major contender for the Democratic nomination. He had won the Iowa caucuses and was in a solid third place in the delegate count. Only one person had died from the novel coronavirus in the United States.

In a matter of weeks, his world — along with the world around him — has drastically changed. Buttigieg dropped out and endorsed Joe Biden in a successful effort to consolidate Democratic primary voters around the former vice-president. Meanwhile, the coronavirus has ravaged the United States, which now leads the world in infections.

And now Buttigieg is ending the month bunkered down in his South Bend, Indiana, home with his husband Chasten. While other former Democratic candidates have returned to their day jobs in the Senate, Buttigieg is unemployed. His term as mayor of his hometown expired in December.

Buttigieg, who hosted an Instagram Live broadcast with a doctor earlier this week to educate his followers about the threat posed by the pandemic, is trying to figure out his new role in public life without leaving his house. He spoke to Intelligencer this week about what he’s up to.

How are you coping with all of this? What’s the adjustment been like, going from being a presidential candidate to isolation?
Well, it would have been a strange adjustment regardless, but certainly more so given the situation. We had planned to be traveling a lot in the couple of weeks after the campaign wrapped up, to meet with and thank supporters. And of course, that process has moved online. But I’m also trying to focus on the bright side of being home, which is a place that I didn’t get to see very much of during the campaign. Working from home definitely has its ups and downs, but I’m pleased to be back in South Bend and spending more time with Chasten and just be a little more balanced in terms of a daily routine.

Has it been weird, going from rally after rally and state after state to traveling from upstairs to downstairs to the attic, where you did the Instagram Live video?
On the campaign, it’s not terribly unusual to have a three-state or four-state day. I would rejoice if the schedule showed I was going to have two consecutive nights in the same hotel room, because that at least meant not packing every single morning in a given week. So going from that to doing everything from home is definitely a radical shift, but it would be a radical shift anyway.

I’d say the biggest adjustment actually is not so much the physical change. It’s the fact that you go from focusing on one thing with a big team directed at a single and very specific goal to a much bigger picture. Of course I’m still focused on the presidential race and doing everything I can to help Vice-President Biden — but also looking at what’s going on in other races and looking beyond electoral politics in terms of making a difference and being involved. Now, all of that, of course, has been transformed in a lot of ways by the pandemic. But it’s also just a moment personally to broaden out after being so laser-focused on one goal.

You’re no longer a candidate or a mayor. What’s your sense of your role now, and what’s the tension in figuring that out?
I tried to think of it in terms of the same goals that animated the campaign. The idea of running for president was always that it was a way to support those broader goals, not the other way around. And I think it’s important now to think about those same goals. Doing my part to unify the country, doing my part to make sure we have a better president. And the bigger themes we talked about, building a sense of belonging in our culture and in our politics in our country and looking at new ways to do that. So it’s certainly a shift because it was very obvious what tools I had as a presidential candidate — and, for that matter, as a mayor, in order to try to promote those things I cared about.

Now, the tools have more to do with the relationships and following that built up over the course of the campaign. So we’re using virtual tools. Yesterday, for example, we did an Instagram Live with a friend and supporter who’s also on the front line as a medical professional. Just to help make sure that that good information is getting out there in a sea of misinformation about the pandemic. I think there will be a lot more moments like that ahead, where I can mobilize this wonderful community of supporters who emerged around the campaign and engage them. So the task now is to shift from having a very specific set of pulleys and levers to work with, either in office or as a candidate, to using a lot of imagination. Both because my role has changed and because the world has changed. And I believe the strangest thing is that both of those changes happened at almost exactly the same time.

What do you think are the next steps, at a point when you have to invent your own pulleys and levers?
First, as with anything else in life, you spend a lot of time listening to people you respect. So I’m talking to people whose expertise I value, not just specifically in terms of policy or politics, but in terms of being thoughtful on how to engage people and make a difference. So it’s a lot of conversations, and more reading than I used to do — it’s wonderful to be able to actually read more than just a summary memo of what’s been going around in the press. And, at the same time, it’s good to be a little more selective about what I take onboard. And I think there is going to be a lot of trial and error for me and for a lot of people in public life who are learning how to do this remotely — all the way from active candidates to people in politics, media, and the academy. And that’s the part where I think the only way to learn is by doing.

Something that’s on my mind right now in terms of how that media world is going to evolve is the fear that this could drive us even more deeply into the pockets and bubbles of agreement, which is more characteristic of social media versus broadcast media. In historical moments of disaster or crisis, we used to have everybody tuning in to watch the same news anchor explain the same facts, and it actually built the extent to which we lived in the same reality. Now, I’m not so sure that’s possible. And so one thing on my mind that I’m talking to a lot of others about is how best to cross-pollinate the conversation so that it’s not just different realities and different bubbles, in the same way that in the campaign, we made moves to go everywhere from TMZ, where you didn’t see a lot of politicians, to Fox News, where you didn’t see a lot of Democrats. I’m thinking about what that means in this environment, and how to reach people and maybe carry information or knowledge from one level into another one.

What’s the impact of the virus so far in South Bend, and how much is this affecting day to day life where you are?
 I’ve been talking to everybody here, from my successor in the mayor’s office to clinical staff at our major hospital, which happens to be across the river from my house — I’m looking at it right now. And what we’re seeing is a sense that whatever is happening in places like New York hasn’t come here but eventually will. At least that’s how the clinical professionals are looking at it. And so the good news is we have more time to prepare and to learn from what’s happened elsewhere, from Italy to Manhattan. The bad news is that it makes it easier to let your guard down. And so on everything from persuading my mother that she doesn’t need to go to Costco today, to trying to help friends and neighbors see the value of staying put, it’s a little harder when it seems a little less real. The contrast, I think, isn’t only between what it feels like in a hot spot and in a place like this, but between what it feels like inside a hospital and literally anywhere else. That’s what makes it so hard for people to get their heads around the gravity and urgency.

When did you suddenly realize the world was going upside down? I know you went out and hosted Kimmel two weeks ago. By that time, there was no studio audience. 
You know, that day in particular, so much changed just between sunup to sundown. That morning, it was an issue of gathering concern. It was clear it was going to be disruptive. And by evening, we didn’t have an audience. And by the next day, we were wondering whether that was the last show that would be taped for the foreseeable future. This thing has unfolded in a strangely slow-motion way. There have been certain days where it felt like there was a turn, and that was definitely one of them. And yet I think it was a good day for me to be doing something that was a little bit different, that still has to do with engaging and lifting people up. After the shows, we were celebrating the wrap and I had a chance to talk to the staff and share with them that their work has only become more important. Of course, they’re not able to do it in the traditional way now. But I actually think that this was a time when we need humor, we need culture, we need art more than ever. And it’ll be really important to watch that develop, even if this is as disruptive to the arts world as it is to the political world in terms of forcing new ways of doing business.

You mentioned you’ve been reading. What else have you been doing? Catching up on Netflix and doing jigsaw puzzles, or is it full-scale business as usual while being stuck at home?
There’s a lot of work going on, so it’s not exactly a vacation. But I’m valuing the chance to read more. I’m reading the new Hilary Mantel book. I’m going back to Seneca, who wrote a lot about how to use time well, which came to pass both because of what’s happening around the world and because of the changes in my life. And I think by the end of the month, we’ll have caught up on all the Best Picture nominees, which I’m looking forward to as well.

Just to pivot quickly to politics: Do you think it’s pretty much settled and the vice-president should be the nominee, or is it still ongoing and there should be more debates?
 Well, I think this is an opportunity for Vice-President Biden to show versus tell what his presidency would be like. And that doesn’t mean you ignore the fact that the nomination process is still ongoing, that there are votes yet to be cast and that he has a competitor. But I do think that this is a time where Americans are going to be less interested in what he has to say toward a competitor within the party and more interested in what kind of president he’s going to be.

One thing my colleague Olivia Nuzzi wanted me to ask you is whether you believe, as she does, that you would have won the nomination with the beard.
Well, I guess we’ll never know for sure. It seems to be popular online. I just relish the fact that I’m no longer expected to shave every day. I didn’t mean for it to be a statement — we’ll see how long it lasts.

You know yet if it’s a permanent change?
For now I’ll call it an experiment.

But you’ve gotten a positive response from Chasten as well as the internet?
Yeah. It’s safe to say if the beard loses favor with Chasten it’s not long for this world.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.