For Pete’s Sake

The first time I ever heard of Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., was in a Frank Bruni column in the New York Times in June 2016, titled, “The First Gay President?”

Two weeks later, Bruni cited Mayor Buttigieg (pronounced “BOOT-edge-edge”) in another column, “14 Young Democrats to Watch”—a list that included such then-unknown figures as Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum—while Buttigieg himself grew increasingly visible on the national stage, interviewed by Charlie Rose (ahem) in July 2017 and by the cast of Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! in February 2018.

Buttigieg, 37, announced his candidacy for president on January 23, to extremely limited fanfare.  Now, however, he seems to be enjoying his 15 minutes in the limelight, thanks, in roughly equal measure, to generally glowing press coverage and surprisingly high poll numbers in early primary states.

While it is comically premature for anyone with any integrity to predict how the Democratic Party nominating contest will shake out (insert your own cable pundit joke here), Mayor Buttigieg—an Afghanistan War veteran and former Rhodes Scholar who speaks seven foreign languages, including Norwegian—is most certainly deserving of a long, hard look.

Indeed, in his initial column introducing Buttigieg to the world (or at least the world of New York Times readers), Bruni mused that, on paper, you could scarcely produce a more perfect future president if you built one, Frankenstein-like, in a laboratory.  Similarly, in a meet-the-candidate segment on a recent episode of The Daily Show, Trevor Noah struggled to find even the trace of a skeleton in Buttigieg’s professional closet and came up empty.

By all appearances, Mayor Pete (as he is known in South Bend) is the real deal—someone one underestimates at one’s peril.

For that reason, Buttigieg offers us perhaps the single greatest opportunity we’ll ever have to ask:  Is America ready for an openly gay president?

The answer, I suspect, is the same as it was regarding a black candidate in 2008:  “No it’s not, except in this one case.”

I don’t mean to imply that Buttigieg will be crowned the Democratic nominee in the summer of 2020, let alone be elected on November 3.  In a field of a billion contenders, a thirtysomething mayor of the fourth-largest city in Indiana will be a longshot in any context.

However, if America is to have a homosexual commander-in-chief in my lifetime, it will almost surely be someone like Mayor Pete:  A man so smart, so accomplished and so…normal…that his sexual preference becomes both trivial and irrelevant to all but the most obsessive voters.

At the risk of putting too fine a point on it:  Other than being married to a guy named Chasten, there is absolutely nothing about Buttigieg that would lead the average citizen to assume he is gay—nor to think anything of it upon finding out.  In appearance, speech and overall countenance, Buttigieg comes across like any other plucky, overachieving public servant:  wonky, earnest, full of ideas and creative energy, and wholly unencumbered by any notion of personal or demographic limitations.

Buttigieg’s whole approach to the gay question—increasingly common among prominent LGBT officials, post-Obergefell—is to never even mention it, except as a casual aside or in response to a direct question from an unimaginative reporter.

Indeed, Buttigieg did not formally “come out” to the good people of South Bend until deep into his first term as mayor, in June 2015 (in a newspaper column very much worth reading).  And yet, when he ran for re-election that fall, he won with more than 80 percent of the vote.

This is the future of queerness in public life, and a major reason the gay rights movement has achieved so much in the past decade-and-a-half:  By drawing only as much attention to itself as is strictly necessary.  By assimilating to, rather than separating from, the society at large.  By embracing such bedrock American institutions as marriage and family, rather than running away from them.  By treating homo-skeptics with patience and respect rather than scorn and condescension, trusting that, in good time, they will come around.

By being the moderate, mild-mannered, monogamous mayor that he is—and an extraordinarily educated and well-spoken one to boot—Pete Buttigieg is essentially daring the public to give a damn about his personal life in any way, shape or form.

At this point in his political rise, it would appear that no one does.  Perhaps that will change should he miraculously capture his party’s presidential nomination next year, when the spotlight will become infinitely brighter and the public’s curiosity infinitely curiouser.

Then again, perhaps not.  Maybe the country really has gotten past its worst hang-ups about LGBT folk in the public square and are prepared to judge all candidates for higher office strictly on their ideas, experience and the content of their character.

Someday we’ll find out for sure.  Until then, we can dream.

Mueller Lite

Last Sunday at around 4 o’clock, millions of liberals across America were beside themselves—inconsolable!—upon learning that the president of the United States isn’t an agent of a foreign power.  Having invested nearly two years of their lives and all of their emotional bandwidth into the assumption that Donald Trump and his gang conspired with the Russian government to rig the 2016 presidential election—and that the Mueller investigation would eventually prove it beyond doubt—it was positively devastating to be informed by Robert Mueller himself—albeit through his boss, Attorney General William Barr—that this just isn’t so.

As a lifelong fan of Alfred Hitchcock, I couldn’t help thinking of Rear Window.  Specifically, the scene in which James Stewart and Grace Kelly—having spent days doggedly surmising that the salesman across the courtyard has murdered his wife and chopped her body into bite-size pieces—are provided with seemingly airtight evidence from an investigator that the neighbor has done no such thing.  That, in fact, Stewart and Kelly have let their imaginations get the better of them, and that it’s all a silly, if brutal, misunderstanding.

Cut to Stewart’s and Kelly’s crestfallen visages, each overcome with disappointment and just the slightest bit pissed off about the whole bloody affair.

It’s a priceless moment, written and acted to perfection, and encapsulated, a few beats later, by the future princess of Monaco herself:

“If anybody walked in here, I don’t think they’d believe what they see.  You and me with long faces, plunged into despair, because we find out that a man didn’t kill his wife.  We’re two of the most frightening ghouls I’ve ever known.”

The joke, of course, is that Stewart and Kelly had wrapped themselves so tightly in their paranoid theories about what sinister things the neighbors have been up to—and had so convinced themselves that their worst suspicions must be true—they came to view any penetrating of their conspiratorial bubble as a personal insult and humiliation.  Their amateur sleuthing had morphed into a religious cult, and any outside information that challenged it amounted to blasphemy.

Hence the black comedy buried in Kelly’s quip:  In their idle, wild-eyed fervor, she and Stewart had come to believe that their neighbor being a murderer was preferable to their being proved foolish and irresponsible.  In that moment, being right was more important than the salesman’s wife being alive and in one piece.

Such is the dilemma now facing the American left, which must choose between two possible realities:  One in which new, unwelcome information takes precedence over comforting, unfounded speculation, or one in which the president is a traitor to his country and the MSNBC primetime lineup is a fount of divine truth.

Prior to last Sunday, liberals like me had been perfectly content to live in the latter universe, much as conservatives spent the balance of 2009-2016 in a Fox News echo chamber of rage wherein President Obama was a secret Muslim, Hillary Clinton was a secret murderer and Benghazi was the biggest scandal in the history of the human race.

But what about now?  With the news—however preliminary—that our darkest imaginings about Trump are, well, imaginary, are we not duty-bound to accept this most inconvenient of truths and move on to 2020?

I’ll say this much:  Throughout the 2016 election, I rarely went more than 24 hours without checking in on the Huffington Post, the addictive left-wing blogging platform that framed every utterance from Trump’s mouth as a Category 5 emergency and gave Hillary Clinton a 99 percent chance of victory in the days leading up to the big vote.

I haven’t been back to the Huffington Post once since November 9, 2016, and it’s for the exact reason you’d expect:  At long last, and with a great deal of reflection, I decided I no longer enjoyed the taste of Kool-Aid.

Don’t get me wrong:  Today I am still very much a liberal and still very much consider Donald Trump a cancer on the face of America, for reasons Robert Mueller had no need to investigate.

What I am not—or so I would like to think—is a mindless, obstinate rube who clings to demonstrable falsities simply because I want them to be true.  While I still watch MSNBC on a regular basis, I generally limit my consumption to one hour of programming per day, and always with the understanding that comfort food is not the same as nutrition and restless chatter is not the same as insight.

I suggest my fellow anti-Trumpers do the same, and put Collusiongate in the rear window, where it belongs.

A Fish Called Donald

President Trump has been called many things and compared to many types of people during his two-plus years in office:  An autocrat.  A dictator.  A mob boss.  A con man.

Lately, however, the figure that most comes to mind—if only to me—is Otto West, the character played by Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda.  You remember Otto:  The hapless, unscrupulous jewel thief who marches around London telling everyone he meets, “Don’t ever call me stupid!”

The joke, of course, is that Otto is, in fact, a complete and spectacular ignoramus—albeit an uncommonly devious and pretentious one—thereby rendering his incessant protests to the contrary both ironic and self-defeating, as is eventually spelled out in an exasperated monologue by Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis), who bellows, “To call you stupid would be an insult to stupid people.”

Like Otto, America’s 45th president invests an awful lot of stock in the notion that—despite all evidence to the contrary—he is an acutely intelligent individual, and he wants to make sure everyone in America knows it.  Whether through his tweets about being “a very stable genius” or his challenges to an IQ-off against various congresspersons and, on occasion, his own cabinet secretaries, Trump seems abnormally preoccupied with asserting that he is the smartest person in the room, if not the country.

In doing this, Trump seems to imply that being exceptionally smart is part and parcel of his overall brand—along with being exceptionally rich and exceptionally sexually desirable—and, by implication, that were he to be shown to be not quite as sharp as he presents, his entire sense of self would dissolve into a billion tiny, stupid pieces.

Over time—as with our friend Otto—Trump’s profound insecurity about his own brainpower has produced one priceless moment of hilarity after another, the most recent—and arguably most illustrative—having emerged in the testimony of Michael Cohen, Trump’s estranged lawyer, before the House Oversight Committee on February 27.

In his opening statement, Cohen revealed (with documentation!) how in 2015 Trump’s legal team sent threatening letters to Fordham, the University of Pennsylvania and the College Board, forbidding them from disclosing Trump’s grades and SAT scores to the public—something that institutions of higher learning are legally prohibited from doing without the student’s permission.

It has been duly noted that this unnecessarily proactive attempt to conceal Trump’s grades occurred not so long after the very same Donald Trump loudly demanded the release of then-President Barack Obama’s own college transcripts—a hypocrisy so transparent we need not spell it out here.

The obvious question that arises, of course, is:  How damning could Trump’s transcripts possibly be that he would enlist a team of lawyers to ensure they never see the light of day?

The obvious (if elliptical) answer is that vain men tend not to withhold information that makes them look good.  As with his tax returns, Trump’s decision to treat his school records as a top-level state secret leads us to the inescapable conclusion that he must have something rather embarrassing to hide.

What should most concern us about this particular deception—beyond the deception itself, that is—is why Trump is so sensitive about IQ and test scores in the first place.

I don’t know about you, but I haven’t thought about my college GPA more than a handful of times since I graduated nine years ago.  What’s more, while I attended a perfectly respectable university and enjoyed most of my time there, I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned its name except when asked—nor do I make a habit of announcing how clever and educated I supposedly am in order to make myself feel superior to the other people in the room.

Isn’t that something only a sociopath would do?

And yet here we are, digesting the details of a massive fraud perpetrated by excessively wealthy parents to shoehorn their deadbeat kids into über-selective colleges and universities they never would’ve gotten into on their own.  Because as far as those parents are concerned, life is meaningless unless it’s spent in the rarified company of America’s academic elitewhether one belongs there or not.

Donald Trump is a product of this nauseating mindset, and we have all been living with the consequences ever since.

Christopher Hitchens used to say that what annoyed him about certain religious folk was their rather aggressive tendency to proselytize.  It wasn’t enough that they believed in the gospel; you needed to believe in it, too.

Such is Donald Trump’s relationship with his “very, very big brain”:  He can’t be content with his alleged smartness until every last person in America is made aware of the good news.

You can call him insecure.  You can call him delusional.  But whatever you do, don’t call him stupid.