Things are going well for Pete Buttigieg. Typically the position of transportation secretary isn’t exactly the sexiest Cabinet post for a rising political star, but Buttigieg has arguably become President Joe Biden’s most prominent surrogate for some of the most important legislation of his presidency — infrastructure — and managed to avoid fading from view after his astonishingly successful 2020 presidential run. In the world of elite Democratic fundraisers, Buttigieg is already being discussed as a top 2024 contender should Biden decline to run for a second term.
Now he’s the subject of a new documentary, “Mayor Pete,” premiering Friday on Amazon Prime, which draws from extensive behind-the-scenes footage of Buttigieg’s presidential campaign to give us a closer look at a politico who became a household name overnight.
While “Mayor Pete” is disappointing as a work of political journalism, it’s a win for Buttigieg.
What do we learn about him? Unfortunately, not much.
Buttigieg remains as inscrutable as ever, both because of the shallow, deferential style of the documentary and because he lacks a clear political identity. In fact, perhaps the most tangible takeaway from the film is that his husband, Chasten, is a surprising political asset, a natural foil to Buttigieg who is not only able to work crowds but also the filmmakers themselves.
While “Mayor Pete” is disappointing as a work of political journalism, it’s a win for Buttigieg: His natural political style derives power from ambiguity, and most people don’t need to access the inner life of politicians to rally behind them. (In fact, most people probably know that such access is impossible.)
Director Adam Moss draws on a wealth of footage shot in a vérité style that tracks Buttigieg’s evolution from ambitious mayor of South Bend, Indiana, to improbable winner of the Iowa Democratic caucuses. We see Buttigieg up close at home doing laundry, shaking hands with fans, preparing meticulously for the debate stages where he shone brightly, and reacting to both wins and losses with an equanimity that sometimes comes across as stoic and other times as robotic.
The major breakthrough of the film is its documentation of his relationship with his husband — both because Chasten seems to bring out modes of expression in his husband that nobody else can and because it shows something unprecedented: a portrait of a romantic partnership involving the first openly gay candidate in American history to earn presidential primary delegates toward a major party’s nomination. “Mayor Pete” offers a glimpse into the thorny dilemmas Buttigieg faced in discussing his sexual orientation as a part of his outlook on the world without having it define him or be seen as a general election liability. A discussion between Buttigieg and his husband about the meaning of Buttigieg’s line in a speech — he said he once wished he would’ve taken a pill to become straight — is heart-wrenching.
But that scene also showcases the limitations of the documentary. Both men are, of course, aware that they’re being filmed — and as they probe at Buttigieg’s inner turmoil, the context is how the line might play with voters. And that’s ultimately what most of this documentary is about — Buttigieg’s optics game. In 96 minutes, there is virtually no discussion of Buttigieg’s policy record or vision. There are no prompts for him to describe his ideological worldview beyond vague rhetoric about belonging. Instead, we see constant back-and-forths between him and his pit bull of a communications director, Lis Smith, about how various talking points will land with the Democratic electorate. And while Buttigieg argues in interviews that workshopping ideas with consultants threatens his “authenticity,” it’s unclear exactly what the substance of that authenticity is.
“I’m running for president because I believe we’re at a moment that is really redefining the social, economic, political, perhaps moral life of our nation,” Buttigieg says at one recorded roundtable. “This is a watershed period as big as the one that gave rise to the New Deal or the one that gave rise to what you might call the Reagan moment.”
What’s remarkable about this talking point is that at no point in the documentary — or during his actual campaign — did Buttigieg reflect that sense of urgency or thirst for paradigmatic change. At a time when the party was shifting leftward, Buttigieg actually pivoted aggressively to the center during the primaries, reflecting a search for a less crowded lane rather than deeply held convictions about how he thought about what the future should look like. The documentary also depicts none of Buttigieg’s glad-handing with ultrarich donors and winning the affection of Wall Street tycoons who saw in him a reassuring path to protecting the political and economic status quo while defeating Donald Trump.
Buttigieg’s rhetoric was fundamentally personality-focused and cagey, designed to allow voters to project their views onto him.
The appeal of Buttigieg — a former McKinsey consultant — to these donors wasn’t “authenticity” but his malleability. And while other front-runners, like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, articulated clear views about how they wanted society to change, Buttigieg’s rhetoric was fundamentally personality-focused and cagey, designed to allow voters to project their views onto him based on his preternatural charisma and vague allusions to unity.
"Mayor Pete" centers on that charisma and demands little more than some sort of peek into Buttigieg's "real" feelings. Moss reportedly tried and struggled to get Buttigieg to open up emotionally and enlisted Chasten to help him do so, sometimes prompting Chasten to interview his own husband on camera. Chasten is a shockingly savvy operator — simultaneously able to pop on camera and elicit what at least appear to be less guarded responses from his husband. He is also able to frame Buttigieg’s greatest weakness as a rather innocuous struggle to be more emotive at times. It’s fluffy stuff, and it helps shield Buttigieg in a way: Consider that the documentary briefly frames Buttigieg’s struggle to connect with Black voters in the wake of a police shooting in South Bend as a function of being walled off emotionally rather than, say, because of his policy positions, his past relationship with the Black community and his disinterest in movement politics.
Ultimately, I was left wondering why someone would take months and months of up-close footage of a burgeoning political powerhouse and focus so much on a quixotic quest for “authenticity.” Most of what we get out of the whole puff piece is that Buttigieg is skilled as an orator and that he really wants to win. We already knew that, and as far as we know, that's Buttigieg's core.