When Buttigieg Met Bartlet
Buttigieg is the ultimate fantasy President for West Wing fans. Imagine if he met President Bartlet.
Buttigieg is terrible. I hopefully don’t need to explain why at this point, but here’s some material on the subject for anyone who needs convincing. After his routing in Nevada he hopefully won’t be around for much longer. So before he becomes irrelevant I thought I’d write something I noticed about him.
Much has been written and said about the ideology of The West Wing, the television show about the fictional Presidency of Josiah Bartlet, Nobel Prize winner in economics and scion of the New Hampshire Bartletts that count among themselves a signatory of the Declaration of Independence. Liberal (as opposed to leftist) Democrats fell in love with The West Wing and modeled their actions after their TV idols with disastrous results under the Obama administration. Gautam Raghavan, who worked for Obama during his 2008 campaign, wrote, “Working in Barack Obama’s White House was like watching Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing brought to life.” Or take Matthew Yglesias of Vox.
I was interested in politics before the show started. But a friend of mine from college moved to D.C. at the same time as me, after graduation, and we definitely plotted our proposed domination of the capital in explicitly West Wing terms: Who was more like Toby? Who was more like Josh?
I won’t go into detail on the bad politics or harmful impact of The West Wing because so many others have tackled the subject, but I’ll offer an anecdote. My roommate, a staunch liberal, was watching The West Wing for the first time in 2016. That year, as we watched the election results come in, he was flabbergasted and dismayed by Trump’s victory. A couple years later, after I’d moved, I was in town for the night and needed a place to stay, and he kindly let me crash on the couch in my old apartment. When I arrived, he was watching a West Wing episode. I said I was surprised he hadn’t finished the show yet and he said, “Oh I have. I’ve watched it many times now.” Trump’s victory had shocked him into retreating into the comforting fantasy of the Bartlet administration.
In many ways Pete Buttigieg is the ultimate West Wing candidate. Admittedly, The West Wing is a show about speeches, and despite his attempts to copy Obama’s rhetorical style, Buttigieg is not that inspiring a speaker. But more than anything The West Wing is about how much better smart people are than anyone else, or rather well-credentialed people, which Aaron Sorkin either thinks is the same thing or is even more important. At many points throughout the show, characters bring up the elite universities they attended as evidence that they’re right and their challenger is inferior, most ridiculously when, during a fight with Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman, Press Secretary C.J. Cregg brings up that he missed the Dean’s List two semesters in a row. What a moron!
That last bit reminds me of this gem from Buttigieg operative Lis Smith: “But there have been a few times when I’ve been around him when I knew something, a factoid or something he didn’t know, and let me tell you, I fucking lord it all over him. ‘Oh really, you didn’t know that? I can’t believe you didn’t know that! I thought everybody knew that.’” Sounds like a charming bunch of people.
Buttigieg’s appeal, such as it is, lies in his ability to pad his resume. Harvard, Rhodes (which Cory Booker also accomplished but never as got much credit for, something he rightfully pointed out), McKinsey (an evil institution but a very selective one), a vanity tour in the military, Mayor of South Bend—a job he took so lightly that he took a break for another military stint—speaks seven languages—although “speaks” seems to be being used very loosely. But the types who fawn over ostentatious displays of intellectualism really fell in love with Buttigieg when an anecdote came out about how he read an English translation of a Norwegian author, found that none of his other books had been translated, and learned Norwegian to read the rest of his books. The credentialists really swooned over that one.
Buttigieg supporters, and some Warren supporters as well, have this belief that putting the smartest person (which they often think is one with the best credentials) in charge is not only necessary but sufficient. It comes from an end-of-history mentality that there’s no such thing as differences in ideology, or at least not among “reasonable people” or “the adults in the room”, so the only thing to disagree on is the technocratic elements of how to manage things.
This is clearly the ideology that animates The West Wing, with Bartlet as a Nobel Prize Winner who went to Notre Dame and the London School of Economics, taught at Dartmouth, speaks Latin (fans of the show will cite Bartlet’s speech to God in Latin—untranslated, which is better for some reason, probably because it flatters anyone watching who knows Latin, unlike the rest of those troglodytes—as one of its best moments), knows trivia on a variety of subjects (what are the only three words in the English language that start with “dw-”?).
In his reelection, Bartlet runs against a Republican based on George W. Bush whose greatest crime is being dumb (liberals think Bush was bad because he was dumb, and not even really dumb but just prone to malapropisms, rather than because he carried out so much damage). Communications Director Toby Ziegler tells Bartlet “Then make this election about smart, and not. Make it about engaged, and not. Qualified, and not.” I’ve written about how much of liberal hatred for Trump is because of his perceived stupidity as opposed to any of his actual harmful policies, and this attitude is present throughout The West Wing.
Regarding Buttigieg and credentialism, I think Nathan J. Robinson said it best:
Before I dive into Shortest Way Home’s account of the life and career of Peter Buttigieg, let me be up front about my bias. I don’t trust former McKinsey consultants. I don’t trust military intelligence officers. And I don’t trust the type of people likely to appear on “40 under 40” lists, the valedictorian-to-Harvard-to-Rhodes-Scholarship types who populate the American elite. I don’t trust people who get flattering reams of newspaper profiles and are pitched as the Next Big Thing That You Must Pay Attention To, and I don’t trust wunderkinds who become successful too early. Why? Because I am somewhat cynical about the United States meritocracy. Few people amass these kind of résumés if they are the type to openly challenge authority. Noam Chomsky says that the factors predicting success in our “meritocracy” are a “combination of greed, cynicism, obsequiousness and subordination, lack of curiosity and independence of mind, [and] self-serving disregard for others.” So when journalists see “Harvard” and think “impressive,” I see it and think “uh-oh.”
I try my best to be fair, though. I thought former Michigan gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed was suspect because of his shiny résumé. But after examining his proposals and listening to his speeches, I realized he was the real deal. He had done well in school, but he was genuinely outraged by preventable human misery, talked openly about taking on corporate oligarchy, and had bold plans for revolutionizing health care, environmental policy, and just about everything else. I have lots of friends who are the products of elite institutions, but became critical of those institutions after being exposed to their inner workings. If Pete Buttigieg is one of those, great!
Pete Buttigieg is not one of those.
Pete Buttigieg is not only the dream candidate of West Wing fans, but clearly he loves The West Wing himself, or at least is happy to pander to its fans. Take a look at this ad where he copies The West Wing’s famously heavily used walk-and-talk.
And some stars of The West Wing love him too.
Buttigieg even appeared on “The West Wing Weekly”, a podcast of former West Wing stars going through each episode of the show, often accompanied by high-profile politicians and the like.
And by an amazing coincidence, Buttigieg’s home town is South Bend, Indiana, the town right by Notre Dame, President Bartlet’s alma mater!
With all these connections, it’s surprised me that no one’s written a story about Buttigieg meeting President Bartlet. Liberals have written stories about fictional characters meeting real-life politicians before. And West Wing characters have worked their way into the real world. It seems like something lovers of Buttigieg and The West Wing would love, but, surprisingly, when I Googled it I wasn’t able to find anything. But if it had been written, I think it might’ve gone a little something like this:
President Bartlet loved being back at his alma mater, Notre Dame. Ostensibly, he was there to campaign for an important representative. He was a Republican, but one of the good Republicans that work well with Democrats, something that definitely exists, and his opponent was some left-wing radical that was campaigning on increasing the minimum wage, raising social security benefits, and other nonsense that Republicans would use to attack the Democratic Party. The DCCC had backed this upstart’s opponent in the primary, of course, but in a tragic upset, she’d won anyway, and now she was doing surprisingly well in the polls. Obviously she needed to be crushed, even if it meant backing a Republican. Isn’t bipartisanship beautiful?
But really the campaigning was just an excuse to visit his alma mater, Notre Dame, for his 40th college reunion. Unfortunately, he hadn’t had much time to attend the festivities, but just walking through the campus brought back so many old memories.
It was late, and President Bartlet had an early morning ahead of him. He really should’ve been getting some sleep, but he couldn’t help but travel to South Bend, the town just south of Notre Dame, to see whether any of his old haunts were still there. Of course, he’d spent most of his college days in the library rather than in South Bend, but every so often he’d managed to get out and explore the town.
As President Bartlet, wearing an old Notre Dame sweatshirt, sat down at the counter of an old diner he loved and was happy to see hadn’t closed after so many years, he noticed another person at the diner, a young man alone, reading. President Bartlet could never help looking at what other people were reading, and was surprised to see it was a book by an obscure Norwegian author he knew.
“Excuse me,” President Bartlet said. “I couldn’t help but notice that book you’re reading. I’m familiar with the author, Erlend Loe. I read one of his other books, Naïve. Super. An amazing book, but I didn’t think any of his other books had been translated into English.”
“Actually they haven’t,” the young man said.
“Oh, do you know Norwegian?”
“Are you from Norway?”
“No, I actually learned it to read Loe’s other books.”
President Bartlet’s eyes widened. “That’s very impressive. Much more useful than my Latin.”
“I’d love to learn Latin. I’ll have to settle for Italian.”
Italian happened to be one of the four languages President Bartlet knew. “Quello che potrei davvero usare è un uomo più anziano. Un mentore. Uno che potrebbe dirmi come vanno le cose insieme.”
The young man smiled in delight. “Mi avrebbe chiesto di fare le faccende che ritenevo insignificanti. Sarei stato impaziente e protestato, ma comunque li ho fatti. E alla fine, dopo diversi mesi di duro lavoro, mi sarei reso conto che c’era un significato più profondo dietro tutto e che il maestro aveva un piano astuto tutto il tempo. ” he replied, finishing the Naïve. Super quote.
President Bartlet was impressed.
“You know, you look a lot like President Bartlet,” the young man said.
President Bartlet smiled, appreciating that he’d referred to him as “President Bartlet” instead of simply “Bartlet”, showing proper respect for the office.
“I get that a lot. Are you a fan of his?”
“Oh, of course! My first vote for President was for him. His speeches were awe-inspiring, and isn’t that what the Presidency is really all about?”
“What’s your name, young man?”
“Ah you must be Maltese. ‘Buttigieg’ from the Arabic ‘Abu-d-dajāj’, meaning chicken owner or poulterer, literally ‘father of chickens’.”
“If you’re done eating, why don’t we walk and talk. I’ll take care of the bill.”
“That’s very kind of you, sir.”
President Bartlet left some bills on the counter and the two stood up and began circling the diner as they finished their conversation.
“You’re a very impressive young man. Are you a student at Notre Dame?”
“Ah, not too shabby. So you’re from around here?”
“Yes, born and raised in South Bend. I’m just here for spring break.”
“Most boys your age would be partying in Miami instead of coming home to a small town like South Bend.”
“Oh, I’m not much into partying. I love coming to South Bend. This might seem unrealistic, but when I’m older I’d like to run for mayor here and use my education and whatever I learn in my career to turn things around. For instance, we have a racist police department, so they could really use some help with PR to cover that fact up.”
“That’s not unrealistic at all for a boy like you. What year are you?”
“Graduating with honors, I reckon.”
“Oh, of course, though sadly only magna cum laude. That’s one bit of Latin I know.”
The two laughed.
“So what are your plans after graduation?”
“I’ve been awarded a Rhodes Scholarship.”
“Very impressive! I did some schooling in England as well, London School of Economics.”
Suddenly President Bartlet’s cell phone rang. It was his old friend Leo, telling him there was a situation and he needed to get back to his staff.
“I’m afraid I have to leave. It was truly a pleasure meeting you.”
“The pleasure was all mine Mr.—sorry, I never asked your name.”
“Let’s start with the title. It’s not Mr.”
President Bartlet shook his head.
He shook his head again.
Pete Buttigieg stopped to think for a bit, and then it dawned on him. His eyes widened in disbelief.
Bartlet smiled. “Pete, you’re going to be President one day, don’t be scared.”
And with that he walked out the door.
Inspiring stuff, isn’t it?