Pete Buttigieg, the Political Junkie Who Is Running for President

It was young Pete’s job to shepherd “a van full of the real people” around Boston on the night of the debate. “It’s not like I was anywhere near the beating heart of the campaign or something,” he said. Still, this was one harrowing ride for a teenager who’d never driven a van before, never driven in a city and never navigated around packs of Ralph Nader protesters.

He did however have his own police escort for when he was tasked with shuttling the real people to Boston’s North End, where they had a date to eat cannoli with Ted Kennedy.

As Mr. Buttigieg battled a cold on the morning of Tuesday’s Democratic debate in South Carolina, he sounded almost nostalgic for those days. It was as if he missed being able to partake of politics as a carefree tourist, from a position of even slight remove from the pressure-cooker he now occupied.

He took a sip of something warm, and began to describe another formative pit stop along his fast-track tour. In 2004, he moved to Arizona to work as a research assistant in the communications shop of John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign. He sat all day in a cubicle, monitoring five TVs in an effort to track what people were saying about the campaign.

“That was when I learned what message discipline was,” Mr. Buttigieg said, as if he was checking off another job-training box. “You’d see all these Bush surrogates. You’d have Condi Rice on this Sunday show, Colin Powell over there and Karl Rove over there.” He kept the televisions on mute and used close captioning, the better to record what exact words they were using. “You’d learn about how they said what they wanted to say,” Mr. Buttigieg said. “And nothing else.”

One of the strange qualities of many politicians is that they are loath to be seen as too nakedly “political.” Candidates are told to avoid talking publicly about the insider-y facets of a campaign that are best left to the professionals behind the scenes or on TV. Mr. Buttigieg may have missed that Power Point presentation. In fact, he becomes especially animated in detailing how valuable it was to get to watch a bunch of talking-heads all day while working for Mr. Kerry.

To many observers, such a diet of drivel would be a recipe for despair — or at least jadedness. But Mr. Buttigieg said that while he felt some of that, becoming a mayor of his hometown — at 29 — served as its own antidote to cynicism. “It’s politics for sure, but it’s very real,” he said, of leading the city. As a mayor, he now had the opportunity to cavort with real-life “real people,” not just the curated photo-op variety assembled by the Gore campaign.

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