‘A serious-minded kid:’ Pete Buttigieg aimed high early

MICHELLE R. SMITH

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — It was a running joke in his AP U.S. history class at Saint Joseph High School: Would Peter Buttigieg — the smartest kid in class, language whiz and devotee of John F. Kennedy — use his unusual last name in his eventual run for president of the United States? Or would he have a better shot of winning the voters of the future if he went by Montgomery, his middle name?

It was the late 1990s, Bill Clinton was in the White House, and a round-faced teenager in South Bend, Indiana, was viewed by many around him as an eventual successor. As early as grade school, Buttigieg exhibited an attention-grabbing combination of brains and curiosity, the sort of kid with a reputation — among kids and teachers. He would be named high school valedictorian, voted senior class president and chosen Most Likely to be U.S. President. He sat at the adults table.

Now, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg — not Montgomery — is indeed running for the highest office in the land.

It’s an audacious leap. No mayor has ever gone straight to the White House (let alone from a city of just over 100,000). No president has ever been so young (he’ll be 39 on Inauguration Day). And no commander in chief has ever been openly gay (or had a husband).

But people who have known Buttigieg since his Indiana boyhood say it all feels predictable.

Interviews with nearly two dozen people who knew him in his formative years paint a picture of a child with an extraordinary range of talent and ambition, cultivated by a tight-knit family able to indulge his many interests. There were clear signs of the candidate’s earnestness and intensity. Friends and family say he worked to overcome an early shyness by throwing himself into challenges. All the while he felt a bit apart.

“It was always understood,” says Patrick Bayliss, a friend from high school. “It was just kind of matter of fact that he was special and brilliant.”

Now Buttigieg’s intellect is at the core of his campaign narrative. He’s won headlines for his achievements and improbable hobbies. (Speaks Norwegian? Check. Plays the didgeridoo? Yup.) Admirers often cite his intelligence when asked about his appeal, arguing it makes up for a shortage of experience.

But as he rises in early-caucus Iowa, Buttigieg’s self-confidence is exposing him to accusations that he is pretentious and entitled. When he declared Iowa was becoming a two-person race between Elizabeth Warren and him — dismissing a former vice president and several senators — Sen. Kamala Harris called him naïve. Sen. Amy Klobuchar has repeatedly argued that the young mayor is benefiting from sexism — a woman with such a short resume wouldn’t be taken seriously. On Wednesday, she pointedly noted Buttigieg is a “local official” who lost his only statewide race.

“I think experience should matter,” she said.

Buttigieg doesn’t argue much with the knocks, but he doesn’t seem bothered either, telling reporters during his New Hampshire bus trip this month: “I guess I'm comfortable doing things in a way that's kind of out of order or unusual for my age and my experience.”

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Before he was an accomplished pianist, a polyglot, a Harvard graduate and a Rhodes scholar, Buttigieg was the only child of college professors growing up in a bubble of academia in the Rust Belt.

On the campaign trail, he frequently invokes the hollowed-out city of South Bend, the onetime home of the automaker Studebaker, which shut down two decades before he was born.

But Buttigieg grew up in another side of South Bend: the cluster of neighborhoods around the University of Notre Dame, home to thousands of students and professors. His parents had stable jobs at the elite Catholic school, and he was educated in private schools whiter and wealthier than the surrounding community.

His father, Joseph, was a professor of English, garnering attention for his scholarship in critical theory and civil society. Joseph earned degrees in his home country — the Mediterranean island nation of Malta — then from Heythrop College in Oxford, England, before moving to the United States to earn his doctorate. He met Buttigieg’s mother, a linguist and Army brat with roots in Indiana, when they were both on faculty at New Mexico State University.

They married and moved to South Bend in 1980. Peter was born two years later. The young family eventually settled on a tree-lined street less than two miles from campus.

Across the river and downtown, abandoned factories, boarded-up stores and empty lots plagued South Bend. Up the hill, it was just a walk to the Golden Dome, the halo at the center of campus.

Peter — the name he went by before he became known as “Mayor Pete” — was a curious and quiet toddler who learned to read at the age of 2 or 3, his mother, Anne Montgomery, said in an interview.

His parents sent him to a Montessori school, where learning is self-directed, hands-on and less structured than at a traditional grade school. But by 6th grade, his parents moved him to a more traditional private school. Buttigieg had figured out how to “game the system,” said Judith Fox, a longtime family friend, recalling the decision.

“My mind wandered a lot when I was a kid. And so, it took a nudge from them here and then just to stay on track.” Buttigieg said in an interview with AP.

The smart new kid was sometimes a target. Other kids would want to “take him down a peg,” his mother says. His unusual name drew snickers.

The experience, she believes, was a lesson in “how cruel people can be” and helped steel him to insensitive comments later. “He won them over,” his mother says, by learning to prove himself without aggravating other kids.

Buttigieg remembers a teacher explaining that a child picking on him was just trying to get attention. Something clicked, he says, and he decided the best way to deal with bullies was to get to know them. The lesson still works sometimes when he comes under criticism, he says.

“While you don't want to reward bad behavior, you do need to make sure that people feel seen.”

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In his room, young Peter kept a collection of model planes and a poster of the inside of a cockpit. He aspired to become a pilot or even an astronaut, although his poor eyesight would make that impossible. He became fascinated with the leader closely associated with the space program, JFK, and others in the Kennedy clan.

At around 11 or 12, when asked what he wanted for his birthday, Peter requested a copy of “Profiles in Courage,” Kennedy’s 1955 book on acts of political bravery by eight U.S. senators throughout history. (“I had no idea what that was,” says his friend Joe Geglio, who bought the book for his friend.)

Peter would memorize excerpts of Kennedy speeches. In high school, his close friend James Mueller remembers him reciting a favorite passage from the president’s 1962 “moon” speech: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Later, when Buttigieg decided to join the military, he would join the Navy, like JFK.

Buttigieg said the Kennedy mystique loomed large in a community as Catholic as South Bend. He was aware that the presidential campaign of Sen. Robert Kennedy, and the Kennedy tragedies, were defining experiences for his parents’ generation. Amid the culture wars of the Clinton era, he looked back nostalgically at a time when big things seemed possible.

By comparison, “we've been stuck and haven't made progress on a lot of the big issues,” Mueller said of his friend’s fixation with the Kennedy era.

By the end of 8th grade, Peter was named valedictorian, which gave him a chance to deliver his own big speech. His performance — practiced and strikingly mature — is still remembered today by people who were there.

“It wasn’t like watching an 8th grader up there,” says classmate Gavin Ferlic.

The adults left the gym commenting about his poise. It wouldn’t be the last time Buttigieg found a constituency in an older generation.

Classmate Loran Parker recalls her grandparents turned to her with what would become a familiar refrain: “Peter would make a great politician.”

Soon after, the South Bend Tribune published a profile when Buttigieg won a statewide essay contest on the importance of the law. In truth, 14-year-old Peter told the newspaper, it wasn’t the law, but aeronautics or journalism that really interested him. The article noted he had won numerous other awards and was set to perform in a statewide piano competition later in the year — he started playing at age 5 — and aspired to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“There are a lot of things I’d like to do,” he told the Tribune.

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By the time he arrived at high school, Buttigieg’s reputation had preceded him. Julie Chismar, a teacher at Saint Joe, recalls a buzz among French teachers, who had heard about his language abilities.

Peter had begun to learn French in Montessori and before he got to high school was well on his way to fluency. He also took up Spanish and on his own started learning to read Korean from a friend, Judy Kim. (His campaign does not list Korean as among the seven languages he speaks other than English.)

It’s difficult to find someone to utter a harsh word about young Buttigieg. He wasn’t a jock or the most popular kid, but he wasn’t an outcast. Classmates described him as thoughtful, with a dry wit. If a kid in middle school or high school can respect a fellow kid, they respected him. He didn’t show off his intelligence or raise his hand to answer every question. He held back.

Occasionally, there were signs of the reserve and stiffness that sometimes gets mocked today. When he first met Peter, Mueller, his close high school friend, would tease him good-naturedly — just like he did with his brothers. Peter, who had no siblings, did not appreciate it.

“He likes to make the joke that when he first met me, he didn’t like me very much” Mueller says.

The introvert pushed himself beyond his comfort zone. He joined drama his senior year and performed in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” He learned the didgeridoo and played the several-foot-long Australian wind instrument onstage.

In Peter’s basement after school, he and his friends would watch “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” play old school Nintendo games or have Nerf battles, then go outside to play football or soccer. As they got older, his friends would play music together: He learned guitar and bass, and especially liked playing Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix songs, using his wah-wah pedal.

He’d go to parties and even have a drink or two, Mueller said. (When he saw his friend smoke pot, during a visit home from college, Mueller ribbed him: “Are you ever going to run for office someday?”)

Peter moved between groups of friends, but hung out mostly with a group of other smart kids. He dated a couple of girls in high school. Friends said he never seemed to have the usual teen angst about relationships.

Looking back, he says now he always felt different.

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“Even though I wasn't out, and in many ways was not really out to myself, I felt that kind of tension,” Buttigieg said on his campaign bus. “It wasn't only from being gay, I mean, also just being culturally a little different. Just because I was the son of a Mediterranean immigrant, an academic family, that some people thought was weird, because I had a name that was easy to make fun of and hard to pronounce.”

Several people close to Buttigieg say they never knew he was gay until he came out in his 30s, after he returned from his military tour in Afghanistan. He said at a CNN town hall in October that he was well into his 20s before he acknowledged it to himself.

Even his mother says she had no suspicions before he came out to her and his father in 2015, not long before he made it public in an op-ed in the local newspaper.

“I wonder if I was blind,” his mother told the AP. “He was a private person about personal matters, so I did not inquire or ask. Offered all kinds of opportunities. But no.”

At home, friends who grew up with Buttigieg remember his parents as warm and supportive of whatever Peter wanted to pursue, his house inhabited by an affectionate rescue dog named Olivia, the walls lined with books, art and his mother’s photography, a piano filling the front room.

He and his mom would joke together. He and his dad would obsess — and commiserate — over Notre Dame football. Politics and current events were “in the air” at his house, he says. His father would come home from work, pour himself a drink and open The New York Times. They’d watch the evening news together. Friends and colleagues from the university would come to dinner, and young Peter would join in the conversation.

“I felt like, we spoke as adults from a relatively early age,” he says of his parents. “I was a kind of serious-minded kid, and they took me seriously.”

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Still, his family wasn’t politically connected, and he never met any elected officials when he was a kid.

“It took me a while to just feel like it was something I could be part of,” he told the AP. “But it always seemed like something that was the thing that mattered most: what was going on in the world, war and peace and elections, and all of that stuff.”

Later in high school, Buttigieg began to focus more sharply on politics. He joined the Philosophy Club, a way of thinking that suited him, his teacher Patrick McCurry says.

“He was already thinking about the world and systemic problems.”

In the spring of 2000, his senior year, he won the Profiles in Courage essay contest, sponsored by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library Foundation. His subject was then-U.S. Rep. Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, now a senator and one of his rivals for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

He praised Sanders’ political courage in calling himself a “socialist” and for representing Kennedy’s ideal of “compromises of issues, not of principles.” He also wrote that Sanders’ conviction and energy could bring people together in a political climate in which cynicism reigned.

“I have heard that no sensible young person today would want to give his or her life to public service,” Buttigieg wrote. “I can personally assure you this is untrue.”

He pursued another path traveled by JFK: Harvard.

A schoolmate, Ian Seniff, remembers Buttigieg telling Mrs. Chismar his acceptance news in a hallway at Saint Joe. He compares the look on Peter’s face to the moment Spider-Man is anointed an Avenger in the movie “Avengers: Infinity War.”

“There’s this look of, ‘This is what I’ve wanted. I’ve accomplished this,’” Seniff said. “And then an instant later, just having this solemn look of, ‘OK, now there’s this added level of responsibility, and it’s time to get ready for work.’”

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Those who have known Buttigieg from childhood say they recognize the same things during this presidential run that have driven him all his life.

He says he wants to do big things, to make an impact. Asked what’s driving that, he becomes quiet and circumspect.

“I don’t know, I just do,” he said. “I mean, you only get one turn at life, right? And I think it's really important that you do as much with it as you can.”

When pressed, he continued:

“Where is it going to matter that it was me and not somebody else doing something? And am I making the best use of limited time? And I think I always felt that way.”

At an arena in Des Moines, Iowa, this month, his supporters chanted his name and hoisted signs reading “BOOT-EDGE-EDGE,” the slogan he uses to help people pronounce it. He kicked off his speech by invoking the memory of another “young man with a funny name,” Barack Obama.

In his high school history class, when his teacher or other kids would advise him to use his middle name to run for president, his friend Judy Kim recalls that Peter would listen and even welcome their advice.

His last name was too difficult to pronounce. It looked strange when written out. It wasn’t distinguished like other American presidents.

He’d hear them out, then stand by his position. Peter was proud of his Maltese heritage and proud of his last name.

When he ran, he would tell them, it would be as Buttigieg.

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Associated Press writer Tom Beaumont contributed to this report.