Review by Dr M. Emanuele
As I began to read Shortest Way Home by Pete Buttigieg, I was faced with a conundrum. Within the first 20 pages I was ready to put it down – literally and figuratively. I was expecting to a read a down-to-earth expose, written from a blue-collar point of view. But what I found as I ploughed through those pages was out of a Victorian English novel. I thought I had picked up the wrong book with its flowing discourse and its complex syntax. As I read and re-read it, it occurred to me that Buttigieg possibly was attempting to pay homage to his father, who was an English professor.
Sample this coloratura description of daybreak: “So the first hint of morning actually makes things seem darker, as the amber night light yields and the sky deepens into a kind of electric indigo. The species of light evolve around you, from luminous ambience to discrete points of light along the horizon, the general giving way to the specific.”
Luckily, I forged ahead and by chapter 2, the pretext of verbosity gave way to a style more akin that of the plain-speaking constituents of South Bend, Indiana.
With that said, once the trappings of sesquipedalianism & garrulousness melted away, the book was quite insightful, and provides the reader with a grounded recollection of being Mayor. Pete’s life, with all its struggles, and especially confronting his sexuality, are laid bare.
Highlights of the book touch upon his education at Harvard and Oxford, his race for the office of mayor of South Bend, his ‘coming out’ and its ramifications, his marriage to Chester, military service in Afghanistan, and his 2017 run for the Democratic Chairmanship of the Party. The book does not include his life experiences in the past 2 years.
Of his time as mayor, Pete writes “every day was different, and everything mattered. Among elected roles the job is uniquely stimulating, compelling you not just to form opinions about issues but actually to craft-and implement-solutions. You are held accountable for results, and rarely have to deal with ‘alternative facts’ because the good, the bad and the ugly are plainly visible to everyone who lives in the city.”
He also understood the higher implications of being a mayor. “Finding an approach as policymaker did not relieve me of my duties as a symbol. As a leader, sometimes the most important thing is simply to show up, or to gather the right people together.”
This proved be a challenge as he had to deal with Mike Pence, when he was Governor of Indiana. The chemistry was not good, as Pence “made his name in the House (the Indiana state legislature) as a partisan warrior specializing in anti-LGBT legislation.” (The fact this horrific bigot who drapes himself in faux-Christianity became vice-president for someone who tried to overthrow American democracy is a cesspool Pete wisely avoids in the book). How Pete maneuvered against the forces of darkness that Pence doused Indiana with – by signing a 2015 bill that sanctioned discrimination – is a key element of the book. The effort of establish a civil rights policy in the state failed in 2016, and Pete laments Indiana is just one of five states “with no ban on hate crimes.”
In summary the book, despite the false start, is well worth reading. At age 39 Pete, now in the Biden Cabinet as Secretary of Transportation, may be the future of the Democratic Party. His openness, his fight for diversity for all (not just gays), and his common sense are evident.
The book would have benefitted greatly with the inclusion of more photos. Each chapter begins with a photo, but that’s it.
Shortest Way Home: One Mayor’s Challenge and a Model for America’s Future in by Liverlight Publishing, a division of W.W. Norton.