A Peek at Pete Buttigieg’s Rhodie Résumé
In 1988, Spy magazine published a piece by Andrew Sullivan titled “All Rhodes Lead Nowhere in Particular.”
In it, Sullivan made fun of the “bland eugenic perfection” of the typical Rhodes scholar.
He was riffing on the old platitude “A Rhodes scholar is someone with a great future behind him.”
Except—maybe?—for Pete Buttigieg, the ascendant Presidential candidate and millennial mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
Before heading to England, in 2005, Buttigieg joined the thirty-odd American Rhodes Scholars in Washington, D.C., at an orientation called Sailing Weekend, which involved no sailing.
The twenty-three-year-old Harvard grad introduced himself as Peter and carried a small notebook in his pocket.
So had Bill Clinton—the only Rhodes Scholar to have become President—who is said to have taken notes about everyone he met.
Buttigieg immediately stood out among the standouts.
Katharine Wilkinson, an author and an environmentalist, remembered a debate Buttigieg participated in, on the subject of “democratic policy, or the future of the Democratic Party, or something.”
“I thought, Holy shit, I’m out of my depth. This guy’s, like, really freaking impressive.”
Marissa Doran, a lawyer in New York, said Buttigieg was “a good egg” who, when he wasn’t leading a politics-themed discussion group, liked to “hole up and play Risk or Settlers of Catan.”
At Pembroke, one of Oxford’s residential colleges, Buttigieg oversaw the common-room bar.
“He curated this great collection of whiskey from around the world,” Wilkinson said.
“When students took trips, he’d get them to bring something back for his ‘whiskey library.’ ”
During their first winter there, Buttigieg and some friends visited the Czech Republic.
“People were photographing cathedrals or whatever,” Doran said, “and Peter took these wonderful photos of a stunning reflection in the mirror of a car.
He notices small things.”
Though conversant in eight languages—including French, which he used in a viral message of condolence after the fire at Notre Dame—Buttigieg doesn’t speak Czech.
“But,” Doran said, “he’d learned a lot about the city before we went. He took us to every bookstore.”
Such was Buttigieg’s ardor for James Joyce and “Ulysses,” Jeremy Farris, his old Oxford flatmate, said, that he once “came back from the market with a kidney that he proceeded to fry, because that’s what Leopold Bloom most enjoyed.”
“Our kitchen, for a few days, had the ‘fine tang of faintly scented urine.’ ”
Justin Mutter also lived with Buttigieg at Oxford.
“We had this sunroom without heat that we called ‘the cold room,’ ” Mutter, now a professor of geriatrics at U.V.A., said, “where we ate and talked—state of the world, state of politics, how we could be agents of change.”
Mutter and another roommate tended to cook, while Buttigieg was, in Mutter’s recollection, “a key cleaner-upper.”
“There was a book on the shared toilet,” Farris, who is now the general counsel at New Mexico’s Department of Finance & Administration, said, “called ‘Teach Yourself Norwegian.’ ”
One day, as the flatmates were walking along the Thames, a young man wearing a soldier’s coat with a Norwegian flag appeared.
“Peter stopped him,” Farris said, “and they had a conversation while we politely waited. I realized that Peter had taught himself Norwegian on the toilet.”
On a trip to Malta, Buttigieg told Farris a Maltese parable about a grandmother who’d spent her life in a small village in Gozo, and, in her final years, visited a church on the other end of the island—five miles away.
“She stares up at the rotunda, marvelling, ‘Kemm hi kbira id-dinja,’ ” or “How vast the world is.”
He went on, “In Malta, it’s a barbed joke at Gozo’s provincialism.
As a parable, it suggests that vastness is relative, prioritizing wonder.
As a motto, it perfectly accords with Peter’s intellectual openness and vast talent.”
When it came time to conclude his studies, Buttigieg chose what Farris calls his “North Sea-cargo-ship exam preparation.” Wilkinson said,
“It’s one of those mythic Oxford tales that’s actually true.
Pete boarded a cargo ship—shipping goods across the ocean—to isolate himself before the multiple days of tests.
I just remember thinking, like, What?
Who does that?”
Soon after, Buttigieg earned a “first,” the highest grade.
Then it was on to a job at McKinsey.
In Spy, Sullivan predicted that a Rhodie would never become President, “because if you were president, you could never hope to put anything better on your résumé,
and because that, to a Rhodes scholar, is tantamount to death.”
Five years later, a notebook-carrying Rhodie from Arkansas was sworn in.
With Booker and Buttigieg in the running, might Sullivan be proven wrong once more?