A major part of Pete Buttigieg’s appeal is his brain.
Many media outlets haven’t been able to get enough of the fact that Buttigieg is a veteran, the mayor of a Midwestern city (South Bend, Indiana) and smart to boot. He went to Harvard. He speaks (or at least understands) eight languages. He reads James Joyce.
And, of course, he was a Rhodes scholar, meaning he won the prestigious academic award to do post-graduate work at Oxford University.
“A Harvard graduate and Rhodes scholar, ‘Mayor Pete’ combines intellectual firepower with a folksy manner that elicits chuckles and cheers over even the driest topics,” read an August report in the Christian Science Monitor that succinctly summed up much of Buttigieg’s appeal.
But Buttigieg, of course, isn’t the only brainy person in the race. In fact, he isn’t even the only Rhodes scholar.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) is too, but you might not know it from reading campaign stories this year.
HuffPost searched mentions in U.S. publications for 2019, finding that news outlets cited Buttigieg’s Rhodes scholarship 596 times.
Booker had just 79 mentions.
“Cory is a former college football player, Rhodes Scholar, tenants rights lawyer, New Jersey city councilman, Mayor of Newark and now Senator of New Jersey. These qualifications too often get overlooked for why he would be qualified to be President,” said Booker spokeswoman Sabrina Singh.
A number of articles that mentioned both Buttigieg and Booker and their background often noted that Buttigieg was a Rhodes scholar without mentioning that Booker was too.
For example, a March 17 article in The Boston Globe that contained short descriptions of the candidates said about Booker: “Like with [Sen. Kamala] Harris, there is a lot of interest in Booker among activists. Unlike Harris, he is hiring a lot of talented staff in New Hampshire, which is critical in the state known for putting a premium on retail politics.”
For Buttigieg: “Buttigieg is drawing crowds of 250 in small towns, and 350 people came to hear him speak on a recent Friday night in Portsmouth. People are interested in him and his unique background as a 37-year-old veteran and Rhodes Scholar who is also gay. He could move up on the list, but his problem will be convincing voters to go with him versus other higher profile candidates. He doesn’t have his own niche.”
In a November article on the South Carolina NBC affiliate WYFF, the paragraph on Booker reads: “U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, 49, is in his first full term representing New Jersey after winning a special election in 2013 following the death of U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg. Booker previously served as the mayor of Newark, New Jersey from 2006-2013.”
No mention of the Rhodes, although there was for Buttigieg in the same article: “He is 37. He graduated from Harvard University, was a Rhodes scholar and served in Afghanistan. He was the Democratic candidate for state treasurer in Indiana in 2010 and received 37.5% of the vote. He was elected mayor of his hometown of South Bend in 2011.”
There isn’t one reason for the disparity. Booker has had a longer career ― he was a Rhodes scholar and a mayor, but is also a U.S. senator ― whereas Buttigieg hasn’t served in public office beyond being a mayor. And there’s likely more fascination with Buttigieg’s background, because he’s a newer face on the scene.
“I suspect the mention Pete is a Rhodes Scholar is out of necessity,” said Ben Jealous, a fellow Rhodes scholar who ran for governor of Maryland and was president of the NAACP. (He also played a key role in Booker meeting his girlfriend, actress Rosario Dawson.) “It’s much easier to explain how a U.S. senator is running for president than the mayor of South Bend.”
Both men list that they’re Rhodes scholars on their campaign sites, but neither seems to bring it up much on the campaign trail.
There also seems to be outsize attention on Buttigieg’s credentials and a fascination with what Jay Caspian Kang, in a New York Times Magazine article, called “‘internetty smarts’ ― intelligence reduced down to a collection of references and images.”
Imagining yourself in a book club with Pete Buttigieg becomes this election’s having a beer with George W. Bush. If the news media has an “identitarianism” problem, it’s not so much that people bunker down into racial, gender or sexual groups, but that a whole class of journalists and thinkers never seems to be able to wander out past its own pool of references ― all so admiring of the same things that some are blinded to the similar backgrounds of almost every other Democratic candidate for president.
Julián Castro ― a former mayor of San Antonio, a city roughly 15 times the population of South Bend ― went to Stanford and Harvard Law School. Cory Booker was a Rhodes scholar, too. Amy Klobuchar went to Yale, and Kirsten Gillibrand, another Ivy Leaguer, speaks Mandarin much better than Buttigieg speaks Norwegian. (For all the Buttigieg fans gushing about Harvard, it seems worth pointing out that our current president also attended an Ivy League institution, as did Bush.) But to a certain kind of liberal, none of those bona fides seem to matter quite like a casual reference to “Ulysses” and a few words in an unexpected language. Gillibrand’s Mandarin can be written off as the résumé-building accomplishment of a striver, while Norwegian, which has no practical value for an American president, is taken as a sign of intellectual curiosity and authenticity ― the sort of whimsical surplus achievement that often upstages workaday accomplishments.
Being smart and winning awards is fine, but lots of people are smart. It doesn’t tell you what they’ll do as president.