Michiana Chronicles: Pete's Book

Feb 8, 2019

Credit Pete for America

At the end of the long paperwork process that put South Bend Mayor Peter Paul Montgomery Buttigieg into the Navy, the induction officer, says, “You said you work for the city, right?”

“That’s right,” Pete says, without adding that he’s the boss.  

Is your employer supportive?

“Yes, everyone has been great.”
 

Put in for the employer service support award when you get home, he says to Pete. Elected officials always come to the ceremony.

“They just eat that (shit) up.”

That’s funny. It’s telling. And while I know it’s Politics 101, the warm and fuzzy unassuming common man perspective, I ate that (shit) up.

The great trick of the mayor’s book is that he manages to convey the detail of a vastly accomplished young life with humility. It’s a self-serving project, after all, a rationale for running for President of the United States, you know, the leader of the free world, the most powerful man on the planet, Donald Trump’s successor, and all that. It’s a bold move. Behind it though, the mayor consistently conveys the unassuming acceptance of his good fortune, in his time and place, and the obligation that provokes.

We got an advance copy at the station, here, and when it came my way, I thought, ‘I’ll look at this a little bit,’ but then I couldn’t put it down. Pete’s book is honest, plain spoken, and personable in a manner that speaks well to me of what made South Bend the place where I am happy to have lived my life. It’s his story, but it feels like our story, too. It’s hard for me to be a critic, objectively analyzing a candidate’s campaign book from the outside, when I see us, inside.

So, along with that of Pete, I see the personality of South Bend, idealistically pragmatic and modestly proud. I’m proud of the fact that this place where I live is the place where Mayor Pete grew up and that he’d want to return here to try to make it better.  

South Bend’s legacy is not perfection: schools, neighborhoods, social groups, and businesses all operated with discriminatory guidelines, and contemporary conflicts often remind us that the past is not so distant. But, we’re not afraid of it. In concrete at Leighton Plaza, Fr. Hesburgh and Dr. King invite dissidents to bring their aspirations for human rights to the public square.

My dad was an auto worker, a union guy who could remember that when he first went to work after high school in the 1930s at the General Tire plant in Wabash, workers like him didn’t have a union, He helped change that and he became a Democrat at the time of the New Deal. He loved Eleanor Roosevelt and then Adlai Stevenson and he was the only person around I heard say that the Vietnam War was a mistake, and that “socialized medicine” was a good idea.

With all of that, growing up in Grant County, where the memories of two men murdered in a 1930 lynching on the courthouse lawn simmered in a silence of the self-righteous, we were different, my sister and brother, and I, in ways that we came gradually to understand, not like our teachers or our preachers or the farmers or the other kids’ parents or most of my relation, because, as we came to see, we were being raised by a father who would not tolerate bigotry, prejudice, and racism in a community where that was the norm.

My mom’s folks’ farm along a gravel road in the southwest corner of the county included a farm stand, where they sold what they grew: gooseberries, blueberries, raspberries, apricots, peaches, apples, and tomatoes, chickens, and eggs, and what they made, honey, cakes, pies, noodles, and cider from the rotten fruit. Mom told me once that when she was a little girl in the 1930s a family she still called “colored” stopped to buy, and she watched my Grandpa Fuller tell them to go away.  On a family gathering there in one of the mid 60s summers when American cities were on fire, Grandpa emerged into an argument about that state of affairs showing off a souvenir picture of the Marion, Indiana lynching saying, “This is how we handled it in my day.”

Today, still, in Marion, there’s no commemoration of the victims or the perpetrators or the bystanders on the courthouse lawn. The tree, they cut down.

I don’t think I would have wanted to stay here had South Bend been in the Indiana that I knew. It was different here, already, in that time when my parents were children. When the Klan showed up here, folks chased them away. I knew that, somehow, even before I knew that.

In 1977, when I came to South Bend to live where Judy grew up, she claimed that she’d never heard of such a thing as Mr. Basketball, and that I must be making that (shit) up.

I told her, “South Bend is not in Indiana.” It’s about the most prescient thing I ever said.

Pete Buttigieg says in Shortest Way Home that he had to learn to accept that as mayor his job includes his presence, simply, as an embodiment of the community. I like the way he’s done that.  

Along with it being his own remarkable story, Mayor Pete’s book is the story of the spirit of the place where he grew up, too. That’s how I read the book.  Wherever he ends up, he’s taking that spirit along.

Music: “ Up Around the Bend” by Creedence Clearwater Revival