When Failure is Not an Option
Host, Ken Harbaugh, interviews political leaders, influencers, and other history makers about the choices we confront when failure is not an option. Choices like Alexander the Great made when he landed his troops on the shores of Persia and ordered his men to burn their boats.
Pete Buttigieg: On Moving Forward
“I ran for a reason. I ran because I wanted to advance a set of ideas and values and do certain things, but there's more ways to do that. My goal was to do everything I could to unify the party and the country and help beat Donald Trump. There are more ways to do that than becoming president of the United States.” - Pete Buttigieg
Pete Buttigieg, former candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, talks about his campaign and the choice to end it, patriotism and hopes for the future of our country, and the need for America to rebuild trust.
Ken Harbaugh: Burn the Boats is proud to support VoteVets, the nation’s largest and most impactful progressive veterans organization. To learn more, or to join their mission, go to VoteVets.org.
Pete Buttigieg: I ran for a reason. I ran because I wanted to advance a set of ideas and values and do certain things, but there's more ways to do that. My goal was to do everything I could to unify the party and the country and help beat Donald Trump. There are more ways to do that than becoming president of the United States.
KH: I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions. On Burn the Boats, I interview political leaders and other history makers about choices they confront when failure is not an option.
My guest, Pete Buttigieg, ran a history making campaign for president, becoming the first openly gay candidate to ever win a caucus or a primary. He withdrew at a critical moment to throw a support behind Joe Biden, and has continued to serve as an outspoken advocate against President Trump, and for the kind of systemic change that America needs to experience if we are to survive the crises we now confront. Pete, welcome to the show.
PB: Thank you. Great to be with you.
KH: I've got to be honest, I am looking forward to the day when your introduction on shows like this doesn't have to mention the fact that you made history in the way that you did, because the idea of a gay person running for president will have become an afterthought. I recall the big deal that JFK's Catholicism was at the time and how it has sort of passed into that category of afterthought, does it ever annoy you to be introduced the way I just introduced you?
PB: I think it is a process, and the more unremarkable it becomes, the more that will be a sign of progress in this country. But of course, I'm also proud of the way that we were able to make history standing on the shoulders of those who’d come before us. My hope is that our campaign will make it that much easier for the next person who comes along. A lot of it depends where you are too. There are a lot of parts of the country where I think it is increasingly unremarkable for somebody to seek office from the LGBTQ community. Others where it really is unusual, and that's an uneven, but I think swift level of progress that we have in our country.
KH: You have talked a lot about the decision you made to come out and the process of coming out, and how at the time, you thought it really did conflict with your desire to continue serving in the way you wanted to serve. You thought it might be disqualifying, at least in the eyes of too many voters. What ultimately, with the benefit of hindsight now, is your take on that? How did that decision affect your run for president?
PB: Well, the decision I made here at home came during an election year. I was up for reelection as mayor and had just hit the point in my life where I was done being single, I'd come off from deployment, and had occasion to reflect on what it would mean to be at the age I was at, not getting any younger, exposed to risk from time to time, and have not had much of a personal life, and that wasn't going to change until I came out. It was something where I just realized I had to put something besides professional concerns first, which is not something I usually did. I think I'd been affected by the fact that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was the law of the land when I first joined the reserve and served in the military, knowing that it was a matter of policy to fire me if I were to come out. That changed thankfully early in my time as an officer. But I think it shaped my thinking about whether my job might be on the line as mayor, if I were to come out. The good news was that that leap of faith that I took, trusting in the end that voters would just evaluate me on the job I did for them was repaid with the trust of voters who reelected me with 80% of the vote. I thought about that a lot when I was running for president. People kept asking me, is America ready? I kept answering, there was exactly one way to find out. Well, I didn't become president, I think we also found out that a lot of people, including in very conservative areas, were either coming more quickly than people get credit for in the direction of acceptance and really welcomed who I was, or just didn't much care, wanted to know what I was going to do for them much more than they were interested in anything to do with my personal life, and that was okay too.
KH: I'm glad you brought up trust because one of the things you are dedicating your time to now, at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Notre Dame, is the study of trust. Would love to hear about that project, and in particular, what your thoughts are around rebuilding broken trust, because you did spend a lot of time on the campaign trail talking about the day after the election, or the day after inauguration, when Donald Trump is no longer president, but a country is still broken and needs ministering to, needs healing and trust, or the rebuilding of it, has to be a huge part of that.
PB: That's right. I think we face a threefold crisis of trust as a country. Trust in our politics, institutions, leaders, trust in one another, social trust that’s very important for us to get through life, and trust around the world in America itself. I think each of those is a real threat. We don't always notice or think about just how important trust is for our ability to do anything. One of the moments I was reflecting on was a dicey moment when I was in a vehicle movement in Kabul, and had to decide very quickly whether to trust that a civilian who was approaching my vehicle meant no harm, which thankfully he didn't and the situation didn't escalate. It's one of those things you think about in the war zone context. The more I thought about it, the more I realized, we trust strangers with our lives anytime we're behind the wheel and anytime we go about anything in society at home. Anytime you negotiate an intersection with a red light and a green light, you are trusting if you go through a green light, that the person that red is going to stay put. In fact, it's precisely because we don't think about that kind of trust, that we take it for granted, that even the most fundamental things in our society are possible. So when forms of trust come under suspicion, when you can't trust that the president is telling the truth, when people aren't trusting experts, even medical experts trying to guide us through a pandemic, and for a lot of Americans, and in particular, I think our country is confronting the Black experience, trust has often for very good reason not existed in the first place. All of this, I think needs to be very intentionally repaired in the next administration. And it's part of what has to happen in our politics, but it also goes beyond politics. So I'm really looking forward to joining in this fellowship here at Notre Dame, a community of people who are coming together for the whole academic year to study this from all different angles. Everyone from a scholar who specializes in issues of bias in algorithms and technology to somebody who is an expert in how trust can be mended, even when it's been broken in ways that, thankfully here in America seem far off, like post-conflict trust building institutions in Rwanda in the wake of genocide. If human beings can find ways to build trust in that context, then it shows us that we can learn about trust building here in the United States, where we also have a lot to confront, a lot to come to terms with. When you think about it, just the way that human beings are, it's actually precisely because we are not always reliable creatures that trust plays such an important role. In other words, trust is important not because of any kind of perfection, but because of our imperfections as human beings, in our institutions, and in our society. I think we gotta pay a lot more attention to that across this next decade, if we're going to grow and heal and develop the way that America needs to.
KH: It sounded to me like you acknowledge that there is a significant difference between building trust and rebuilding trust. It is one thing to have enough trust in your fellow drivers that you're going to hit the gas at a green light and trust that they stop at a red light. You've built that trust based on the behavior of the people around you over an adult lifetime, but when it comes to rebuilding broken faith, if we're really at the point where we are looking to post-conflict societies for inspiration or the mechanisms for truth and reconciliation that you've seen in places like Rwanda and South Africa, what does that say about our social fabric? And what does that mandate in terms of mechanisms? Do we need some type of formal atonement process?
PB: I think we may and there are a lot of interesting proposals out there. I know at least one member of Congress, Barbara Lee, has been working on this and a lot of thinkers have talked about it too. On one level, it might seem dramatic to say that we would be learning from experiences in those countries. On the other hand, it's not an exaggeration to say that that level of trauma has happened right here in the United States. After all, we don't always dwell on it or think about it, but this is a country that is built largely on the experience of having kidnapped and enslaved a huge number of people, to say nothing of the native experience. I think in the past, we've thought of these things as issues that are kind of self contained. They're almost specialty issues that are only of interest if you're studying the Black experience or studying native communities, when actually they're woven into everyone's experience. Race and racism and racial discrimination are of course part of the white experience because the white experience is the other side of the coin of the way that the people of color have been treated in this country. This is a question, I think, largely of our self image. It doesn't mean giving up on America. It doesn't mean becoming an unloving critic of the American experience. It means, as is the case when two individuals need to mend trust, maybe in a romantic relationship or in a friendship. This is a matter of facing our past and our present, coming to terms with it, motivated by the hope that we can get to a better place. That's not only a political question, but it's got all kinds of implications for our politics. So, we should not be too proud to learn from countries that have had incredibly violent or traumatic experiences because we have too. We just haven't been as willing to look at it or talk about it.
KH: I recall that this was very much a theme in our last conversation, the idea of protest as patriotism, the idea that you cannot love a country you do not understand, just like you cannot fully love a partner you do not know. I think we are beginning to understand our country and I'm speaking to whites who are, I hope, finally understanding the motives of the Black Lives Matter movement. Am I being overly optimistic, or do you think we're at a breakthrough?
PB: I do think if this time is to be different, a lot of it has to do with what happens among white people. A lot of this has been a process of white Americans finding belatedly ways to hear things that Black Americans have been talking about and often shouting from the rooftops the whole time. That I think can be a source of hope. A lot of leaders have pointed to the multiracial nature of the people who are taking to the streets as one of the reasons to believe that this time really can be different. And I do think this can be an expression of a kind of deep patriotism. Another source of trust is belonging to the same group. One of the things I think we ought to ask as Americans is just how big can a group get and still be specific enough, defined enough that it has an identity without creating the problems of insiders versus outsiders. The biggest group that we belong to as Americans is the collective body of America itself. If we can widen the circle of belonging and political participation to include all of us, it's actually a very deeply patriotic sentiment. I think progressives need to get comfortable, just as patriots need to get comfortable with facing the problems in our country, progressives need to get comfortable with the unashamedly patriotic approach, which may sound strange because we think of it in terms of the ugliest nationalism that is xenophobic and militaristic and often at the expense of others, but there's a different way to think of it. That we can have a relationship to our country, that we can take seriously the concept of what it is to belong to a nation in a way that actually motivates us to be more inclusive and more whole and more decent. In the same way that an individual who is self-possessed and confident is usually also just nicer to be around than one who is insecure and fearful.
KH: You just described one effect of that as hopefully, political participation. I would submit that civic participation takes it another step further. The best expression of that was your plan for the dramatic expansion of AmeriCorps, of national service programs, which if I'm not mistaken was the very first policy proposal that your campaign issued.
PB: That’s right. And one of the things I would do a lot of times, if I was giving a stump speech, or doing a town hall, is I'd just asked for a show of hands, especially with a lot of young people. I'd say, "How many of you would be willing to work on an initiative to build the climate resiliency of your community? How many of you would be willing to be a part of a community health corps that helps people facing issues with mental health or addiction?..." So many hands would go up…. We know that the appetite is there. We ought to be putting the funding there, and that was before I had a chance as I would today. If the opportunity arose to task a room full of people, “how many of you would volunteer to be part of a contact tracing effort to help us get on top of this pandemic?”
KH: Do you worry about the politicization of a large scale effort like this? I look to the military as the beginnings of a cautionary tale, which has for, at least during my entire time of service and for the decades since, maintained its distance from partisan politics, but is being sucked into it. I worry about the politicization of a massive national service effort. It certainly has suffered partisan criticism in the past. How do we avoid that to truly leverage the real impact of such a program, which is to bring Americans together and share in a common service experience?
PB: Well, I think first of all, we should take the different criticisms from different sides seriously. If there's libertarian objection to being compelled to serve, that's one of the reasons I think we ought to make it voluntary even as we try to make it as close to universal as we can. By the way, there are also concerns that emerge sometimes from the labor community, from low-income communities and communities of color, that have sometimes had people turn up saying they were there to serve without really being attuned to the needs of the community that they believe they were helping. There are some real issues that need to be worked through, but if you take them seriously, I think that we can prevent this from turning into anything that would have a left or right political tilt to it, and just as the military should not. I think that there is a real problem now with the militarization of politics, or the politicization I should say in the military. It's one of the things that has prompted some of the most resolutely nonpolitical figures in American leadership, I'm thinking of people like General Mattis - it must've gone against every fiber of his 40 years of habit to speak out on what was happening politically and condemn this president's behavior. But he clearly felt that he had no choice because the sense of duty was more important than politics.
KH: I think you had a slip of the tongue there, but I'm going to jump on it. You said the militarization of politics, which I fear we are witnessing in scenes like General Milley in battle dress uniform marching alongside the president through an area that was cleared of peaceful protestors by violent means. You see the 82nd Airborne deployed on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., awaiting orders to storm in and beat back protesters. It’s scenes that we haven't seen since 1968 and to the military's credit, I think it has managed to walk a line, but I worry that it's one Kent State away from calamity. What are your thoughts?
PB: I do think those images should shock us and should shake us. You can tell from, for example, General Milley being moved to apologize for his involvement that this crossed a line that even the president can't drag this military across without there being very healthy pushback that I think will resist it. We got to be better than this as a country. The whole idea that the flag on the patch of the BDUs is standing for is that people ought to be able to exercise their legitimate right to speak up, especially knowing that what they're speaking up about is a very legitimate cause. To see a MEDEVAC helicopter used in what appeared to be a show of force against American citizens protesting tells me that we have seen a loss of restraint and a loss of perspective and perhaps a values failure in our current leadership. I spoke to Senator Duckworth about this recently. I know she's seeking answers and others on Capitol Hill are about how and why that happened. You shouldn't have to be a Democrat to be horrified by..I think it's one of the reasons why we've seen more and more Republicans and conservatives who always had mixed feelings about this president, but were on board because they belong to a party or because of certain issues they cared about as Republicans, really standing up and saying, this far, but no further.
KH: And this MEDEVAC helicopter incident was the one in which it was deployed, not just as a show of force, but to drive away protestors with its rotor wash and make it hard, or frankly dangerous for them to be where they were. That's something I never thought I'd see on top of snipers being deployed against civilians, and active duty troops one order away from marching in on them. Have you stayed in touch with Senator Duckworth about this issue and the overall outrage about the Lafayette Square incident, and the potential deployment of American troops?
PB: Yeah. We had a conversation, which is available I think still online about this. I'll continue to follow closely, in particular, the ways that a lot of national security oriented leaders in Congress are tracking these issues because I think a figure like Senator Duckworth, a lot of people in the House, lot of people from our generation in the House, who either in uniform or in other ways served this country, I'm thinking of folks like Andy Kim and Elissa Slotkin on the civilian side, as well as a number of veterans, I think have been able to speak with a kind of authority on this that’s very much needed, who speak out of concern for really the integrity of our military national security institutions. It will be very important to follow what answers they're able to get. It can clearly have an effect, as you can see again from the way that General Milley backtracked over his own involvement. It's, I think, aroused the kind of crisis of conscience among those military leaders who are so high up that they find themselves exposed to what's going on in the political side, to figure out exactly how they can best protect the integrity of the uniform at the time like this.
KH: Well, I think the exclamation point on that entire debacle was the issuing of a memo, really an order to every combatant commander and service chief, reminding them that their oaths lie to the constitution and by implication not to the president. That was a stunning message that never should have had to have been sent, but the very fact that it was spoke volumes. I want to ask you about the temperament you bring to the exercise of politics, because you have been criticized in the past for not rising to anger often enough and I contrast your style with someone like Vice President Biden's who sometimes will lash out even at voters when they say inane things. I've seen you take a knee and talk to protesters literally at their level. Well, let me first submit that I think that criticism is wrong because I've also seen you get angry. You literally called bullshit on the Times Editorial Board. Those of you who watched your debate performances know you can get angry, but how do you balance the two, the need for passion in politics with the requirement for dispassionate analysis?
PB: You know, I think part of it, especially when you've had the experience of being an executive elected official, being a mayor, for example, you know that in addition to your own passions and concerns you're also embodying an entire population and you are responsible for representing as well as serving that population. Just as there's balance in this constituency, or in my case, city that you serve, you got to keep a sense of balance about yourself in order to do your job, especially when you're fired up. Yeah, I did get that question sometimes, “why aren't you angry?” A lot of times my response was, "No, I'm angry. I'm very angry about some of these things. That's exactly why I'm dedicating my efforts and my time to changing them." But that doesn't always have to express itself in an arm waving kind of way. Different people come at this, I think, with a different style. But to me, the more fired up I am about something, the more that calls for a level of discipline to actually do something about it. Because we're also at a moment where we need to be very concrete about what it is we're going to change. This is why I thought President Obama's message as the protests were mounting over the killing of George Floyd was really important. He embraced what the values of the protesters were and what the demonstrations were trying to achieve. He also connected it to the specific need to change policies and institutions, that this actually about an agenda that doesn't get done unless you have the discipline to see it through. That means voting, and that means campaigning, and that means accountability for those who are elected in elections. At a certain point, you've got to go from energy to strategy. I think the sooner we turn that corner, especially all of us who are so horrified by what's going on in this time, in this administration, the sooner we can actually get to the other side, and that I think - sometimes it just feels good expressively, to get some anger out of your system. But most important is to channel that into actually getting something done.
KH: I want you to think way ahead. You talk about 2054 sometimes, and I also know that you're a science fiction fan, but the happy kind. You go for the utopian depictions like Star Trek and less so the Blade Runners and Aliens, maybe that's just in the nature of being a progressive and your inherent faith in progress, but what do you think 2054 could look like if we get the big decisions right, if we are able to rebuild trust, if we are able to listen to those who have built their wisdom from decades of marginalization and have so much to teach us? What is the 2054 you want to see?
PB: Well, it could be a magnificent time. It could be a time when America, having conquered its history of racial discrimination, can speak in a very credible and authentic way not because we were pure, but because of how we dealt with our impurities, to a world where I am sure human rights abuses will continue to be a major issue. I could see 2054 as a time when we have a real level of plenty in this country, when we've continued to unlock all the productivity that technology can bring, but also figured out a way to distribute the fruits of it in a fashion that means that we are working a reasonable amount and living at a good standard. It's theoretically possible right now, but it doesn't actually work out that way. We could have worked that out by the 2050s. I also think in the 2050s, we're going to look back on the 2020s as the decisive decade, especially from the perspective of climate. We're either going to marvel at the way we came together starting in 2021 under the leadership of a president who cared about climate change and got things done that were thought to be almost impossible technologically before, but also mustered the political and economic and social will to do something about it and to do it in a way that actually enhanced our efforts at racial and economic equality. We can look back and be very proud of what we did in the 2020s, but I think no matter what, we will look back on the 2020s as a moment that really defined everything that came next. The thing about these moments in history, I believe, that are so decisive is afterwards they get romanticized. You mentioned earlier the specter of 1968. There's such fascination with what happened in the late 1960s now, there's a kind of romantic energy around the activism and the culture. But the experience at the time, I believe, was very painful and difficult and uncertain and doubtful. I think that's worth remembering now. This is my message especially to young people who've had their lives turned upside down who are just graduating or coming of age right now - it's not always fun or easy to live through those times, but the other side of that equation is that you get to be part of a generation that's going to have a huge impact on the way that life in this country develops I think not just in the 2050s, but it really, for the balance of the century.
KH: That's a hopeful vision. What are our chances? Do you think we can get there?
PB: Well, it's up to us. We've rarely been at this difficult of a moment through the American project. If the 2020s go down in history as when the American project went off the cliff, I think that will be bad news not just for America, but for democracy around the world. Because we remain, as imperfect as we are, the most consequential democracy of the last couple thousand years. It will be the story of the century if America's decline accelerates, but that doesn't have to be. That's the ghost of Christmas future, whether it goes that way or not it's up to us right now. That's what's so electrifying about this moment that we live in and should give us a lot of energy and a lot of propulsion and a lot of hope. Not - as President Kennedy said, “not because it is easy, but because it's hard”. That will require more from us morally and more from us politically than we've been able to muster in a long time. We, I think, are up to it as a country. When you look at what we've been up against at various moments that have tested us in the past, thinking all the way through the Civil War, which has a lot of the unfinished business that we're dealing with right now, both literally in terms of our relationship with Confederate symbols and more broadly in terms of the continued effects of enslavement, not to mention modern day discrimination. We got to a lot of work to do, but we have demonstrated as a country that we can make leaps in the right direction. This would be a moment of all moments to demonstrate that like we've never before.
KH: But for all of these hopeful expressions, these energetic outpourings of civic pride and the desire to move race relations forward, one of the reactions on the other side has been the, not quite the emergence of hate, but the permission that this administration has given that latent hate to express itself. It's always been there, but you have a president that approvingly retweets people yelling “white power”. I just think the backlash is vocal in a way that it hasn't been in my lifetime, certainly wasn't under Obama or Bush or Clinton. We're seeing something very ugly on the right that, back to the idea of rebuilding trust, I don't know you can heal.
PB: Well, as you pointed out, it's always been there. The question is, is it a good or bad thing for it to be in the open versus in the shadows? While it may disgust us to see it in the open, I also think that that leaves us no choice as a country, but to confront it. I think the real hazard though is in assuming that the only problems related to race and racism are located in the hearts of self-conscious militantly racist people on the far right. While that's a huge problem, we've got no smaller of a problem in terms of systems that are built and perpetuated by the rest of us, by a lot of people who on an intellectual level despise the idea of racism, by a lot of white progressives who mean well. But all of us are kind of socialized into a very racialized system. It's air we breathe as a country. We don't have to wallow in guilt to recognize that we're all mixed up in this and to get past this idea that racism is just a character flaw that certain bad people exhibit, and instead examine how each of us is taking some of it on board and set about the work of changing them. It's I think our only hope, not only to confront the ugliest violent racism that's emerged on the far right, but to examine what's in each of us and ask ourselves how to overcome or outgrow it.
KH: Do you think that the revealing of those sentiments on the far right has some political utility and that it has held up a mirror? A couple of years ago, I wouldn't have imagined that NASCAR would ban the Confederate flag and yet they have. I would never want to see a racist or white supremacist march in my hometown, but God, I know there would be a backlash and people would have to confront that latent racism in the institutional structures that you speak of. Are we leveraging this for some kind of good in the actions you see that NASCAR and others are taking?
PB: If nothing else, I think it shows that there's no place to hide. Now we've got to see where these actions and decisions really lead over time, because I think also there's certainly been a kind of rush to try to be on the right side of history in the corporate world, that in some ways, mirrors the sort of corporate discovery of pride and LGBTQ equality in the last few years and some of it's real and some of it's cosmetic, and some of it's both sincere and cosmetic but not always effective. We got to see where all this is going to take us, because I think this is still a very young stage of this particular awakening that's going on. But what I do see is that things are happening you wouldn't have thought of as possible before. The fact that NASCAR is moving in a different direction is a good example of how culture really does respond to that mirror you talk about, when it's being held up in front of all of us.
KH: If symbolic gestures aren't enough, and they certainly aren't, what do you think is the ideal expression of that awareness? I'll submit one for consideration, and that is representation - actual voices at the table in positions of power. What else beyond symbols should our institutions be considering?
PB: Well, I think that's right. I approach that question with a bit of humility. You know, above all, it's for the voices of those who've been excluded to really put forward what most needs to change. But what's clear is there needs to be greater representation, there needs to be different practices too. It's not enough - we saw this certainly in trying to create a more diverse administration in South Bend, I learned quickly that it wasn't enough to have faces in the room or around the table that were more representative, yet to have a process that allowed everybody to speak up and be heard and be taken seriously. Sometimes that's another matter entirely.
KH: Can you describe that? How do you go beyond changing the composition of the table to creating a process?
PB: Well, I think a lot of it's about how decisions are made and how power is organized. Making sure that you don't just have faces around the table, but for example if not every perspective has been heard, actively seek it out and ask everybody to weigh in, so that a kind of groupthink can't take over. It's a matter of making sure that we really subject our decisions to examination from the outside too. It's why transparency is one of the most important things in building trust as is consistency and vulnerability. I think also, especially again because some of this involves people who have been on the benefiting side of any number of privileges, including a lot of things that go along with whiteness, being in a process of giving up a certain amount of power and privilege means being transparent about what that means, acknowledging it, and facing it. We don't think much as white people about the fact that race influences what it's like for us to get a speeding ticket, for example. We, at best, are aware of what it's like for a black driver to experience a traffic stop. We don't think about race playing a role for us, not recognizing that those are two sides of the same coin. The more we can have intention in that process, I think the quicker it will move in the right direction.
KH: Is any part of you grateful that you did not win the nomination and the presidency? You certainly are passionately committed to the kinds of ideas that would make this country better, but at great personal cost to you and your husband. Do you breathe a huge sigh of relief sometime that it didn't happen in 2020?
PB: Well, I ran for a reason. I ran because I wanted to advance a set of ideas and values and do certain things, but there's more ways to do that. My goal was to do everything I could to unify the party and the country and help beat Donald Trump. There are more ways to do that than becoming president of the United States. There are also worse things that can happen to a guy than that he not wind up as president. I continue to work very hard toward those same goals in other ways by supporting Joe Biden and through the efforts of our organization, Win the Era, and the candidates that we’re backing there, and the causes that we're backing through our 501(c)(4), Win the Era Action Fund, and a lot of other stuff. But I will say it's nice to have your life back. The experience of the campaign trail is so all consuming. It dominates your life, which is ironic because I've always believed politics is very much about everyday life. It's about the fact that political decisions wind up shaping our everyday lives, and yet your everyday life becomes more and more removed from any kind of normal reality the longer you're in that. Not to mention just the sheer exhaustion of it. In fact, I don't think I ever - I meant to share this story with you. I remember just as an example of how wiped out you could be at the end of the day, it was the very end of the day, I had the TV on as I was drifting off, picked up the phone to call Chasten and say goodnight to him. Out of the corner of my eye, there was someone in a commercial. I thought that guy kind of looks like Ken Harbaugh. As my subconscious made that move, my thumb went through the phone and started to dial your number when I was trying to call my own husband to say good night, just because -
KH: I will not read anything into that. I am strangely flattered.
PB: The wiring in your brain starts turning to mush because you might've been in three or four states in the course of a day and had conversations with, in various ways, thousands of people. Of course, I jumped into that race and fought for that nomination hoping to win, but now I'm at home, I'm surrounded by books and I'm getting more time with Chasten, my husband. Really, in the whole time we've been married, we're setting records for how many meals we've cooked together. We've got a grill out back that's getting more use than it ever has. Even though this is a strange and painful and in many ways, terrible time, there is something about just being home when home is very important to you, but it's not a place you got to be very often during the course of the campaign.
KH: Politics is about everyday life, I believe that, but the exercise of running for president is about as far removed as you can get from living a normal life. I'm wondering if that changes who you are. Does that disconnect permeate not just your every day, but your character? Does it deprive you of the ability to connect with people and the reasons you ran? Is our system doomed to corrupt the people who engage in it?
PB: Well, I think that has a lot to do with who you surround yourself with and who you interact with. A good campaign process compels you to engage with all kinds of the very people who are most vulnerable to the decisions and the choices and the processes that your campaign is all about. You shrink in some ways, because you're not resting at home or catching up with friends casually or riding a bicycle or driving a car, doing just normal things. But you also grow because you take in the experiences of all the people you meet. A lot of things are unhealthy about our process, the relationship with money, with the way that media and social media often work. But one thing that remains very healthy about our process and especially the way that it compels people who want to be president to have to start out campaigning in one state, and therefore one backyard at a time, is that you wind up having to come face to face with experiences that are so different from your own and work them into your understanding of how the world and how the country works. And convincingly answer the people who have those experiences about how you're going to make their lives better. In that sense, it can actually be a wonderfully educational and grounding experience, even as it's an out of body experience in a lot of other ways.
KH: What was the unhealthiest thing that you had to endure? I don't mean the cheeseburgers, I mean the psychic wounds you have to submit yourself to. Did you ever find yourself, for example, telling a story again and again and again and wondering if it was true after the hundredth time?
PB: Well, yeah, you definitely spend some time on autopilot. You got your stump speech - I would feel bad as I looked across the room toward the press risers and see embedded reporters that I knew had heard that very same story or speech probably four times that very day. But you also remember that you're connecting to people, you're relating to people who may be hearing that story for the first time. Other supporters who would see me do my thing and give my stump speech and I'd see them for the seventh or eighth time and remember that there are some movies or songs or standup specials that I don't mind watching several times, even when I know exactly what's going to happen next. You're switching on and off different parts of your brain, but that was one of the reasons why we tried to always have a conversation, even when I was talking to thousands of people and we couldn't exactly call on people to ask questions. We would gather up questions and put them in a fish bowl and have somebody come up on stage with me. Even in Virginia, I think, when we had 8,000 or 9,000 people, we were able to do it. Just about everywhere we went, we did it. I found it healthy because it kept you were responding to things, not just repeating yourself. But of course, a lot of things - the way that you have to compress what you have to say for television, the whole emotional logic of the debates and the way that there's a lot of pressure to make good television by pointing out the speck in your brother's eyes when really all of us agreed on about 88% of what we ought to do. We were really just negotiating the balance of it and offering different kinds of messengers for a broadly similar message. You just try to check yourself and that's why you got to have people in your life, friends and loved ones who will care for you the exact same, whether you're up or down. As you know, from your experience campaigning, you rely on those people in your life to remind you who you are, to call you on it if you're ever drifting away from your own center of gravity, because they'll spot it before you will sometimes, and to be there for you when things happen in that campaign world, good, bad or indifferent.
KH: Well, this has been great. Pete, we always end the show with the same question. The heart of the show is about those kinds of decisions that you make when there's no turning back, the “burn the boats” decisions. What's the bravest one that you've ever been a part of?
PB: Well, I don't know that I'd call myself brave about this, but certainly one of those no turning back decisions was realizing it was time to wrap up the campaign. You're surrounded by hundreds of staff and hundreds of thousands of supporters helping you do this one thing that you've committed every waking moment of your life to for more than a year, and you come face to face with the fact that the very same objective that brought you into this race, which was to unify the party and help beat the president, that actually the best thing you can do to meet that objective is to get out. And checking the numbers, checking your conscience, checking your sense of loyalty with people who gave so much to help you win requires you to just, at a certain point, make a real leap. I remember going to bed after my staff went through a whole set of numbers with me and being pretty clear on what had to happen next, but waking up and actually feeling a level of - I think most important, really important decisions, feeling by the time I shared my decision that it had already been made and knowing that it was the right way to go.
KH: That mission continues in what you're doing now. Do you want to share just a little bit about Win the Era and what you're doing?
PB: Yeah. I'd certainly encourage people who are interested to keep an eye on my Twitter feed or visit wintheera.com. What we're doing is we're keeping alive the idea that the presidency is not the only office that matters. We're living in a moment that is showing just how much state and local office matters and non White House offices matter. At the same time there's less oxygen than ever, less attention, and frankly, less money sometimes for those races than there ought to be. So we have endorsed 22 candidates so far, as well as teaming up in different ways to support organizations doing good work that we believe in. I think that’s every bit as important as the work I'm doing to help make sure we elect Joe Biden, because this really is an all hands on deck moment. We say leadership matters - that's not just the very top. It's at every level in certainly our political system and across our society. I'm proud to be able to invite the community of supporters that we built and others, no matter who you backed in the presidential race, to be part of this effort. That is also, I'm finding, a huge source of optimism because some of these people that we're backing, some of them are candidates who are well known. Some of them are not. Each of them really makes me feel better about our future and helps tap into that hope we were talking about a little earlier.
KH: Well, thank you, Pete, for sharing that vision, and thanks for joining us today.
PB: Same here. Thanks for having me on.
KH: Thanks again to Pete for joining me. Like he said, you can learn more about his new PAC, Win the Era, by checking out wintheera.com and by keeping an eye on his Twitter feed at @PeteButtigieg.
Today Pete talked about rebuilding trust as a country and we wanted to hear from you. We asked what you think America should do to rebuild trust - in government and institutions, but also in one another.
Isabel Robertson: Hi, I’m Isabel - producer of Burn the Boats. You all had a lot of thoughts, especially on Twitter, this week on how we can best rebuild trust as a country, so I selected just a few to read.
Georganna Price places responsibility on the media, saying she’s “Not sure it’s likely, but we need to get media to start agreeing on facts. You can see a single incident from 10 different points of view depending on where you read about it.”
PB&J agrees, saying that “Drastic improvements need to be made so that our ‘news’ sources are much more accountable for relaying the truth. Label each program as opinion vs. real news.”
Nerdy Pursuit thinks “a lot of the mistrust in American institutions comes from lack of results. Our institutions are gridlocked and politicians seem unresponsive to what their constituents want. So we need structural democratic reforms - like what Pete proposed during his campaign.”
Monica says she “knows a lot of folks who don’t trust gov’t because of a lack of consequences for the wealthy/powerful (08 financial collapse for ex). Combined with little knowledge of how gov’t works and it creates an idea that anyone who does trust our institutions is complicit/naive.”
Carol proposed a solution - she thinks that “term limits for Congress would stop the do-nothing, power hungry that have been and are currently making everything a battle and gov’t not work for the country.”
Many of you focused specifically on the post-Trump world, addressing the Biden administration.
Smotta6 said that “After Biden wins, the never-Trump Republicans supporting him now need to continue in good faith bipartisan efforts. They & Dems need to lead by example that Americans do not need to to be so polarized that everyday mundane things become like inflammatory gang symbols.”
Steven Morrison also addressed the Biden administration, saying they should “announce on [their] 100th day a plan to address the 35% or so of Americans whose support of the current president is unwavering.
Southwest Virginia for Pete zeroed in on money, writing “We’ve got to get money out of politics. No one will ever trust their government leadership if they feel like they’re being bought.
Well, stay tuned for episode 22 next month - Ken will get into this exact topic with Pete’s national investment chair, Swati Mylavarapu.
Thank you all so much for your thoughts this week! You can join in our conversation yourself by finding Ken Harbaugh on Facebook or following him on Twitter at @Team_Harbaugh.
KH: Next time on Burn the Boats, I’m talking to Andrew Towne, businessman and endurance athlete who has not only climbed the tallest mountain on every continent, but also holds 5 world records for ocean rowing. He talks about climbing Mount Everest and rowing the Drake Passage and about the smaller challenges he takes on to help make the world a better place.
And we want to hear from you. Maybe you haven’t climbed Everest, but tell us about a challenge you took on that felt insurmountable until you reached the summit. Let us know by sending a comment on social media, leaving a message at 216-245-5461 or sending a voice memo to [email protected].
If you enjoyed today’s episode of Burn the Boats, please rate and review us on iTunes - it really helps other listeners find the show.
Thanks to our partner, VoteVets. Their mission is to give a voice to veterans on matters of national security, veterans’ care, and issues that affect the lives of those who have served. VoteVets is backed by more than 700,000 veterans, family members, and their supporters. To learn more, go to VoteVets.org.
Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews and Michael DeAloia. Our producer is Isabel Robertson. Audio engineer is Sean Rule-Hoffman. Our theme music is Climbing to Greatness by Cody Martin.
I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.