A new review of Pete Buttigieg's Shortest Way Home pushes back against praise of it as the best political biography since Barack Obama's 2008 book, instead finding Buttigieg's presentation of his life to be devoid of any actual "human experience" or "self-analysis."
Caroline Fraser, writing for the New York Review of Books, skewered Buttigieg's book as just another "vapid and slippery" political campaign book, pointing out its lack of the sort of personal reflection that was celebrated in Obama's Dreams from my Father.
"There are gaps in the record," Fraser writes. "There’s an avoidance of self-analysis, a refusal to plumb motivations, a tiptoeing across the minefield of human experience."
"The self-presentation is too glossy, too ideal," she continues. "Nowhere does one get the sense that the author has ever experienced a setback or suffering of any kind: depression, humiliation, discrimination, anguish, illness, poverty, doubt, debt."
The 37-year-old-mayor of South Bend's book goes through his full life story: his love of literature as a young student; the career choices that led to him to becoming a McKinsey and Company consultant, joining the U.S. Navy Reserves, and running for mayor; and his decision to come out as gay to his parents.
Fraser found that even Buttigieg's descriptions of personal moments were told with a "Spock-like detachment."
Buttigieg often approaches himself with Spock-like detachment, saying little about his sexuality until he comes out at the age of thirty-three to his parents—"they weren’t terribly surprised"—and hears his mother’s wistful disappointment when she asks whether he’s seeing anyone and he says no. Then, he decides, like a Vulcan who has sex once every seven years, "I had to figure out a way to go public, so I could begin adding this dimension to my life." This "dimension"? He tackles the search for a mate as a technical challenge, trying out online dating apps and scrolling to "pick out the right photos for a profile."
Fraser also called it "concerning" that Buttigieg chose to gloss over parts of his résumé that could be troubling to his candidacy.
Even Buttigieg’s account of his experience in Afghanistan feels evasive, perhaps because, having worked in counterterrorism (just like Greene’s own quiet American), he can’t describe aspects of his service beyond saying that it involved "blocking the flow of narcotics funding to the insurgency." But he could explain his own motivation for signing on in the first place. As a Harvard student, he opposed the invasion of Iraq, delivering a speech on behalf of the College Democrats at an antiwar rally, speaking of "the difference between necessary wars … and unnecessary wars that could take young lives for no purpose at all." Six years later, in September 2009, he enlisted in the Navy Reserve. […]
But he does not explain clearly whether he joined out of obligation or an eagerness to serve his country. And why the Navy Reserve? While his stint as an intelligence analyst (with a "top-secret clearance") does justify the feeling that Buttigieg’s résumé qualifies him better for a career as a spook than for one as a politician, he offers no explanation for how he determined that the war in Afghanistan was "necessary," an account essential for evaluating this candidate’s approach to future conflicts. All he offers is this passive, negative construction: "The more I reflected on it, the less it seemed I had any good excuse or reason not to serve." If he joined because there was no reason not to, there’s nothing wrong with a sense of duty. But there is something wrong with being unable to articulate the nature of your commitment, especially when you’re running for president.
Fraser concludes her review by saying the most revealing personal anecdote Buttigieg told was not in his book, but rather when he told New York magazine he dressed up as a politician once on Halloween with the "little mics that politicians wear" and a "little suit."
"It’s easy to see Pete in that little suit, with his tiny paper mic; it’s practically the cover of his book," Fraser writes. "But there’s a sad, Pinocchio-like quality to him in this costume. Can he become a real boy? A real politician? First he must prove himself brave, truthful, and unselfish."