As a resident of the TRUNA neighborhood I am grateful for all the wonderful work of Councilman Bell for the last two...

Mayor Pete understands the power of stories

Steve and Cokie Roberts

Cokie and Steve Roberts


Saturday, April 20, 2019

Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, the highly improbable candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, made this insightful comment to The New York Times: "The story that we tell, not just about government but about ourselves, and the story we tell people about themselves and how they fit in, really grounds our politics."

Mayor Pete remains the longest of shots. If he wins, he'd be 39 when he takes office, four years younger than our youngest elected president, John F. Kennedy. He'd be the first openly gay president. And he's never run anything bigger than Indiana's fourth-largest city, with barely 100,000 people.

Yet he's clearly on to something. Buttigieg has raised $7 million, more than four sitting senators. He's surged into third place in the latest polls from Iowa and New Hampshire, behind only Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, who are twice his age and profit from widespread name recognition. And he's getting rave reviews from media analysts like Vanity Fair, which writes that his "authenticity is an immeasurable asset."

A major reason for that impact: He clearly understands a basic truth about presidential politics — that the best way to connect with voters is through stories, not policies; deep values, not detailed programs. "I think all politics is local, especially national politics," he told the podcast Pod Save America. "But more than that, all politics is personal."

"He knows how to talk plainly," George Lakoff, a noted linguist at the University of California told the Times. "Usually Democrats are saying: 'What are your 10 most important policy areas?' And he doesn't do that."

Personal connections are more vital and enduring than policy agreements, but they have a second virtue as well: They sidestep doctrinal battles that alienate some voters while attracting others. Barack Obama appealed to liberals and moderates alike because his personal narrative transcended — and avoided — the ideological squabbles that often divide Democrats. No wonder Mayor Pete says "I've actually drawn a lot of lessons" from Obama's campaign.

To work well, stories have to be authentic and believable; they have to connect with the myths and legends we Americans tell about ourselves. Buttigieg weaves together a number of those narratives, starting with epochal change. He talks often about representing "a new generation of leadership," meaning the millenials, and his website promises "A Fresh Start for America."

His words echo Kennedy in 1960, who proclaimed "a torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans" — the veterans who fought World War II. And they reflect the strategy of Bill Clinton as well, who ran in 1992 as the first Baby Boomer president.

Buttigieg's story is rooted outside of Washington, in his hometown, a place he proudly calls "flyover country." He announced for president in an old factory there that once made Studebakers. And while he does have a degree from Harvard, he denounced on Pod Save America the "abandonment of the middle of the country by our party" and the "condescension" many fellow Democrats feel toward the Midwesterners who helped elect President Trump.

In any effective myth, a hero has to overcome adversity — George Bush 41 was shot down over the Pacific during World War II; Clinton's father died before he was born — and Buttigieg talks about serving as an intelligence officer in Afghanistan and making "119 trips ... outside the wire" into hostile territory.

He also emphasizes overcoming the economic adversity that afflicted South Bend after the Studebaker plant closed down, and converting the old factory into a high-tech center. "This city's story is a big part of why I am doing this," he said during his presidential announcement.

Two other threads of Mayor Pete's personal story might seem contradictory, but they appeal to different groups. As an openly gay man, he's accepted and even celebrated by his contemporaries. But he's also married, talks about wanting children, and stresses his Episcopalian faith — all gestures toward more traditional values embraced by older voters.

Democrats have long suffered from the reputation that they are the secular party, while Republicans are the religionists. David Axelrod, Obama's close adviser, made an important point in New York magazine: Buttigieg's "fluency on faith and his willingness to speak about it is a real asset," he said. "Carter, Clinton and Obama — they all shared that quality. It was one of the cues that opened the door to voters."

We do know that Mayor Pete understands the power of stories. What we don't know is how his personal odyssey finally ends.

Steve and Cokie Roberts are veteran political commentators.


Humans of Greenville


Local photographer Joe Pellegrino explores Greenville to create a photographic census of its people.

Op Ed

August 18, 2019

I have had the distinct honor and privilege of leading the Greenville VA Health Care Center as the Administrator and Associate Administrator since November 2016.

Over the past two and a half years, I have enjoyed working all of the veterans and staff members as we grew together, overcame obstacles,…


July 23, 2019

Since being sworn in January, I have been working hard to help the people I represent in Lenoir and Pitt counties — and the biggest opportunity to do this has been through the state budget. I’ve talked with elected officials, educators, administrators, nonprofits, business owners,…


July 12, 2019

Over the past three years, I have had the good fortune to work on a project that has the potential to transform the farming landscape in eastern North Carolina, one that involves harnessing gas produced from hog waste.

As CEO and founder of OptimaBio, our work with Smithfield Foods to capture…


July 01, 2019

The American system of checks and balances government does not work the way most people think it does or the way the Founding Fathers said it would.

The president serves at the pleasure of Congress, just as the prime minister of the UK serves at the pleasure of Parliament, which means that the…


June 26, 2019

Several Democratic presidential hopefuls are calling for Americans to make reparations for slavery. On June 19, the House judiciary subcommittee on the constitution, civil rights and civil liberties held a hearing. Its stated purpose was "to examine, through open and constructive discourse, the…

Walter Williams

June 10, 2019

The New York Times 

“Because it’s there.” For those who grew up on George Mallory’s famous explanation for his yearning to scale Mount Everest, with all the romance, danger and spirit of exploration it implied, that viral photograph of an endless line of climbers in…

June 10, 2019

Although it may not appear so, the leaders of both major political parties in North Carolina favor lowering the tax burden of large businesses. Their real dispute is about the scope and magnitude of the tax relief.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has consistently opposed recent state budgets, crafted by…

john hood.jpg

June 10, 2019

We are just weeks away from the first of 20 Democratic debates scheduled this primary season. It gets underway over two nights in Miami on June 26 and 27, and never before has there been a debate this early in the election and potentially this important.

The reason there are so many candidates, 23…


June 09, 2019

Gerrymandering has always been part of American politics. After all, the term was coined in 1812 after Massachusetts governor and Founding Father Elbridge Gerry endorsed a state senate district that resembled a salamander.

Until recently, federal courts have been highly reluctant to enter the…

Steve and Cokie Roberts

June 09, 2019

It is not unfair to point out that President Trump, on many important subjects, is just an ignoramus.

A vivid illustration of this unfortunate fact came this week in London, when it was revealed that Prince Charles, a knowledgeable environmentalist, had tried to educate the president on climate…

Eugene Robinson
112 stories in Op Ed. Viewing 1 through 10.
«First Page   «Previous Page        
Page 1 of 12
        Next Page»   Last Page»