Last weekend, CNN published a lengthy piece on Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg. Often reading closer to PR than journalism (sentences like “Buttigieg came into the Cabinet knowing this would be an odd transition — he’s the only winner of the Iowa caucuses and one-time Jimmy Kimmel guest host to take a lower-level Cabinet job” bring a certain sitcom to mind), the report runs through various recent controversies surrounding Buttigieg, mostly narrating them from his point of view.
If there’s an implicit thesis, it’s that Buttigieg has unfairly become a target for ire on both the Right and Left. Late last year, Sen. Bernie Sanders had the gall to say Buttigieg was being soft on major airlines. More recently, Republicans like Sen. Marco Rubio have called for his resignation over February’s catastrophic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. Summing up the predicament of its protagonist, one paragraph early in the piece reads:
To the left, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is the corporatist compromiser without the vision or guts to go as big as he should. To the right, he is the embodiment of elitist abandonment of real Americans, hopped up on his own grandiosity, who thinks more about social engineering than transportation.
Related is the insinuation that it’s odd or suspect for people to be talking this much about how Buttigieg does his job at all. “There were no cable news segments about Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack when the price of eggs spiked in January,” it adds. “EPA head Michael Regan is the one whose agency has actually taken the lead on the response to the East Palestine derailment . . . but few in Washington or beyond could pick him out of a crowd.”
It’s certainly true that neither Regan nor Vilsack have been as publicly visible as Buttigieg since the Biden administration took office in 2021. It’s also the case, however, that neither Regan nor Vilsack has had the same rapid ascent in Democratic politics as Buttigieg — or elicits anything even resembling the same fawning treatment from elements in the press corps.
His visibility, among Democratic National Committee partisans and critics alike, is hardly random or arbitrary. In the span of just a few years, Buttigieg has gone from being the mayor of Indiana’s third-largest city to a dark horse establishment favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination and, finally, to a significant post in the executive branch of the US government. Now tasked with overseeing and regulating America’s transportation system — in a period when rail monopolies and corporate airlines are deservedly in the news — his name is also regularly included in speculative write-ups about the future of the Democratic Party, and he is often discussed as a potential successor to Joe Biden. If these are not legitimate grounds on which to scrutinize and criticize a politician, then the journalism business as we know it might as well pack it in.
Plenty of reasonable questions, moreover, can be asked about Buttigieg’s handling of his portfolio, to say nothing of his periodically assumed posture of powerlessness and whether his nakedly obvious presidential ambitions are in any way influencing his decision-making. No doubt many of the right-wing attacks on Buttigieg are characteristically unfair and hypocritical, and no doubt other parts of the Biden administration deserve their share of criticism around transport-related issues as well. But it’s ridiculous to think that such questions are out of bounds, and still more ridiculous to cast an immensely powerful secretary of the US Cabinet as some kind of besieged victim.
In an earlier era of journalism, stories like All the President’s Men were often the template for coverage of powerful public figures like Buttigieg. At the best of times, the ethos was adversarial and reflexively skeptical of institutional power. That kind of journalism still exists. But since the 1990s especially, it has increasingly taken a backseat to another style — modeled on books like Primary Colors and Game Change — which centers the perspectives of politicians and backroom operatives and asks readers to identify with them. According to this model, powerful public officials are sometimes closer to a protagonist or audience-surrogate character in a drama. In place of external scrutiny, readers are invited to inhabit their minds and get emotionally invested in their personal arcs.
Among other things, it’s probably more fun than writing critical journalism. Maybe Jacobin can get in on the action. To wit:
Secretary Buttigieg, who was already incredibly accomplished before he got into politics, has always liked a challenge. And while he tends to prefer discussing the finer points of policy to the sometimes rough-and-tumble world of partisan politics, he understands it comes with the territory. Despite the criticism he’s received, he’s shown a remarkable ability to work across the aisle — so much so that even some rivals privately say they’re impressed. As to what’s next, he’s clearly focused on the task at hand. “One thing at a time,” he tells me; a glint in his eye, the corners of his mouth twitching puckishly with the hint of a smile.