Buttigieg was the first major openly gay presidential candidate, and the wonder of that was how little it was talked about as his bid progressed. Rush Limbaugh, to whom Trump awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in January, was more deviation than norm when he subsequently derided the possibility that Buttigieg, as the Democratic nominee, would be “kissing his husband onstage next to Mr. Man Donald Trump.”
And Buttigieg was in perfect form when asked during a CNN town hall to respond to that. “The idea of the likes of Rush Limbaugh or Donald Trump lecturing anybody on family values, I mean, sorry, but one thing about my marriage is it’s never involved me having to send hush money to a porn star after cheating on my spouse,” he said. “They want to debate family values, let’s debate family values. I’m ready.” Was he ever.
While some of his critics on the left conducted an offensive debate about whether he was gay enough, he performed an important balancing act, integrating his gayness into his candidacy without letting his candidacy be defined by it, seizing moments to deliver lessons without ever becoming tendentious or tedious, showing the world that being gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender or queer is an essential part of who we L.G.B.T.Q. people are but not all of who we are.
Buttigieg mentioned one of those lessons on Sunday night in South Bend, where he gave a big speech announcing his withdrawal from the presidential race. He said that his campaign had “sent a message to every kid out there wondering if whatever marks them out as different means they are somehow destined to be less than.” They could look at him, he added, “and see that someone who once felt that exact same way can become a leading American presidential candidate with his husband at his side.”
He was talking about the experience of being in a minority and being marginalized — about the sorrow and the fear — and one of the great disappointments of his presidential bid was his inability to build a bridge between himself and others who have had that experience. He was getting better and better at it, though. He was ever more attentive to it — in his last debate, for example, and in his speech on Sunday night.
I listened to that speech and realized what most impresses me about him, and it isn’t his intellect per se — the fancy degrees he has, all the languages he speaks — or his crazy poise or the manner in which he handled the novel aspects of his candidacy and persona.
It’s his thoughtfulness. Yes, he got plenty prickly and even somewhat overbearing at moments during the most recent debates, trying to break through as the clock ticked down. But still he wrestled earnestly and eloquently with the meanings of things.