It was a running joke in his AP U.S. history class at Saint Joseph High School: Would Peter Buttigieg — the smartest kid in class, language whiz and devotee of John F. Kennedy — use his unusual last name in his eventual run for president of the United States? Or would he have a better shot of winning the voters of the future if he went by Montgomery, his middle name?
It was the late 1990s, Bill Clinton was in the White House, and a round-faced teenager in South Bend, Indiana, was viewed by many around him as an eventual successor. As early as grade school, Buttigieg exhibited an attention-grabbing combination of brains and curiosity, the sort of kid with a reputation. He would be named high school valedictorian, voted senior class president and chosen Most Likely to be U.S. President. He sat at the adults table.
Now, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg — not Montgomery — is indeed running for the highest office in the land.
It’s an audacious leap. No mayor has ever gone straight to the White House (let alone from a city of just over 100,000). No president has ever been so young (he’ll be 39 on Inauguration Day). And no commander in chief has ever been openly gay (or had a husband).
But people who have known Buttigieg since his Indiana boyhood say it all feels predictable.
Interviews with nearly two dozen people who knew him in his formative years paint a picture of a child with an extraordinary range of talent and ambition, cultivated by a tight-knit family able to indulge his many interests. Friends and family say he worked to overcome an early shyness by throwing himself into challenges. All the while he felt a bit apart.
“It was always understood,” says Patrick Bayliss, a high school friend. “It was just kind of matter of fact that he was special and brilliant.”
Now Buttigieg’s intellect is at the core of his campaign narrative. Admirers often cite his intelligence when asked about his appeal, arguing it makes up for a shortage of experience.
But as he rises in early-caucus Iowa, Buttigieg’s self-confidence is exposing him to accusations that he is pretentious and entitled. When he declared Iowa was becoming a two-person race between Elizabeth Warren and him — dismissing a former vice president and several senators — Sen. Kamala Harris called him naïve. Sen. Amy Klobuchar has said the young mayor is benefiting from sexism — a woman with such a short resume wouldn’t be taken seriously. On Wednesday, she pointedly noted Buttigieg is a “local official” who lost his only statewide race.
Buttigieg doesn’t argue much with the knocks, but doesn’t seem bothered either, telling reporters during his New Hampshire bus trip this month: “I guess I'm comfortable doing things in a way that's kind of out of order or unusual for my age and my experience.”
Before he was an accomplished pianist, a polyglot, a Harvard graduate and a Rhodes scholar, Buttigieg was the only child of college professors growing up in a bubble of academia in the Rust Belt.
On the campaign trail, he frequently invokes the hollowed-out city of South Bend, the onetime home of the automaker Studebaker, which shut down two decades before he was born.
But Buttigieg grew up in another side of South Bend: the cluster of neighborhoods around the University of Notre Dame. His parents had stable jobs there, and he was educated in private schools whiter and wealthier than the surrounding community.
His father, Joseph, was an English professor who grew up in the Mediterranean island nation of Malta. His mother was a linguist and Army brat. They met while teaching in New Mexico, married and moved to South Bend in 1980. Peter was born two years later, and they eventually settled on a tree-lined street less than two miles from the elite Catholic university.
Across the river and downtown, abandoned factories, boarded-up stores and empty lots plagued South Bend. Up the hill, it was just a walk to the Golden Dome, the halo at the center of campus.
Peter — the name he went by before he became known as “Mayor Pete” — was a curious and quiet toddler who learned to read at age 2 or 3, his mother, Anne Montgomery, said in an interview.
He attended a Montessori school, where learning is self-directed and hands-on. In 6th grade, his parents moved him to a more traditional private school.
The smart new kid was sometimes a target. Other kids would want to “take him down a peg,” his mother says. His unusual name drew snickers.
The experience, she believes, helped steel him to insensitive comments. He won them over by learning to prove himself without aggravating other kids.
Buttigieg remembers a teacher explaining that a child picking on him was just trying to get attention. Something clicked, he says, and he decided the best way to deal with bullies was to get to know them. The lesson still works, he told reporters on his bus.
“While you don't want to reward bad behavior, you do need to make sure that people feel seen.”
In his room, young Peter kept a collection of model planes and a poster of the inside of a cockpit. He aspired to become a pilot or astronaut, although his poor eyesight would make that impossible. He became fascinated with the leader closely associated with the space program, JFK.
At around 11 or 12, when asked what he wanted for his birthday, Peter requested a copy of “Profiles in Courage,” Kennedy’s 1955 book on acts of political bravery by eight U.S. senators throughout history. (“I had no idea what that was,” says his friend Joe Geglio, who bought the book.)
Later, when Buttigieg decided to join the military, he would join the Navy, like JFK.
By the end of 8th grade, Peter was named valedictorian, which gave him a chance to deliver a speech. The adults left the gym marveling at his poise and mature demeanor. It wouldn’t be the last time Buttigieg found a constituency in an older generation.
Classmate Loran Parker recalls her grandparents turned to her with what would become a familiar refrain: “Peter would make a great politician.”
When he arrived at high school, Buttigieg’s reputation preceded him. Teacher Julie Chismar recalls a buzz among French teachers. Peter began learning French in Montessori and was well on his way to fluency. He also took up Spanish and on his own started learning to read Korean from a friend.
It’s difficult to find someone to utter a harsh word about young Peter. He wasn’t a jock or the most popular kid in school, but he wasn’t an outcast. Classmates described him as thoughtful, with a dry wit. If a kid in middle school or high school can respect a fellow kid, they respected him. He didn’t show off his intelligence or raise his hand to answer every question. He held back.
The introvert pushed himself beyond his comfort zone. He performed in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” He learned the didgeridoo and played the several-foot-long Australian wind instrument onstage.
Peter moved easily between groups of friends, but hung out mostly with a group of other smart kids. Friends said he never seemed to have the usual teenager angst about relationships.
Looking back, he says now he always felt different.
“Even though I wasn't out, and in many ways was not really out to myself, I felt that kind of tension,” Buttigieg said on his campaign bus.
It wasn’t just that he was gay, he said, but also that he was the son of a Mediterranean immigrant in an academic family who had a name that was easy to make fun of and hard to pronounce.
Several people close to Buttigieg say they never knew he was gay until he came out in his 30s, after he returned from his military tour in Afghanistan. He said at a CNN town hall in October that he was well into his 20s before he acknowledged it to himself.
At home, friends remember his parents as warm and supportive of whatever Peter wanted to pursue, his house inhabited by an affectionate rescue dog named Olivia, the walls lined with books, art and his mother’s photography, a piano filling the front room.
At the dinner table, they’d have grown-up discussions.
“I was a kind of serious-minded kid, and they took me seriously,” Buttigieg said.
Those who have known Buttigieg from childhood say they recognize the same things during this presidential run that have driven him all his life.
He says he wants to do big things, to make an impact. Asked what’s driving that, he becomes quiet and circumspect.
“I don’t know, I just do,” he said. “I mean, you only get one turn at life, right? And I think it's really important that you do as much with it as you can.”