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[Press Rogue]

Boys on the Bus


This week, the cover of Time magazine features Pete Buttigieg and his husband alongside the headline “First Family.” Looking like the definition of middle-American business casual, the pair stands amiably in front of their home, yellow tulips grazing the bottom of the portrait. It’s the first time this year that an individual Democratic presidential candidate other than Joe Biden has graced the most influential real estate in magazine journalism, and just the latest elevation of the South Bend mayor whom Vogue recently dubbed “the unicorn in this year’s Democratic field.” This framing echoes the gushing media that followed Beto O’Rourke’s decision to run in March. His campaign, of course, was catapulted to relevance by a Vanity Fair cover story, in which Annie Leibovitz styled him as a borderland Bruce Springsteen.

Given the nation’s supersize presidential primary season, it’s natural that different candidates take turns in the spotlight. Not many, though, get the celebrity profile treatment, complete with novelistic descriptions of their living rooms (O’Rourke: a “floor-to-ceiling bookshelf”; Buttigieg: “A burl-wood chessboard sits beside a folded-over copy of The New Yorker”) as well as quotes from intimates that speak to who the candidate really is. An ex-girlfriend of O’Rourke’s muses, “That’s kind of the mystique of Beto, is that he seems to be accessible.” Buttigieg’s husband jokes that their marriage is “sort of like always being in grad school.” The New Yorker, too, got in on the action this week, highlighting the proud subscriber with an assemblage of anecdotes from Buttigieg’s time at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. Not only did he adore Ulysses so much that he once attempted to cook a kidney in the style of Leopold Bloom, Buttigieg was such a dutiful student that he sequestered himself to a cargo ship to study for finals.

The whimsical details and armchair psychoanalysis these profiles employ suggest that O’Rourke and Buttigieg belong to a particular genus of politician. As the Time cover story put it this week: “There are two main types of presidential candidates: those who run on policy and those who run on personality.” Notice, however, that there has been no major cover shoot with Cory Booker, no weekend hang with Kirsten Gillibrand, no fireside book chat with Kamala Harris. But then, none of those candidates are white men.

The distinction between policy and personality candidates may be too simplistic, but it’s clear that Buttigieg and O’Rourke are pursuing strategies which revolve around their quirky personas—an attempt to evoke the rarified quality of relatability. Unlike Joe Biden or Elizabeth Warren, who are mostly satisfied to operate within the familiar confines of the Washington press, Buttigieg and O’Rourke are relying on the likes of Vogue and Vanity Fair to help them break through to a national audience. Not that they’re the only candidates who would benefit from such attention. Both Booker and Julián Castro are as long on rhetoric and short on specifics as either of their white peers, yet neither has been handed the same bouquet of sympathetic profiles.

For glossies, it’s clear who gets to have a personality. Vanity Fair lingers on O’Rourke’s affection for the late Eighties punk scene in D.C., while Vogue plays along with a joke from Buttigieg about dog farts. Beyond their more obvious demographic similarities, Vogue’s profiler, Nathan Heller, was only two years behind Buttigieg at Harvard. Joe Hagan, who tackled O’Rourke for Vanity Fair, is most known for chronicling the heyday of Rolling Stone. That each was able to draw so much “personality” from his subject is hardly surprising.

Not that these magazines are the only outlets to give these candidates a chance to put their personas front and center. Even if this week’s cover story on Buttigieg is reported with more equanimity, Time’s Charlotte Alter (another Harvard grad) can’t help indulging in a few flourishes, like describing the mayor as the type of roommate “who would sip whiskey instead of chugging beer” and mentioning the color of his kitchen walls, “a too-bright yellow” that Buttigieg painted “himself, which he says was a mistake.” Likewise, a month before O’Rourke was even officially a candidate, the New York Times was reporting on his time “Adrift in New York City,” seven years he spent as “a rebel in moderation, more puckish than unruly.”

That February feature was an entry in the Times’ “The Long Run” series. Flip to the entries on O’Rourke’s black rivals, though, and suddenly all the talk of self-searching vanishes. A profile of Harris jumps straight from a “stroller’s-eye view” of the civil rights movement that she was afforded by her parents to the interest in prosecuting she developed in law school. An article on Booker pays even less attention to the senator’s origins, shoehorning three decades into an adjectival preamble: “Suburban-raised, Stanford-educated, Mr. Booker…”

Unsurprisingly, the writers behind these three profiles were all white. As of 2016, only 17 percent of daily newspaper employees were minorities, and women remained similarly underrepresented, writing only 38 percent of national print news reports. I myself have benefited from these skewed demographics—I’m a white man, who, despite not joining Buttigieg and his pals at Harvard, attended Tufts and then Columbia. When so much of the press comes from a similar background, no wonder longform journalists gamely pass along Buttigieg’s favorite books and O’Rourke’s top Fugazi albums. Yet when women make similar attempts to flash some personality, commentators pounce, intent on revealing some sort of manipulation or duplicity.

Take the minor blow-up over Harris’s appearance on “The Breakfast Club,” a drive-time show on one of New York City’s hip-hop stations. Some crosstalk during the interview made it sound like the senator claimed to have listened to Tupac and Snoop Dogg when she was a student at Howard, and Fox News and its acolytes immediately pointed out that both artists debuted after her graduation. The Times sought to dispel this willful misinterpretation, but at the same time noted that Harris was “repeatedly being forced to answer questions about whether she’s pandering for black votes.”

It wasn’t the first time a “Breakfast Club” interview has drawn unwarranted scrutiny to a woman running for president. In 2016, Hillary Clinton was interviewed on the show and mentioned that she had a habit of always keeping a bottle of hot sauce in her bag—many took the comment to be a thinly-veiled reference to a Beyoncé lyric, and thus a flagrant bout of pandering. Nevermind that Clinton’s affection for the condiment has been well chronicled since the Nineties. Even Elizabeth Warren’s golden retriever Bailey has become a figure worthy of inspection, with one political consultant telling the Boston Globe that the dog was likely to figure prominently in the campaign because “even if you’re not a fan of Elizabeth Warren, Bailey’s favorabilities are way higher than any politician’s.” O’Rourke’s dog Artemis, meanwhile, has received nothing but friendly coverage, including a Time post that labeled her “an elegant and self-actualized pooch.” When you’re a man, a dog is just a dog. When you’re a woman, it’s a campaign surrogate.

Next week, Time’s cover features Elizabeth Warren. But it’s a stark contrast from Buttigieg’s charming domestic scene. Nothing but blank space behind her, Warren looks determinedly into the distance. The headline: “I HAVE A PLAN FOR THAT.” That Warren is being given this platform is a sign that the magazine may be seeking to balance its coverage, but there’s still a long way to go. Most glaringly, Kamala Harris is still waiting for her Time cover despite poll numbers similar to Warren’s. The press is undoubtedly the most effective instrument candidates can harness to humanize themselves—even in 2019, a legacy publication endorsing a candidate’s image has real weight. The majority-white press’s reluctance to give minority candidates their due betrays the need for publications to start hiring more women and journalists of color and to start sending them on the campaign trail. If candidates who couldn’t have appeared on the ballot a hundred years ago are to be given a real shot, it’s only fair that journalists who would have been excluded from that era’s newsrooms are given a chance to cover them.

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