Audiobook Review – Shortest Way Home: One Mayor’s Challenge and a Model for America’s Future by Pete Buttigieg

Shortest Way Home

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Once described by the Washington Post as “the most interesting mayor you’ve never heard of,” Pete Buttigieg, the thirty-seven-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has now emerged as one of the nation’s most visionary politicians. With soaring prose that celebrates a resurgent American Midwest, Shortest Way Home narrates the heroic transformation of a “dying city” (Newsweek) into nothing less than a shining model of urban reinvention.
Interweaving two narratives—that of a young man coming of age and a town regaining its economic vitality—Buttigieg recounts growing up in a Rust Belt city, amid decayed factory buildings and the steady soundtrack of rumbling freight trains passing through on their long journey to Chicagoland. Inspired by John F. Kennedy’s legacy, Buttigieg first left northern Indiana for red-bricked Harvard and then studied at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, before joining McKinsey, where he trained as a consultant—becoming, of all things, an expert in grocery pricing. Then, Buttigieg defied the expectations that came with his pedigree, choosing to return home to Indiana and responding to the ultimate challenge of how to revive a once-great industrial city and help steer its future in the twenty-first century.
Elected at twenty-nine as the nation’s youngest mayor, Pete Buttigieg immediately recognized that “great cities, and even great nations, are built though attention to the everyday.” As Shortest Way Home recalls, the challenges were daunting—whether confronting gun violence, renaming a street in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., or attracting tech companies to a city that had appealed more to junk bond scavengers than serious investors. None of this is underscored more than Buttigieg’s audacious campaign to reclaim 1,000 houses, many of them abandoned, in 1,000 days and then, even as a sitting mayor, deploying to serve in Afghanistan as a Navy officer. Yet the most personal challenge still awaited Buttigieg, who came out in a South Bend Tribune editorial, just before being reelected with 78 percent of the vote, and then finding Chasten Glezman, a middle-school teacher, who would become his partner for life.
While Washington reels with scandal, Shortest Way Home, with its graceful, often humorous, language, challenges our perception of the typical American politician. In chronicling two once-unthinkable stories—that of an Afghanistan veteran who came out and found love and acceptance, all while in office, and that of a revitalized Rust Belt city no longer regarded as “flyover country”—Buttigieg provides a new vision for America’s shortest way home.

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If anyone has been following the democratic field for 2020, then you are aware of the recent buzz around Mayor Pete and it’s been interesting listening to his ideas. While I’m not someone who actually reads the candidates’ books when they are running for office, I wanted to read this one because I wanted to know his story. And the other thing that interested me was that this is part memoir and part his experience as the Mayor of a small city, not a manifesto of his policies for the campaign. I opted for the audiobook and his pleasant narration definitely makes for a nice listening experience.

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Maybe I’m not the right person, but I feel lot of readers will find his story relatable. The only son of two middle class professor parents born in a city which is on a downward trajectory, growing up listening to its erstwhile glory days and watching the proof in the form of abandoned factories and decaying homes. This is probably the story of many towns and cities in America which lost manufacturing jobs due to globalization and have been struggling to find a way forward. And that’s what Pete tries to show through his story. Like many in his position, he left his hometown to pursue his studies at Harvard, then onwards to Oxford, worked in Chicago while traveling to different countries – but ultimately it was his love for public service that made him come back home and want to do something for the place that he loved so much.

The way he writes his story, especially about his campaigning and his subsequent job as mayor is a very refreshing take on how politics plays out ultimately at the local level where the impact is much more personal. His idea of bringing data driven, technologically advanced governance to his city, collaborating with the students of Notre Dame for some of these initiatives and bring more investments – all of which managed to bring down the unemployment levels from double the national average to the same as the country is definitely a commendable achievement. In between all this, he also talks about the daily challenges and sometimes, hilarious or equally sad issues that he has to face as the mayor, where most issues have to be handled on a very personal level. I loved the way he talks about the efficiency of solving issues vs being more timely, the differences between using data driven methods vs relying on the intuition of people who are experts in their fields, the importance of considering the moral exceptions when making decisions – all of his thought processes show us the picture of a very intellectual person who is not afraid to ask himself the tough questions. His very thoughtful pondering about having survived his Afghanistan deployment while others didn’t and wanting to live a better life because of this experience show a very mature and sensitive human being.

Among all this story about his growing up and his politics, is his decision about coming out. Being from a liberal family in a conservative state, it’s probably not surprising that it took being in his early 30s and being deployed to make him want to live a more truthful and fulfilling life, leading him to come out by writing an op ed in the local newspaper in the midst of his re-election campaign. The chapter where he describes his decision to date for the first time ever, navigating the online dating scene and meeting the love of his life Chasten is wonderful. Their first date story is absolutely adorable and his narration totally reflected the happiness he was feeling while talking about it. But all through the book, it shows that he doesn’t want his gay identity to be the only defining point about his politics and wants to be judged based on his policy positions, achievements and qualifications.

Being from conservative Indiana (also referred to as flyover country), he brings a perspective that local and state politics are equally important for the growth of the Democratic Party and that the establishment should do more, and not less to ensure that the voices of the liberal voters in red states must also be heard. Obviously, it’s not easy to agree with his position that we should engage and empathize with the people who voted for Trump despite the immensely racist politics, but it’s probably reflective of his experience of having to work across partisan lines and even along with VP Pence to ensure the development of his city of South Bend. I don’t know how this will play out in the primary against a more growing progressive voter base but let’s wait and watch.

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If you have been impressed by Mayor Pete’s ideas and want to know more about where he comes from and his story, you should checkout this book. And I highly recommend the audiobook because his voice is perfect for his story and he brings a certain warmth and emotion to the narration. Just keep in mind that this book is more about his work till date and his ideas and values rather than a roadmap for his presidential aspirations. And I certainly am looking forward to his campaign and all of the other democratic primary contenders.

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