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Media Meltdowns

How Not To Interview A Transportation Secretary

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who sucks at his job
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Most Americans probably could not tell you with any precision what the job duties of a United States cabinet secretary actually are. But even if you do not know exactly how that person spends their workday, you can assume they have a lot of power, if only within their department. So a regular person can at least evaluate that cabinet secretary's job performance at a departmental level.

That's fine, really. It's kind of the whole idea of how stuff is supposed to work in a federal government, in a republic: Not everybody in the republic has time to check the formatting on every public officeholder's weekly reports, but you can judge their work by how it shows up in your life. What's implicit is that the honchos have power over the people under them, and that authority radiates outward through the various areas of public life—public education, affairs of state, agriculture, and so on—where those underlings enact or enforce the department's policies. For example, even if a regular person will not know, and should not have to concern themself with knowing, whether the Secretary of Defense takes overlong lunch breaks or wastes a lot of time fumbling with the projector in meetings or whatever, if stuff seems real fucked up and bad on the defense front, if the Pentagon is constantly making the news for shitting down its pants leg in really alarming ways, then a regular person simply cannot be wrong to conclude that the Secretary of Defense is doing "a bad job."

The crucial thing, though, is that cabinet secretary is an actual job, a constellation of duties and responsibilities, even if these amount only or mainly to choosing the underlings who will do the department's real work. Moreover it's a public office, with outputs that show up, bidden or un-, in what it's like to live in the United States; the holder of that office inherits a portion of the president's mandate from the public, and is supposed to be accountable to society at large and the people who live in that society. A cabinet secretary's job performance, even if it can be tricky to evaluate with any specificity, matters to random members of the public in a way that some other famous person's job performance really doesn't, or couldn't. It has a different impact.

Accordingly, a cabinet secretary can't really have the same kind of relationship to the public that, say, some pro athlete might. Steph Curry can miss his next 250 three-point attempts in a row and it would still be fine for a reporter to ask him, like, "What's your perfect ice-cream sundae?" or "Are you a morning person?" or whatever. Whereas if the United States is losing a war of its own making, for instance, it would be appalling if a journalist with access to the Secretary of Defense used that access to ask about how the challenges of national defense speak to their "spiritual side."

Buddy, writing this shit feels very ridiculous. I am like 500 words into this sucker by now and I don't think I have yet touched on anything that is not at the very least strongly implied in what any American schoolkid would learn fairly early on in an eighth-grade civics class. I mention it because Wired published an interview that the reporter Virginia Heffernan conducted with U.S. Department of Transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg on Thursday, the contents of which certainly seem to indicate that some people over there either skipped that class or have a markedly different understanding of what a cabinet secretary does.

To wit: The first three paragraphs of the piece, in their entirety, are raw fawning praise of how smart Buttigieg is.

THE CURIOUS MIND of Pete Buttigieg holds much of its functionality in reserve. Even as he discusses railroads and airlines, down to the pointillist data that is his current stock-in-trade, the US secretary of transportation comes off like a Mensa black card holder who might have a secret Go habit or a three-second Rubik’s Cube solution or a knack for supplying, off the top of his head, the day of the week for a random date in 1404, along with a non-condescending history of the Julian and Gregorian calendars.

As Secretary Buttigieg and I talked in his underfurnished corner office one afternoon in early spring, I slowly became aware that his cabinet job requires only a modest portion of his cognitive powers. Other mental facilities, no kidding, are apportioned to the Iliad, Puritan historiography, and Knausgaard’s Spring—though not in the original Norwegian (slacker). Fortunately, he was willing to devote yet another apse in his cathedral mind to making his ideas about three mighty themes—neoliberalism, masculinity, and Christianity—intelligible to me.

Because Buttigieg, at 41, is an old millennial; because as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford he got a first in PPE (Philosophy, Politics, and Economics), the trademark degree for Labour-party elites of the Tony Blair era; because he worked optimizing grocery-store pricing at McKinsey; because he joined the Navy in hopes of promoting democracy in Afghanistan; because he got gay-married to his partner Chasten in 2018; and because, as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, he agitated to bring hipster entrepreneurism and “high-tech investment” to his rust-belt hometown, I had to ask him about neoliberalism, the happy idea that consumer markets and liberal democracy will always expand, and will always expand together. I was also fascinated by the way that Buttigieg, who has long described himself as obsessed with technology and data, has responded to the gendering of tech, and especially green tech, by fearsome culture warriors, including Marjorie Taylor Greene.

Did you scream out loud at "optimizing grocery-store pricing at McKinsey"? I did!

What a bizarre and depressing document this is. Fully half or more of the conversation, as published, concerns Buttigieg and Heffernan defining and then bemoaning the fate of "neoliberalism," as though Buttigieg were the head of the U.S. Department of Neoliberalism. (Which, to be fair, in the upper echelons of national Democratic party politics, basically everybody is that.) Having assessed neoliberalism's prospects, and on the far side of some moody staged photographs of the sort you might expect to accompany a Parade magazine profile of Jonah Hill, they move on to the subject of What We Talk About When We Talk About Masculinity. Later they consider Heffernan's assertion that the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol actually amounted to a "triumph of something like drudgery," because Congress, of which Buttigieg is not now and never has been a member, returned to its workday after all the deranged insurrectionists (and dead bodies) had been cleared out.

On the question of how transportation speaks to his "spiritual side," Buttigieg offers:

There’s just a lot in the scriptural tradition around journeys, around roads, right? The conversion of Saint Paul happens on the road. I think we are all nearer to our spiritual potential when we’re on the move.

OK man!

Reading this, I could not help but think of the baloney illusions of a recent but definitively long-gone period in American life, which this interview seemed determined to invoke, like dead ancestors whose life stories were entirely self-aggrandizing fiction. That ours is a stable and functioning society tended to by a stable and functioning government; that America's systems and economies run smoothly enough on their own that they can be left minimally futzed-with in their work of delivering the fruits of prosperity for everybody; and thus that it's possible and even desirable for the top power-holders in government to view their roles as essentially those of superintendents, keeping an eye on things. If a person (somehow) believes all that, then they might also believe that what's most newsworthy about a position like secretary of the Department of Transportation is the Very Special Smart Person who occupies it. That last bit would be insulting at this particular moment even if Buttigieg, personally, were not a breathtakingly dull McKinsey android. But: He is.

But also and more urgently: Look around you! Just in the portion of society under Buttigieg's remit, literally right now, the residents of an entire American town are dealing with the terrifying after-effects of a catastrophic freight-train derailment that spilled deadly chemicals all over where they live and deep down into the water they drink; they have received shockingly little help from government agencies that seem happy to let the derelict freight company responsible for that derailment take the lead on measuring and responding to the scale of the disaster it caused. Elsewhere under Buttigieg's responsibility, due to slack or nonexistent or co-opted oversight, miles-long trains are clogging up working-class towns, forcing kids to crawl under freight trains to get to school in the morning. Air travel in the United States remains a dystopian satire, and an industry optimized, McKinsey-style, to the point where it can barely function for lack of redundancy or resources; intercity rail is a wheezing and underfunded relic available almost nowhere. The country is desperately if not fatally overdue on large-scale adoption of energy-efficient forms of mass transit as a replacement for the cars and car infrastructure that are killing the planet. Where one might expect to find government leadership on that giant arduous society-wide undertaking is instead a giant vacuum, a void filled fleetingly now and again by this or that tech-idiot huckster cosplaying as an engineer, momentarily half-interested in crappy rent-seeking reinventions of what already exists.

All of this falls at least to some large degree in the ambit of the Department of Transportation, which is overseen by perspicacious mega-genius Pete Buttigieg. So if the average person can't know the quotidian details of the Secretary of Transportation's work life, it is enough for them to know, as a simple and indisputable fact, while kitchen faucets in East Palestine vomit deadly poison into drinking glasses and doomed-from-birth high-speed rail projects die near-instant deaths around the country, that Buttigieg is doing a very bad job in a very important role. In light of that, for a journalist to compliment him on what a small portion of his "cathedral mind" he evidently devotes to his job is fucking obscene. I too dedicate only a minor portion of my cognitive powers to the job of running the Department of Transportation! This is not because I have so incredibly many of those powers; neither is it because the job of running the Department of Transportation is not sufficiently vast to fill my cavernous mind-cathedral. It is because, much like Pete Buttigieg, I am not doing that job.

Betrayed in here—and not just by the handwringing over poor, mistreated neoliberalism—is the centrist media-class idea, which is on the merits perhaps marginally to the left of those who think the cabinet departments shouldn't exist at all, about just what the fuck top governmental offices are and are for. This idea is that the right purpose of the uppermost offices in American society is to reward shiny-eyed achievement-bot Tracy Flick types with forms of celebrity and social clout they could never accomplish by earning wider humanity's esteem, trust, or affection. You can see the appeal this might hold to a certain stripe of Ivy-educated journalist. It's a conception of the world that casts the whole wretched thing and everybody else in it as a big mirror in which the fanciest and most entitled of smug pricks might congratulate themselves on how sharp they are looking.

At a certain point in the interview, during a discussion of, ah, "what's going to stop the androgen-addled, Putin-besotted ideologues" (hey, don't look at me, I'm just transcribing the shit), Buttigieg makes passing reference to "every time I get a letter of support from a House Republican for a transportation project using funds from the bill they voted against." Oh ho ho! Were this a real interview, rather than an advertisement for the Buttigieg brand, you might expect the journalist to press for some names, here. Might some Republican voters care to know which of their representatives are clownfrauds? Might this at least lead to some righteously entertaining moments as those House Republicans then face questions about being called out by name by Pete friggin' Buttigieg? Alternatively, might readers at least delight in Buttigieg himself sweating and squirming as it quickly becomes clear that he made that shit up?

It goes unremarked-upon, of course. To treat that revelation as newsworthy would be to treat government as real, to see the fact of its existence as the real marshaling of vast and very real resources to address real problems and real needs, with real stakes for real communities of real people, rather than as the amphitheater stage on which America's Favorite Boy performs the admirable largeness of his perspective. What matters most, after all, is the blandly Upworthy shit any of this makes Pete Buttigieg think, or claim to think, about the durability of truth and the spirituality of road trips.

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