Tag Archives: service

In Pete’s Words: The Harvard Crimson

Enjoy columns written by then-student
Pete Buttigieg from 2003 and 2004


The Liberal Art of Redefinition

May 28, 2004 – Compassion. Strength. Morality.

Seeing is Believing

May 10, 2004 – Wilfred Owen and Donald Rumsfeld have next to nothing in common, but Owen’s most important poem and Rumsfeld’s most important Senate testimony Friday share the same controlling nuance…

Making it Worse

April 26, 2004 – One of the classic devices in situation comedy—and some tragedy—is for a character’s solution to a simple problem to prove worse than the problem itself. Rather than accept the consequences of a mistake, the hero comes up with a solution that makes things worse, until things escalate into a climax either with hilarious consequences, or catastrophe, depending on the genre…

Parts of Speech

April 12, 2004 – Politics is always novelistic, but the last week’s worth of news had me flashing back to high school English class…

Running Out of Context

March 22, 2004 – In the middle of a book of short sayings and poems, the great Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran (1883-1931) wrote, “Half of what I am telling you has no meaning. But I am telling it to you so that you will understand the meaning of the other half.” It is a defense of the importance of context and it is timely today. In a presidential election year, context is as acutely necessary as it is rare…

Future Imperfect

March 08, 2004 – History has its place, but a lack of balance in the campaign—evidenced by the fact that people know more about his Vietnam service than his politics—can only play into Bush’s hands by taking focus away from the future, which is where his true advantage lies…

1968 Revisited

February 23, 2004 – “The past is never dead,” Faulkner famously said. “It isn’t even past.” As if to prove him right, the press stayed busy last week exploring the dubious narrative of how President Bush got into, and out of, service in the National Guard during the Vietnam War, eyeing its implications for the coming election…

Prudes and Puritans

February 09, 2004 – The American Right Wing is not comfortable with the female form. So we were reminded last week, when Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell voiced his horror at the half-second exposure of Janet Jackson’s famous right breast during the Super Bowl…

Story Lines

January 26, 2004 – Americans need a narrative. Seeking patterns and repetition in history is rooted in the American tradition, ever since the Puritans sought to explain current events in terms of Biblical precedent. Known as typology, their method of reading history, literature and scripture reinforced the idea of divine providence by showing how current events were history in the making, repeating events from earlier, usually in the Bible…

A Vision Thing

January 14, 2004 – Democrats who feel emboldened by weaknesses in the administration are right to look forward to developments in 2004 like the special prosecutor investigation of the CIA leak from the White House, or a forthcoming report by the 9/11 commission that will likely embarrass the President. But those who count on it to bring down the administration are urinating on the wrong tree…

The Struggle for Language

December 08, 2003 – Conservative control over the language of policy is largely creditable to an extremely effective intellectual infrastructure, but the structure of the media makes it all possible. When all discourse must be reduced to brief television packages, anyone who can come up with a two-word version of a complex policy will be rewarded…

Lessons Unlearned

November 24, 2003 – For all the worrisome (comforting?) continuity between the tone of news culture five years ago and its tone today, no one can deny that, unlike the media, political culture has profoundly changed. This asymmetry is dangerous…

Rock the Vote?

November 10, 2003 – Music is always regarded as an index of the times, so a glance at what’s changed in our short student lifetimes could tell us a thing or two. And indeed, there are some lessons in even a casual overview of what has happened to campus music trends just in the last few years…

Hollywood Hypocrisy vs. Neo-Liberal Neurosis

October 27, 2003 – If precedent is any guide, Chris Matthews will ask Al Sharpton tonight at the Institute of Politics (IOP) what his favorite movie is. And if precedent is any guide, it will be his most difficult question of the night. On each of our last two Monday nights of Hardball, the candidate-guest has struggled with the first genuine softball of the evening…

Presidential Poetry

October 14, 2003 – “If more politicians knew poetry and more poets knew politics,” said John F. Kennedy ’40, “I am convinced that the world would be a better place in which to live.” In fact, poetry and politics have had a longstanding relationship…

Frightened—and Fighting Fear

September 29, 2003 – If you feel like getting goose bumps today, borrow your English-concentrating roommate’s copy of the Norton Anthology of English Literature and read W. B. Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming.” Though written in Ireland in 1922, many observers have pointed out that the poem seems almost explicitly about the second coming of the Bush Administration…

The Prospects of Its Youth

February 06, 2003 – Recently, public service has come to be understood exclusively as the direct assistance of the unfortunate by those who are able to help—an activity most commonly described as “community service.” Such activity, from tutoring immigrant children in English to volunteering at a homeless shelter, is rightly one of the cornerstones of extracurricular involvement on our campus…

In Pete’s Words: What Will Your Role Be?

by Peter P.M. Buttigieg May 25, 2016 (TheCrimson.com)

I took a seat at the table, and the new Indiana Secretary of Commerce turned to me. Not realizing I was the mayor-elect he had traveled here to meet, he genially asked a question I had often heard at introductions in the corporate world: “So what’s your role?”

I tried to think of a response that would clear things up but not embarrass him. You couldn’t blame him for not instantly recognizing me; after all, I was not only new but also 29 years old. I said: “the title is mayor-elect, but the role is more of a philosophical question.”

By some turn of organizational American English, the word “role” has become a euphemism for “job title.” Yet there is a deep distinction between roles and titles, and grasping this is especially urgent for a young person leaving the warm embrace of a place like Harvard, who might be en route to a first full-time job title (and a new role).

If you had pulled me aside on Commencement Day, 2004, to ask what title I might like to hold in ten years, the reply would not have been terribly imaginative. “Professor,” I might have said, or “attorney,” or “Congressman.” All worthy titles, of course. But you can bear such positions well or poorly, use them or squander them. My answer would have been shallow because the question is shallow.

But had you asked what I thought my role in life might be, you might have gotten me thinking about the inscription on the gate by Massachusetts Avenue that reads on one side, “ENTER TO GROW IN WISDOM” and on the other, “DEPART TO SERVE BETTER THY COUNTRY AND THY KIND.” Soaked in history, literature, and IOP events, I had grown just enough in wisdom to understand that fulfillment and purpose would come through service to others.

Like many classmates, I was still overly concerned with what titles I would hold one day. Only by eventually relaxing that interest would I find an unlikely and twofold path toward the role that now defines my work: to put ideas into practice, apply my education, and make myself useful to my community and country.

The day of my 10th reunion, I was awoken at about 3 a.m. by a rousing phone call from my old roommates from Leverett House. I was on leave from the mayor’s office for seven months to go on active duty orders, asleep in my quarters at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. I’ve never been happier to get a call in the middle of the night. Over there, my roles included working to help disrupt funding to the Taliban, mentoring enlisted analysts, and ensuring that American personnel in the vehicles I drove or guarded got to their destinations on time and alive. Had you told my 22-year-old self that I would one day hold the title of ATFC LNO to CJIATF-A, I would have been mystified by the military gibberish. But explaining that I would one day be an officer trusted with the lives of soldiers and civilians in a war zone would have motivated me to live up to that call.

Likewise, at 22 I would not have seen “mayor” as a title in my future. To the extent I thought about holding office, I assumed then (naively, and despite a good education) that national politics was where all the important decisions happened. But if you had explained that there would come an opportunity to play a meaningful role in the revitalization of my once-declining hometown, to help shape streets and neighborhoods and lives, I might have heard a calling.

I had no idea that those titles would prove to be the specific vehicles for a longed-for role as an effective public servant—and an exceptionally fulfilling professional life. Nor could I have foreseen the path that brought me here, which included a brief business career and a doomed run for Indiana State Treasurer (a job title I’d never heard of in 2004). That path became possible only once worrying about the next position took a back seat to an expansive sense of what my role could be.

The public servants I most admire from our generation of Harvard graduates have made the kind of choices that deep vocation requires: decisions to go live in an unglamorous place, to pass up more superficially appealing and respectable opportunities, even to risk one’s life for a greater good. They now play compelling roles because they pursued not a position but a disposition.

If you are called to play an impactful and positive role in, say, the relationship between the U.S. and the Muslim world, why fixate on whether your path to that role sees you titled as an activist or novelist, soldier or scholar, cleric or diplomat?

A Harvard degree is a rare and powerful tool to impact and shape your surroundings. It is certainly useful for securing a coveted title. Titles matter, but like a good education, a title is a tool. Your job matters when it lets you contribute to your role—not the other way around.

Peter P.M. Buttigieg ’04 is mayor of South Bend, Ind. A former president of the IOP’s Student Advisory Committee and columnist for The Crimson, he lived in Leverett House as an undergraduate.