It’s a rare thing for a presidential candidate to keep his mouth shut at a campaign appearance. But that’s what Pete Buttigieg did, resolutely, during a 45-minute stop at a Washington, D.C. march Wednesday.
Buttigieg was not planning to speak at the event, a rally in front of the White House held by a group called Repairers of the Breach, organizers said.
Instead, he stared. He furrowed his brow. He nodded, almost imperceptibly. He clapped a few times, while a bevy of camera people recorded his every move and rally organizers pleaded with participants to focus, not on the array of presidential expressions fleeting across the candidate’s face, but on the people they had brought there to speak.
“Everyone who is with the march, if you could face this way,” an organizer said at one point, directing attendees to look away from where Buttigieg was sitting on a curb. “We’re facing this way. We’re not here with the candidate. We are looking forward.”
It was an unusual appearance for a candidate who has been riding a crest of public interest in recent weeks. Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, was in a three-way competition for second place out of the 23 candidates vying for the 2020 Democratic Nomination, according to a Des Moines Register/Mediacom/CNN Iowa Poll released this week. He was trailing former Vice President Joe Biden, along with Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
A former lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Reserve, Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and a graduate of Harvard University, Buttigieg has attracted attention across the country for rousing speeches that have garnered numerous comparisons to former President Barack Obama. He delivered his first foreign policy speech to a “capacity” crowd in Bloomington, Indiana, on Tuesday. His stop in Washington had him practicing another, less-heralded skill: the thoughtful gaze.
The event, a march on the White House in honor of “Moral Witness Wednesday,” was intended to “bring a warning to the Trump administration, to speak out against the policy violence that has been taking place,” said Rev. Stephen Roach Knight, one of the organizers. He did not answer questions about how Buttigieg came to be there and why he did not speak.
“The call went out across the country,” Knight said. “Mayor Buttigieg was one of the people who heard that call.”
Buttigieg’s campaign also declined to say on the record why he was there.
A group affiliated with Repairers of the Breach — Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival — is hosting 10 presidential candidates at a forum at Trinity University on Monday. Buttigieg is not attending that event, organizers said.
Buttigieg arrived Wednesday with a small entourage of aides before the rally attendees. “How do you feel this morning, mayor?” a cameraman asked. “Silent witness,” he said. “It’s not really an interview, thanks.”
Those were the only words Buttigieg was seen to utter as the protesters were shuffled from Lafayette Square, where they said they had a permit to gather, to a sidewalk outside. The park is routinely cleared during White House visits from foreign dignitaries, and the president of Poland was due to meet with Trump.
Buttigieg briefly sat, stone-faced, on a curb, while the attendees regrouped and a sidewalk protester shouted a profanity and, perplexingly, urged passers-by to “put a condom on it!” The candidate was then escorted to another spot, against a tree trunk, where he stood, impassively, as a shofar — a polished ram’s horn used in religious ceremonies — was blown to signal the start of the formal portion of the event.
“The focus here today is not any political party or any political candidate,” a speaker said. “It is clergy.” Buttigieg blinked and a series of cameras flashed. “A nation cannot be measured by the size of its army, or its dominance of the weak,” a speaker shouted. Buttigieg clasped his hands.
There were more speakers to come, religious leaders from assorted faiths who would talk about “upholding the Constitution,” the census, health care, the 14th amendment, the detention of children at the Mexican border and other issues.
Buttigieg listened to the agenda. He raised his chin. He lowered it. Then, without notice, he moved through the crowd, crossing the street and disappearing down the block, without making a sound.