Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and his husband, author Chasten Buttigieg, married in 2018 and have been wanting to become parents for a while. The excitement and joy they felt as they anticipated becoming parents were similar to what other childless couples experience as they await the birth of their baby or the finalization of adoption procedures.
In a CNN update published Aug. 17, Buttigieg said: “For some time, Chasten and I have wanted to grow our family. We’re overjoyed to share that we’ve become parents!” Soon after determining that his staff could handle transportation matters in his absence — supported by their access to him by text, phone, fax and email, Buttigieg began a paternity leave to help Chasten with their twins, Penelope Rose and Joseph August.
Some criticized Politico’s original characterization in a Thursday newsletter that Buttigieg has been ‘MIA’ — or missing in action — from his job. As White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield reacted: “To call parenting your newborns being ‘MIA’ is to render invisible every single working parent in this country. Outdated, embarrassing and unacceptable.”
The U.S. Department of Transportation told Politico that Buttigieg was back on the job after four weeks of mostly offline paternity leave and was steadily increasing his work activities.
But that didn’t stop the presumptive “heir apparent” of hate-monger Rush Limbaugh, Tucker Carlson, from fomenting anger toward Buttigieg through innuendo, sarcasm and bigoted diatribe on his Oct. 14 Fox News broadcast, Tucker Carlson Tonight. He said: “Pete Buttigieg has been on leave from his job since August after adopting a child. Paternity leave, they call it. Trying to figure out how to breastfeed, no word on how that went.”
“Paternity leave, they call it. Trying to figure out how to breastfeed, no word on how that went.”
Asked the next day, on MSNBC, about Carlson’s attack, Secretary Buttigieg replied: “Look, this attack is coming from a guy who has yet to explain his apparent approval for the assassination of Harvey Milk, so obviously we know that there’s some dark places where some of these attitudes come from. But I also note that that doesn’t speak for the country. I don’t think that even speaks for most people on the other side of the aisle from the party that I belong to. This is largely a consensus issue, not just a support for families like mine to have a right to marry and right to be treated equally but also that families in general, moms and dads, ought to be able to support their children, including with paid family leave.”
Pushed by MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace, who characterized the attack as “misogynistic” and “homophobic,” Buttigieg made light of it — but still made a significant point — by saying: “Look, in his case, I guess he just doesn’t understand the concept of bottle feeding, let alone the concept of paternity leave. But what’s really strange is that, you know, this is from a side of the aisle that used to claim the mantle of being pro-family.”
Carlson’s unscrupulous attack and Buttigieg’s principled defense are both indicative of the men themselves.
Tucker Carlson has been a rising media star who began with CNN and then MSNBC but turned to Fox News in 2009. A strong advocate of President Trump and “Trumpism,” Carlson’s “remarks on race, immigration, and women — including slurs he said on air between 2006 and 2011 — have at times been described as racist and sexist, and have provoked advertiser boycotts of Tucker Carlson Tonight.”
“Carlson’s unscrupulous attack and Buttigieg’s principled defense are both indicative of the men themselves.”
He is an anti-progressive and has promoted conspiracy theories on immigration, COVID-19 and the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol riot. According to Politico, “Republican strategists, conservative commentators, and former Trump campaign and administration officials are buzzing about Carlson as the next-generation leader of Donald Trump’s movement — with many believing he would be an immediate frontrunner in a Republican primary.” He is known for his often-outrageous comments and responses to news stories.
Buttigieg has been a rising Democratic political star and serves as the youngest cabinet member in the Biden administration and the youngest ever secretary of Transportation. After his education at Harvard and Oxford University, which he attended on a Rhodes Scholarship, he was a lieutenant in the intelligence division of the Navy Reserve and was deployed to the war in Afghanistan in 2014. He was the first openly gay presidential candidate to win a major primary or caucus and the first openly gay member of the U.S. Cabinet. He is known for his thoughtful and informed comments and responses to journalists’ questions.
Carlson’s remarks about Buttigieg are wrong-headed and bigoted in several ways.
First, he acts as if he doesn’t know anything about fathers being granted a leave after the birth or adoption of a baby. Buttigieg took four weeks of granted leave after the adoption of twins. While the transportation secretary says that parenting is “joyful” and wonderful work,” nonetheless “it’s definitely work.” By saying of this leave, “Paternity leave, they call it,” the popular purveyor of schlock feigns an unawareness of the growing national acknowledgment of the importance for fathers to participate in the early weeks of a newborn’s life. But he is more egregiously disingenuous, because his own employer, Fox News, grants a six-week paternity leave to its own male employees — which some of Carlson’s own colleagues have gratefully taken.
“His own employer, Fox News, grants a six-week paternity leave to its own male employees — which some of Carlson’s own colleagues have gratefully taken.”
Then, with the additional comment that drew such backlash and accusations of homophobia — “Trying to figure out how to breastfeed, no word on how that went” — Carlson was mimicking middle school humor, perhaps hoping to appeal to a large segment of his listeners. Is his next regression going to be when he starts dropping bathroom potty words into his televised conversations, like preschool and elementary school boys frequently do?
Of course, this slam at Buttigieg was a not-so-veiled homophobic comment, but it also was an affront to the many new mothers who have difficulty successfully breastfeeding.
And it was indeed a slap at the millions of new parents who cannot afford nannies or professional breast-feeding classes or other costly new parenting options, although not a problem for Carlson and his wife, with his $6 million annual salary and $30 million net worth.
On the ABC program The View, in the opening segment called “Hot Topics,” the offensive diatribe by Carlson was discussed. None of the women commentators defended his words. Lawyer Sunny Hostin summed up the view of his comments nicely: “He is an equal opportunity bigot.”
My hunch is that Secretary Buttigieg will quickly look past this affront and move back to his important work with enthusiasm and the characteristic intelligence for which he is becoming well known. I also suspect that Carlson will take the backlash of criticism in stride, as he has become very comfortable wearing the mantle of host of the most-watched cable news program on television.
I am appalled by what this recent example of political theater says about a huge segment of American viewers who support a person who makes fun of his political and personal enemies on national television and who slants the truth and clouds his reporting with insinuation, falsehood and snide asides.
But I also have an idea why Carlson is relishing his reputation as television’s bad boy. Maybe he is hoping that if he fails to get the Republican nomination but Donald Trump is reelected in 2024, then he, too, will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, as Rush Limbaugh did in 2020.
Rob Sellers is professor of theology and missions emeritus at Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon Seminary in Abilene, Texas. He is a past chair of the board of the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago. He and his wife, Janie, served a quarter century as missionary teachers in Indonesia. They have two children and five grandchildren and now live in Waco, Texas.
Baptist Press, Fox News and America’s departure from reality | Opinion by Mark Wingfield
Why the U.S. is uniquely divided: Engaging a scholar from New Zealand | Opinion by David Gushee