An 18-year-old Pete Buttigieg won a JFK Library essay contest. His subject was Bernie Sanders.

Caroline Kennedy and Pete Buttigieg in 2000.
Caroline Kennedy and Pete Buttigieg in 2000. –Courtesy of The JFK Library Foundation

Nearly two decades ago, an Indiana high school student won a national award from the John F. Kennedy Library for his essay about a little-known Vermont congressman.

Out of more than 600 submissions, the Boston institution picked 18-year-old Pete Buttigieg as the winner of its 2000 Profile in Courage Essay Contest for his piece on then-Rep. Bernie Sanders, which praised the House’s sole Independent member for “giving me an answer to those who say American young people see politics as a cesspool of corruption, beyond redemption.”

“I have heard that no sensible young person today would want to give his or her life to public service,” Buttigieg wrote. “I can personally assure you this is untrue.”

That said, even Buttigieg admits he couldn’t have imagined how true those words would be.

“There’s no way I would have guessed that I’d be in this situation,” he said in a recent interview on the podcast “Pod Save America.”

After attending Harvard and Oxford, working in consulting, becoming mayor of his home city of South Bend, and serving in the Navy Reserves, Buttigieg’s name has become a hot commodity in Democratic politics. The 37-year-old is officially exploring a 2020 bid for the White House, amid a crowded field of Democratic candidates that includes Sanders, who is hoping to recapture the energy of his surprisingly successful 2016 campaign.

And now, at least in the early stages of the 2020 primary race, Buttigieg is the one riding a wave of unexpected national attention. A recent Iowa poll had the millennial mayor in third place among likely Democratic caucusgoers, trailing only former Vice President Joe Biden and Sanders. On Monday, his campaign announced a formidable first-quarter fundraising haul for any presidential candidate, let alone a small-city mayor.

“I absolutely would not have pictured then that I’d wind up potentially competing with him,” he told “Pod Save America,” when asked about running against his 77-year-old political idol.

In his essay, Buttigieg praised Sanders’s “courage” for describing himself as a “socialist,” at a time when most Democrats shied away from even the word “liberal” like “a horrid accusation.”

“Even though he has lived through a time in which an admitted socialist could not act in a film, let alone hold a Congressional seat, Sanders is not afraid to be candid about his political persuasion,” he wrote.

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