Mike Pence, meet Dan Quayle.
Like Pence, Quayle hailed from Indiana and feared being dumped by a president whose re-election seemed uncertain. In Quayle’s case, George HW Bush calculated that the cost of unloading his gaffe-prone and draft-avoiding veep outweighed any potential advantage. Quayle kept his spot. Bush lost to Bill Clinton.
Pence’s prospects appear similarly shaky. With Trump trailing in the polls – and facing impeachment – reports are rife of Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump seeking to drop Pence for Nikki Haley, a former South Carolina governor and ambassador to the United Nations. Pence’s beatific gaze at his boss, coupled with his evident discomfort with modernity, have left him vulnerable to media mockery as well as presidential whim.
Tom LoBianco is the latest author to attempt to fill in the blanks on the canvas that is the vice-president. Unlike some Pence books, the result is neither hit job nor hagiography. Rather, the veteran Pence-watcher portrays his subject as a committed Christian with sharp elbows and a sonorous voice, one who has struggled with the tugs of faith and ambition, his sensibilities now dulled by baptism in Trump’s swamp.
“The man with stark principles kept slipping away, clouded by his ambition and political maneuvering,” LoBianco writes. But “Trump only made Pence’s machinations more obvious to those who had watched for decades”. For the biblically minded, Jacob’s sojourn in the house of Laban, his corrupt father-in-law, gives steadfastness a better name than the current VP.
Pence refused to be interviewed by LoBianco. But those in his orbit provide useful context in assessing a man whose time as governor of Indiana was filled with more than a fair share of debacles but who wound up on a winning national ticket.
Pence owes much to the fusion of evangelical Protestantism to unvarnished capitalism and the spirit of the Tea Party
He made a hash of the state’s Religious Freedoms Restoration Act, which would have prohibited a “governmental entity from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion, even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability”.
Despite Pence’s denials, the law was instantly viewed as an invitation to discriminate against gays and lesbians. Pence capitulated and signed remedial legislation, but only after receiving a drubbing at the hands of ABC’s George Stephanopoulos – a Rhodes scholar, holder of an Oxford degree in theology, son of a Greek Orthodox priest.
Pence’s political existence owes much to the fusion of evangelical Protestantism to unvarnished capitalism and the spirit of the Tea party. While seeking divine guidance, he has kept at least one eye on the Koch brothers’ munificence, broader cultural resentments and demographic upheaval.
Back in 1992, when Bush and Quayle were primed for defeat, Pence was thinking kindly of Pat Buchanan, the Nixon speechwriter and paleo-conservative who challenged Bush for the nomination. Buchanan’s ideological heir now lives in the White House, Pence striving to stay by his side.
LoBianco also writes of the Pence and his wife Karen, the spouse he calls “mother”, and their time in the Indiana statehouse. They would spend the day talking on the phone, even as she maintained a nearby office, in order to avoid prying eyes. According to LoBianco, it was Karen, not Mike, who was the “new sheriff in town”.
Piety and Power describes an exchange between Trump and Pence in which the candidate tells his prospective running mate he wants a “killer” on his ticket, and cites Chris Christie as a prime example. Pence did not rise to the bait, reportedly responding that if Trump truly wished for a “constant attack dog, I suggest that you go find someone else”. But if Trump wanted a vice-president “to help get bills passed through Congress”, then Pence was his “guy”.
Pence is in the middle of Trump’s efforts to shake down Ukraine in exchange for lowering the boom on the Bidens
Really? Pence stood helplessly on the Senate floor as the late John McCain torched the attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act, after Pence had “consistently reassured” the president “that they would have the votes needed to do away” with Obamacare.
Pence also verged on the irrelevant to the president’s signature achievement, the 2017 tax cut. Pence played cheerleader but the plays were called by Republican congressional leaders and the gods of industry.
Pence lacks the impact he had on the campaign trail. His advice is not in demand. Trump has forged his own bonds with the religious right. The distance between Trump, Stormy Daniels, Jerry Falwell Jr and his pool boy is about a hair’s breadth. Figuratively, if not literally.
Karen Pence remarked in October 2016, “We knew what we were signing up for.” Really?
What Pence does do well is swallow his pride and raise money. In contrast to Trump, who hates schmoozing and schnoring, “donors loved talking with Pence and he loved listening”. But Pence could and did go “too far”. His standard $75,000-per-person ask for lunches and dinners in “small settings” triggered Trump. For all of Pence’s obsequiousness, Trump came to question his loyalty.
Unfortunately, Pence now finds himself in the middle of Trump’s efforts to shake down Ukraine in exchange for lowering the boom on the Bidens. This is what the brass ring can look like.
Pence’s journey, and to a lesser degree LoBianco’s book, reflect the dilemma faced by faith communities at a time when religious “nones” are a growing part of the population, organized religion is mired in scandal and mainline Protestantism, the creed of the Founding Fathers, has ceded its sway.
As Ted Cruz, a preacher’s son, learned in the 2016 Republican primaries, the heart of political evangelism lies not in the pews but at Daytona and Talladega, the cathedrals of Nascar. American evangelism has evolved into caffeinated American nationalism, white identity lurking near the surface.
The spirit of Protestant dissent, which fueled rebellion against the crown, has given way to declaring that Trump is God’s anointed. Franklin Graham, the late Billy Graham’s son, threatened Americans with heaven’s wrath if they had the temerity to criticize the president: “The Bible says it is appointed unto man once to die and then the judgment.” Piety and Power is an American tale.