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It’s unlikely that any vice president working under Donald Trump could have found the space in the last four years to define themselves on their own terms. The former president had an unrivalled talent for sucking all the media oxygen out of any room.
But even for someone who touts his discretion as an asset, Mike Pence leaves office with a reputation as something of a grey man, and many questions about his own motivations unanswered. The most pressing of those questions today is whether he has ambition to follow in the footsteps of many vice presidents before him and make a run for the White House.
Call it a gap year, a meditation or a vision quest, Pence is now in the process of figuring that out. He is currently working out of a transition office in Virginia and will soon head back to his home state of Indiana to reconnect with family before coming to a decision about his future. Recent polls found he is the second most popular figure in the Republican Party after Trump, and would be a front-runner should his former boss choose not to run.
While Pence contemplates his future, residents in his hometown of Columbus, a city of 48,000 between Indianapolis and Louisville, are doing the same. Could the grey man really become president?
“He’s probably wondering that himself,” says Tom Pickett, a music shop owner who has known Pence since he was in high school. “He’s wanted to do that all his life.”
Pickett met Pence as a teenager when he wandered into his Columbus shop in 1977 to buy a $500 Alvarez acoustic guitar, which he then taught him how to play. Now 90 years old, Pickett still runs his music shop in the same town.
“He bought the guitar himself, every penny, and paid for his own lessons. He pumped gasoline from the filling station and delivered newspapers to do it,” Pickett recalls.
Stuck next to the doorway in the entrance of his shop is a life-size photograph of Pence playing that same guitar when he was governor of Indiana, taken at a concert in honour of Pickett’s service to the town. Pickett has dutifully followed the progress of his former student in the years after he left Columbus. From his time as a popular local talk radio host, to Congress, on to the Indiana governor’s mansion and finally to the White House. Needless to say, he is a fan.
“He walked a very tight line between being a good vice president for President Trump, and what he thought was right and wrong and the way he was raised. He’s a very decent and honourable man.”
Pence managed to walk that line for the almost entirety of his four-year term, right up until the final days. He stood by Trump through a scandal-plagued presidency, often talking up his unlikely friendship. Pence described himself as “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order”, while for most of his life Trump was none of those things.
He remained loyal through the sex scandals and the violent language — the kind of behaviour a younger Pence might have spent time admonishing on his radio show all those years ago. He remained quiet throughout the president’s months-long campaign to overturn the results of the November election, until the point at which he was called upon by Trump to exercise powers that he didn’t have to stop the certification of the electoral college votes.
On 6 January, as Trump’s supporters gathered outside the US Capitol building while certification was underway, Pence said in the chamber he could not fulfil the president’s wish. The reaction was swift and harsh. Trump attacked his most loyal ally in a way he had never done before: “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution,” he tweeted.
The crowds shouted Pence’s name as they marauded through the corridors of the Capitol. Pence and his family were forced to take refuge in an underground bunker while the president watched the attack unfold on television.
For many of Trump’s supporters, it was an unforgivable act of betrayal. For some Columbus residents, however, it was perhaps the only redeeming act of his entire term.
“I was pleased that at the very end that he stood up to Trump and did his job,” says Kathy, who gave only her first name, “but I was very disappointed the whole rest of the four years that he didn’t stand up to him.”
“He was a Yes Man. He lied a number of times in describing what Trump was doing. His overall legacy is negative but I was proud of him at the very end,” she adds, describing his legacy as “mixed.”
“The people who are staunch Republicans and who supported him all along probably feel very positive. Those of us who didn’t agree with his views early on still don’t agree.”
Indeed, before the pandemic took hold in the US and Pence was named head of the coronavirus task force, his term was largely defined by his staunch loyalty to Trump. He was considered a source of stability in a revolving door administration, so much so that he was given the nickname of “sycophant in chief” by Joel Goldstein, a vice presidential expert and law professor at St. Louis University.
Zach Flynn, a Columbus who describes himself as “more liberal” than Pence, has a similar view.
“I think generally he kinda went along with Trump,” he says. “I thought that it was at least noble that he kind of stood for the democratic values of our country in the final days. I guess that’s how I’ll remember him. He was kinda just in the background a lot of the time otherwise.”
Flynn, 30, grew up in a Columbus that is likely much different to the one Pence left after high school in the late Seventies. The city is known for an embarrassment of architectural riches — the result of a programme by a local engine manufacturer to subsidise public buildings in the 1950s.
J. Irwin Miller, who ran the giant Cummins plant at the time, gave the money on the condition that the buildings were designed by great architects. The town is filled with mid-century modernist masterpieces by Harry Weese, Eero and Eliel Saarinen, Cesar Pelli, Richard Meier, Robert Venturi and James Polshek. Flynn is standing in front of the city library by I.M. Pei, in front of which is a sculpture by British artist Henry Moore.
But while those masterpieces remain, the town itself has changed. In 2019, voters here elected a majority Democratic city council for the first time in nearly 40 years. It has seen an influx of new residents, too: the population has almost doubled since Pence moved away.
“It’s still largely white, but there’ve been a lot more people coming from other places coming in. There’s been more cultural infusion, which is good,” says Flynn.
The country has changed, too, since Pence first entered politics. Pence, who was raised a Catholic and later became a born-again Christian, opposed gay marriage legislation during his 12 years in Congress and as governor of Indiana. He objected to ending “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that prevented openly gay and lesbian people from serving in the military.
While the religiously conservative Pence might have made sense as a running mate to fill the gaps in the brash and populist Trump’s path to victory, winning on the top of the ticket may prove harder. Support for same-sex marriage has steadily grown among Americans for years: In a 2004 Pew Research Center, Americans opposed same-sex marriage by a margin of 60 per cent to 31 per cent. Those numbers were flipped on their head by 2019, with 61 per cent in support and 31 per cent in opposition.
In the Republican Party, however, Pence is seen as a potential successor to Trump. While the former president is far and away the most popular figure in the party with 54 per cent favourability, Pence comes in second at 12 per cent (and ahead of the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr, who polls at 6 per cent).
It is for that reason that Pence’s continued loyalty to Trump might be seen as a political ploy, a calculation to keep Trump on side to earn his backing and that of his supporters. Where Trump goes, so does the party. Pence has reportedly maintained his friendship with Trump and speaks with him often, according to Indiana Congressman Jim Banks, who chairs the conservative Republican Study Committee. Banks said this month that Pence would be “launching an organisation defending the successful Trump-Pence record of the last four years.”
Kyle Hupfer, state chairman of the Indiana Republican Party who has known Pence for 10 years, differs from those residents who see his legacy as defined by Trump.
“I think Americans recognise him for his leadership and steady hand as vice president,” he says. “My guess is long term, when we get decades out, his term is probably largely going to be credited for some of the success with Covid here in the states.
“He’s got a really high favourability for his time as vice president. Certainly here in Indiana, where he’s family, folks really appreciate what he’s done and appreciate him as a person.
But, he adds, the question of what comes next for him is still unclear.
“I’ll let him speak to his plans. We welcomed him back [to Columbus] after inauguration, and he told the folks there that he and [his wife] Karen were going to take some time together as a family to pray and figure out what his future holds.
“But I certainly think he is going to continue to be a strong voice in American policy discussion. He’s got a long history both before and while he was vice president to be a strong voice for the conservative movement and I think he’ll continue to be a voice.”
In the meantime, Pickett will hold out hope that his former student takes the leap.
“We’re proud of him here and I hope he becomes president,” he says. “It’s always hard to say what somebody else would do. What you hope they would do is based on what you’ve seen in the past. He would be as honest in doing the right thing as anyone I could think of.”
Flynn is not so sure.
“I doubt I would vote for him. There are some people who just work better behind the scenes. Not front and centre,” he says.