Mike Pence and the Taking of the White House
By Tom LoBianco

After losing his first campaign for Congress, a penitent Mike Pence swore off the dark side of politics. In a confessional essay in 1991, he wrote that “negative campaigning is wrong” and set out rules for himself for the future. Any campaign, he said, “ought to demonstrate the basic human decency of the candidate,” must advance a goal greater than personal desire and should not be only “about winning.”

A quarter-century later, he signed onto the presidential ticket of a candidate who seemed to be the antithesis of the ideal Pence once envisioned. While Pence himself maintains a public dignity and eschews vitriol against opponents in keeping with his long-ago atonement, he has tethered himself to a president who revels in negative campaigning, makes winning his all-consuming aspiration and has rarely been accused of an excess of human decency.

That Faustian bargain makes Pence one of the most intriguing yet least understood figures in American politics today. What mix of ambition, duty, principle and expedience led him to the vice presidency in the White House of Donald J. Trump? How does a devoted evangelical Christian serve a foulmouthed, thrice-married vulgarian who boasts of grabbing women by their private parts and paid hush money to a porn star alleging an extramarital affair? What virtues does Pence see in Trump? Does he genuinely admire him the way he seems to in those rapturous photo ops? Or does he secretly see himself as the last grown-up in the room, keeping things from being worse?

Tom LoBianco asks all the right questions in “Piety & Power,” his crisp and engaging biography of the vice president, but the answers remain elusive. As a reporter in Indiana, LoBianco covered Pence’s rise for The Associated Press and Indianapolis Star. He tells us of a boy from a plain Midwestern upbringing who explored the intersection of faith and politics and became a radio host, congressman and governor. But LoBianco is left — along with the rest of us — to wonder at the interior life that Pence guards so zealously.

One clue may be his wife, Karen, known to the public mainly because the vice president refuses to meet alone with women other than her. Her influence seems significant. The cherry-red telephone on his desk as governor was a direct line to Karen, who maintained an office across the statehouse atrium but preferred phone conversations to avoid prying eyes. Karen, LoBianco reports, “was livid” at Trump’s prurient comments in the “Access Hollywood” tape, but her husband concluded it was too late to drop off the ticket. On election night, 2016, Karen refused to kiss Pence. “You got what you wanted, Mike,” she told him. “Leave me alone.”

What he really wants is what almost every vice president wants — to be president. He hoped to run in 2016 and in fact even former President George W. Bush sent a message through intermediaries urging him to “please stop Trump and save the Republican Party.” Instead, he joined Trump — selected, LoBianco concludes, because Trump figured the dry and ponderous Pence would not compete for airtime.

Apparently, Pence assumed that Trump would not run again in 2020, clearing the way for him. Now he is committed to waiting another four years until 2024, unless impeachment leads to an earlier exit by the president. Either way, he is linked inextricably to Trump as the nation studies the vice president to understand who he really is. For now, at least, he is not saying, and we are left to make what we can of the small clues.

When an evangelical pastor who once prayed with Pence in his congressional office ran into him at a ceremony last year, he told him: “You know, Mr. Vice President, more than anything, we need you to find your conscience, the country desperately needs you to find your conscience.”

“It’s always easier said than done,” Pence replied cryptically, and then walked away.

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