John Krull: Mike Pence, history’s plaything

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Mike Pence is proof that history can play with human lives the way a cat does a mouse.

Few people have craved political careers with the fervor the former vice president of the United States has. There’s evidence—a lot of it, in fact—to suggest that Pence began hungering for the presidency almost from the moment he emerged from the womb. Few teenage boys in Indiana devote as much time to debate and political studies as Pence did if they don’t have some engine of ambition driving them.

That engine pushed Pence through two losing campaigns for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, the second one of which turned him into a national joke when he drew living expenses from campaign funds. It drove him to stay active on talk radio and wait, patiently, for another shot.

When it came in 2000, he took his place in Congress and became part of a House Republican caucus that drifted ever rightward in the first part of the new century.

He rarely, though, demonstrated the gleeful malice and nastiness of a Newt Gingrich or Tom DeLay. His restless ambition counseled Pence that America, at that time, wasn’t likely to offer its greatest political prize—the White House—to an aspirant who snarled rather than smiled. Until that time, Americans had more readily responded to happy warriors—Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan—regardless of their party affiliation.

Pence’s ambition also prompted him to run for an office—Indiana governor—with duties he had no real desire to perform but that he saw as a necessary steppingstone for the top spot, the one he hungered for.

That Pence had neither the desire not the ability to be a successful governor became evident immediately. His time in office alternated between missteps and disasters.

His clumsy, tone-deaf advocacy for the misnamed Religious Freedom Restoration Act—an attempt to enshrine gay-baiting in state law—made Indiana a national and international pariah for a time. It also established him as the punchline for a legion of jests bout religion-inspired intolerance and cultural cluelessness.

But the RFRA disaster also provided him with a lifeline.

When it came time for Pence to run for re-election as governor in 2016, he was headed toward defeat.

Donald Trump, though, had emerged as the presidential nominee for the GOP. At the time, Trump was having trouble attracting evangelical voters.

Pence provided him with a solution to the problem, so they became unlikely running mates.

Theirs was an unlikely political marriage from the start.

Trump is all impulse, a guy who has never thought more than 20 seconds ahead his whole life. Pence is a plodder, a man who rehearses every ad lib at least 50 times.

There is much about Trump that must have troubled — and even offended — Pence to his core. Even so, for reasons of both self-interest and principled commitment — Trump now represented Pence’s only path to the Oval Office and Pence believed, genuinely, that vice presidents owe their presidents unstinting loyalty — Pence served Trump for almost four years with slavish devotion.

The breaking point came when Trump insisted that Pence, who considers himself a defender of constitutional principle, ignore our fundamental law and assert that a vice president has a right nowhere established in our national charter.

Pence refused.

Trump encouraged a mob to hunt the vice president down.

Pence had real reason to fear for his life — and for those of his wife and other family members.

There now are people who dismiss both the courage and integrity Pence demonstrated. They say he only did what the law and duty required him to do.

Such people aren’t being fair, for at least two reasons.

The first is that there are many other Republicans — including many other Hoosier Republicans — who steadfastly have refused to honor both law and duty during this sorry episode. Many of them had far less reason to feel indebted to Donald Trump.

The other reason is that dismissing Pence’s stand against the former president fails to appreciate what it cost the Hoosier who had hungered to serve as commander-in-chief for decades. The safest path to a future Republican presidential nomination was to stand with Trump, not against him.

But Pence didn’t — and that likely will cost him what he desires most.

History — it plays with people’s lives.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. The opinions expressed by the author do not reflect the views of Franklin College. Send comment to [email protected]

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