Former vice president Mike Pence begins his new memoir, “So Help Me God,” by recounting the events of Jan. 6, 2021, when a mob summoned by then-President Donald Trump invaded the Capitol seeking to prevent Congress from certifying the 2020 presidential election. On the very first page, Pence notes that this was “the election we had lost.” On the very last page, in an appendix, he reproduces a letter he sent to Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Jan. 12, 2021, in which he refers to “President-elect Joe Biden.” But almost nowhere else in this book does Pence acknowledge that his running mate lost the election fair and square, and that Biden is his legitimate successor. It’s a significant minimization.
Pence didn’t play a particularly prominent role in the Trump administration, so it makes sense that the book’s most vivid chapter relates the events of Jan. 6, when the vice president’s ceremonial duty to preside over congressional certification of the electoral count took on enormous symbolic significance. Pence doesn’t convey the full horror of the Capitol invasion, but he writes compellingly of his outrage at how the mob “desecrated the seat of our democracy and dishonored the patriotism of millions of our supporters.”
The blunt facts of his bravery in remaining at the Capitol and his insistence that Congress reconvene that very evening to complete its work speak for themselves. It’s unclear if Pence intends this memoir as a calling card for some future campaign, but his honorable conduct during a dark and dangerous day for the nation makes for more compelling stump-speech material than most politicians can muster.
Aside from its one remarkable event, and its close-up descriptions of a unique figure in the history of the American presidency, Pence’s memoir resembles those of other politicians. The reader learns of his “idyllic” younger years in southern Indiana as one of six children in a devoutly Catholic Irish American family. Although he writes that President John F. Kennedy and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. were “the heroes of my youth,” Pence converted to evangelical Christianity and the Republican Party in college. Law school, marriage and a failed run for Congress soon followed. He spent the ’90s leading a small think tank and achieving modest success as a right-wing talk-radio and television host before winning election to Congress in 2000. In the House, Pence hewed to uniformly conservative positions. He was fully supportive of George W. Bush’s “war on terror” but frequently at odds with the president’s domestic policy, much of which he considered to be “big-government conservatism.”
As Pence ascended the ranks of party leadership, some conservative commentators and activists encouraged him to run for president. He acknowledges that he was interested but instead returned to Indiana in 2012 to run for governor. During Pence’s single term in that office, he pushed for tax cuts, abortion restrictions and a religious freedom bill that incurred wide opposition (including from a number of Indiana-based businesses) for its perceived discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community. Pence denies that the bill had discriminatory intent and concludes, in hindsight, that the controversy was “the first battle between woke corporate America and the American people.”
But Pence could also be pragmatic. He was one of the few Republican governors to accept federal funding to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, although he negotiated a waiver from the Obama administration to create a plan that included health-savings accounts. Pence allows that some conservatives called it a “sellout,” but he says that the plan “became a model for consumer-directed health care” in other states.
Pence’s popularity sagged during his time as governor, but his prospects for reelection in 2016 became moot when Trump tapped him to be his running mate. Pence declines to speculate about why Trump picked him over other contenders, but most analysts observed that he boosted the ticket in critical Rust Belt states and reassured evangelical voters who doubted the flamboyant and twice-divorced Trump’s commitment to traditional morality.
Pence didn’t play the usual vice-presidential roles of hatchet man and attack dog, largely because Trump amply filled those roles himself. Pence’s memoir offers a characteristically earnest and low-key survey of the Trump-Pence administration. It is long on partisan cheerleading but relatively short on personal attacks, aside from repeated criticisms of the Democratic Party and “the ever-divisive press.” It is unreliable as history, particularly in its claims for the successes of the administration’s handling of covid-19, where Pence skips over the myriad ways that Trump made the pandemic deadlier by politicizing public health. More generally, Pence portrays the decidedly mixed record of the administration as a nearly unbroken series of political wins, promises made and kept — up to Election Day 2020 anyway.
Pence’s descriptions of his interactions with Trump are among the most interesting parts of the book, although here too objectivity is not the author’s strong suit. At one point he emphasizes to his boss that, other than Trump’s family, “no one in this administration has been more loyal to you than me,” and for most of this account Pence offers up a loyalist’s defense. He excuses Trump’s venom as brashness, considers the high turnover in the administration to have been merely a byproduct of Trump’s business-minded willingness to fire underperformers, and insists that the chaos attested to by White House insiders was simply an “entrepreneurial and competitive” environment into which the president would inject “a bit of drama” to get results.
What, for his part, did Trump really think of his vice president? In one unintentionally revealing anecdote, Pence relates how he attended the musical “Hamilton” and, at the curtain, heard one of the cast members issue a statement on behalf of the show expressing anxiety and alarm over the administration’s lack of commitment to protecting a diverse America. “I wasn’t offended by anything he said,” Pence writes, but Trump “was outraged — mostly as a New Yorker. ‘Broadway is almost like going to church,’ he told me.” When Pence declined to turn the episode into culture-war point-scoring, Trump “good-naturedly” admonished him: “You took the high road. I never take the high road.” Somehow one doubts that Trump intended that as a compliment.
The tone of Pence’s memoir darkens in its final chapters. In the wake of Trump’s 2020 defeat, the president baselessly claimed he had been deprived of victory by massive electoral fraud, and pressured his vice president to decertify the election results. Pence refused, explaining in an email to members of Congress just before they met in joint session on Jan. 6 that he did not have the authority to overturn an election. Trump then tweeted that his vice president “didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done,” prompting many of the Capitol invaders to chant “Hang Mike Pence!”
Pence performed his constitutional duty by certifying the election. But in the weeks before Jan. 6, as Trump lied about the election having been stolen, Pence did not contradict him in public or, as his memoir makes clear, in private. Rather than defending democracy by conceding that his ticket had lost in a fair and secure election, he gave speeches at which he implored his supporters to “stay in the fight for election integrity.”
And aside from a small number of passing moments, his memoir also fails to unequivocally deny Trump’s falsehoods. Instead, Pence resorts to weasel-worded half-admissions that “we came up short under circumstances that would cause millions of Americans to doubt the outcome of the election.” His reluctance to acknowledge the legitimacy of Biden’s victory makes his self-serving invocations of fidelity and patriotism ring hollow. If only Pence, who begins each chapter with a biblical verse, had quoted John 8:32 to the millions of Americans who continue to believe the dangerous lies he helped to promulgate: “And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Geoffrey Kabaservice is vice president of political studies at the Niskanen Center and author of “Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party.” Follow him on Twitter: @RuleandRuin
So Help Me God
By Mike Pence
Simon & Schuster. 542 pp. $35.
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