In this dimension, the audience knows exactly what Constitution Day is. They celebrate it for an entire week, and without feeling like the country is ricocheting between crises: no impeachment hearings, “urgent” whistleblower complaints about promises made to foreign leaders, or ethical concerns about the military spending big bucks at Trump properties.
In this place, Pence can be as unchanged as the Cool Whip hair he’s had for decades.
“You warned me that the White House has a tendency to turn people prematurely gray,” Pence says to the Heritage crowd. “But, honestly, I haven’t changed a bit.”
Pence’s placid visage is not just an expression; it’s a blueprint.
He had once been uncertain about Donald Trump but no longer. According to Politico’s Tim Alberta, the Indiana governor had wondered in 2016 about whether being Trump’s veep would hurt his reputation. “You’re still going to be Mike Pence,” a friend reportedly answered.
So here he was, three years later, reassuring Republicans that nothing was different. If he hadn’t changed, maybe they hadn’t changed.
Before Pence took the stage, Heritage staffers handed out thick packets detailing the pros and cons of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. Light jazz played over the speakers as lobbyists, economists and members of the media took their seats. This is a place where public speechifying is boring and slick, where the Federalist Society gets its judges, where almost any regulation can be relaxed, where the military is as muscular as ever, and where, if you squint like Pence, nobody has anything to be disturbed by or ashamed of.
“The Heritage Foundation will always feel like home,” Pence says.
The home crowd cheers — golf claps, really — when he says that we are “locked and loaded” for a potential showdown with Iran. He brags that the president is pushing a trade deal that “is so advanced and so comprehensive that it may serve as a template, a model trade agreement for future trade agreements.” And what about his booming economy?
“Two fellas came walking by wearing big Budweiser T-shirts,” Pence says, telling the tale of a recent trip he took with his wife to the beach. “One of them stopped and turned to me and said . . . ‘You got to tell the president that he’s got to keep doing what he’s doing because I made twice as much money last year as I did the year before.’ ”
Pence nearly shouts that last part, waving a pointed finger to emphasize each word.
“And he said,” Pence says, returning to his inside voice. “ ‘I don’t know what you do, but keep doing what you’re doing, too.’ ”
“He’s always been someone that we have admired,” Heritage President Kay Coles James said about Pence in her introduction. “He’s a truly honorable man and in a city that desperately needs more honorable men.”
The Heritage crowd was like Pence: respectable and unremarkable. They were notable only as members of the club, not because their faces or personalities were famous.
“Who is that?” Rep. Michael Waltz, a freshman Republican from Florida, whispered to his deputy chief of staff, Walker Barrett, before the event began, pointing at a colleague in the front row. “If only there were an app,” Barrett replied.
But one attendee did stand out. He was a glitch in the Matrix, a clue, a visitor from another universe — one where things are not normal at all. He sat near the front, a diving bell of a head, crystallized product glinting in his hair and dusting his coat jacket.
“Yeah, that’s him,” said Greg Scott, director of media for Heritage. “No, he doesn’t work here; he’s just here. A lot.”
Gorka. Former deputy assistant to the president. A former editor at Breitbart who has had ties to far-right circles in Hungary, who is known for his hard-line stands on Islam. When not defending Western civilization in his “America First” radio show, he’s been spotted recently in a shouting match with a Playboy reporter in the Rose Garden and hawking fish oil pills on television.
Here at Heritage, Gorka was overheard telling his seatmate that he needed to “meet with the president’s speechwriters.”
Which president? Of the United States? Of Heritage? Of a nutritional supplement association?
Pence didn’t acknowledge Gorka. But Gorka’s very presence was its own acknowledgment: The two universes are really one universe.
Mere blocks away, the House Judiciary Committee prepared for its afternoon grilling of former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski on whether he had tried to interfere with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation. News continued to break through the week: that the Pentagon spent $184,000 in two years at Trump’s Turnberry resort in Scotland; that acting director of national intelligence Joseph Maguire has refused to share details about a potentially worrisome “promise” Trump made to a foreign leader; that former national security adviser John Bolton has been trashing Trump’s foreign policy behind closed doors.
Pence’s Constitution Week consisted of presiding over a naturalization ceremony, sitting off-camera as Trump gave former Yankees closer Mariano Rivera the Presidential Medal of Freedom, participating in a “fireside chat” at an investor conference in New York, doing normal vice presidential things that beach dwellers in Budweiser shirts would never see.
But now, as Pence spoke, bored cameramen whispered about Sean Spicer’s neon-clad bongo-playing on “Dancing with the Stars.” Before the former press secretary even graced the dance floor, the president had offered a tweet wishing him the best of luck. And what has Pence earned for all his stoic and pious politicking — for pretending the crude comments (from “shithole countries” to “goddamn”) don’t offend his evangelical Christian sensibilities? For ignoring the country’s ballooning deficits or the praise heaped on foreign adversaries? Rumors that he may be booted from the 2020 ticket.
Perhaps aware that he’s trying to live in two realms at once, Pence concludes his speech with some high praise in Trump world.
“Thank you for coming out,” he says. “I look around this room and feel like I’m watching cable television.”