Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and professional in residence at Kent State University. She is the author of “. . . And His Lovely Wife.”
The opening salvo of the new book by journalists Michael D’Antonio and Peter Eisner makes clear their reason for writing it: “With his oath of office, Vice President Pence became . . . the most successful Christian supremacist in American history.” And, the authors argue, in pursuit of his lifelong ambition to become president of the United States, Mike Pence has abandoned the values he claims to hold dear. “Although Pence presents himself as a deeply moral man,” they write, “his record indicates both a ruthlessness and a comfort with aggression that belie this pose.” Thus, he is willing to tie his political future to President Trump, “a man whose immorality in the form of lying, cheating, and deceiving in every aspect of his life, from his marriage to his businesses, had made him a living exemplar of everything that Christianity and conservatism abhorred.”
It’s okay, though, because this is all part of God’s plan — for Pence.
“The Shadow President: The Truth About Mike Pence” is a deeply reported book, with 23 pages of footnotes. The narrative begins as a tale of a “nice” Catholic boy with a “tender heart” from the folksy Midwest: “His personality set point was toasty warm,” write D’Antonio and Eisner. Then, after losing his first race for Congress in 1988, Pence not so gradually becomes a cunning, self-righteous, self-lauding extremist.
As governor of Indiana, Pence refused to pardon an African American man whom everyone, including the parole board and the prosecutor, agreed had served nearly a decade in prison for a crime he did not commit. Also as governor, he ignored a lead-contamination crisis of Flint-like proportions in the poor, mostly black city of East Chicago. As a radio show host, he defended presidential candidate Pat Buchanan as “four square in the mainstream,” ignoring William F. Buckley’s denouncement of Buchanan as an extremist who questioned the historical record of the Holocaust.
The authors write that Pence talks in evangelical code to convince millions of conservative voters that everything he does is driven by his faith in God. When Pence ended a Cabinet meeting tribute to Trump with “God bless you,” for example, he was reminding “conservative Christians that their champion was alert to his duty. In fact, as one of Pence’s closest aides would explain, the vice president actually believed he could bring Trump to Jesus, and like Jesus, he was willing to do whatever was necessary to help save Trump’s soul.”
Through it all, the authors argue, Pence has always believed that God is on his side.
Evangelicalism looms large in the tale because it’s so central to Pence’s characterization of himself, including his support for Israel. The authors repeatedly refer to the Christian right’s belief that Israel must exist to fulfill the prophecy of Jesus’ return. “The establishment of modern Israel,” D’Antonio and Eisner write, “was key to the plan and would be followed by the Rapture, during which believers would rise to heaven, leaving others to endure an agonizing period called the Great Tribulation. Under these conditions, Jews would have the opportunity to convert or be consigned to hell.”
As a Christian, I am compelled to emphasize that this is a central belief of conservative evangelicals but does not reflect the faith view of most mainstream Christians.
The authors argue that Pence’s ability “to speak the religiously imbued dialect of Christian Right politics” helped to legitimize Trump in evangelicals’ eyes as a presidential candidate, as did Pence’s stable of big-name right-wing donors. These same evangelicals see no conflict in Pence’s continued support for Trump, the authors write. If God is in charge and everything is preordained, then Trump is just part of God’s plan.
Pence does his best to ignore questions about Russia’s interference in the election despite the mounting evidence. Within weeks of Robert Mueller’s appointment as special counsel, however, Pence hired a criminal defense attorney. He also formed his own political action committee — Great America Committee — and started hiring operatives, including former Trump campaign chief Corey Lewandowski. A new PAC for a sitting vice president sparked considerable media speculation about Pence’s motives. If he was just trying to raise money for 2018 candidates, who would decide which ones would receive the help? Pence is part of Team Trump, so isn’t that up to the president?
In keeping with the book’s premise, the authors suggest that Pence’s PAC is for Pence. “Behind Pence’s greetings from the president to every crowd brought together in the [Trump administration’s] traveling road show, Pence was working to enhance his own political brand. Quiet and patient, Pence would do everything he could to fulfill God’s plan, perhaps even including the presidency. He would be helped by the longtime allies sprinkled across the administration and installed in political action committees. And he could count on a well-funded and growing Christian nationalist movement.”
Some stories in this book will be news only to those who haven’t been following mainstream media coverage of the Trump administration. Granted, that’s millions of conservatives who don’t trust the press. Still, it’s hard to believe that even they don’t remember Pence’s self-abasing performance that launched a Cabinet meeting circle of sycophancy in June 2017. In another meeting months later, he offered a three-minute soliloquy with an expression of gratitude to Trump every 12 seconds, inspiring countless memes of mockery.
We also read, yet again, that Pence, already the GOP’s vice-presidential nominee, was so offended by Trump’s “grab ’em by the p---y” video that he considered trying to replace him at the top of the ticket. A Pence aide denied that he ever thought about it. Nothing new there.
The authors have a habit of describing Pence as astonishingly youthful. On Inauguration Day, he looked 10 years younger than his age, they write, and the crow’s feet bracketing his eyes “added extra twinkle.” Of course, no one ever says that about a 58-year-old white-haired woman with wrinkles. Yet, in this telling, Pence is still a “young man” waiting for his chance to be president.
We learn little new about Pence’s wife, Karen. He regularly calls her the love of his life and his closest adviser, which tells us nothing about who she is, independent of her husband. That’s a shame, because her experiences are another window into his. How she dealt with the vetting process that led to Pence’s selection as Trump’s running mate could be illuminating. My husband, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), was vetted for vice president by Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and I know it to be the most intrusive experience imaginable in the life of a marriage and a family. Did Karen Pence set any boundaries or draw any lines? Or did she willingly sacrifice all privacy because she, too, believes this is part of God’s plan for her husband?
The authors take a gratuitous swipe at the Clintons in speculating about their bedtime habits, describing them as “so wonky it seemed that their pillow talk must have been about government business.” A mutual interest in policy is a real mood-killer, apparently. Trafficking in such cliches is petty and a pointless contrast to the Pences, who are described as “hardly consumed with policy matters.” We can’t know what Karen and Mike Pence discuss in their bedroom, for which we all should be grateful.
The book offers plenty of evidence that Pence’s presidential aspirations remain strong. The executive branch is littered with Pence people because “Trump didn’t have any people of his own.” The vice president’s “pious and cautious exterior” hides his “desire for power equal to Trump’s,” and he benefits from his contrast to the president: “Remarkably, the many crises created by Trump, from staff turmoil in the executive branch to scandals involving mistreating women, played to Pence’s advantage. Trump’s failures were the failures of an immoral man whose sexual infidelities, lies, and distortions had marked him as a sinner. The contrasting public personas, as Pence raised his profile, couldn’t have been starker.”
Many Republicans, the authors argue, see Pence in an “outsized role as the soft voice in the Trump administration.” If this is true, one can easily imagine his willingness — his eagerness, even — for Trump to continue being Trump. Perhaps behind his adoring, Nancy Reagan-like “wide-eyed gaze,” his silent mantra churns: Keep tweeting, Mr. President.
By Michael D’Antonio and Peter Eisner
Thomas Dunne. 308 pp. $28.99