How Mike Pence found his footing
CLEVELAND — Mike Pence had just lost his second attempt at winning a congressional seat. He was sitting in a law office in Indianapolis when the phone rang.
A woman in Rushville — a small community an hour away — was on the line.
“You didn’t make it this time, Mike,” Sharon Disinger told him. “But you will be next. You need to keep your name out there.”
Disinger wanted Pence, the guy who she knew as the wholesome candidate who rode a bicycle around campaigning with his wife, to start a new show on her small radio station. She mentioned to him that one of his heroes, Ronald Reagan, also used a radio show to springboard to political prominence.
For Pence, who will be nominated Wednesday as the Republican vice presidential candidate, the radio opportunity marked a crucial turning point. He would largely abandon his legal career for one in talk radio, honing his skills as a communicator, building his name recognition, and testing out his conservative political views.
But he would also develop an unlikely reputation, particularly for a man who has just agreed to become the running mate of one of the least civil presidential nominees in recent memory. While on air, he was known for his polite demeanor. He largely avoided conflict, and he had a common refrain: “We’ll just have to agree to disagree.”
“That calming but yet authoritative voice was what made him popular,” said Greg Garrison, a longtime Pence friend who took over his radio show in 2000. “Mike can be pretty edgy. But he doesn’t have the Trump I’m-going-to-come-and-hold-your head-underwater side.”
Now, Pence is stepping into one of the most prominent roles in American politics.
It’s a long way from the quiet radio station in Rushville, Ind., where the bathrooms were labeled as Olivia for the women and Elton for the men (because, Disinger explains, “they’re both Johns”). Pence would sit for an hour a week and speak into a microphone in a calm voice before signing off, “Good night, Rush County. Good night, Washington.”
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Pence grew up in Columbus, Ind., a small town about 40 miles south of Indianapolis, in an Irish Catholic family. While attending Hanover College, he grew more religious and more conservative. After marrying his wife, Karen, and earning a law degree from Indiana University, he started in private practice before running for Congress.
In 1988, he ran against Democratic incumbent Phil Sharp, hoping to win in a Republican-friendly district. He lost by seven points.
In 1990, Pence ran again against Sharp, but this time the campaign took a brutal turn. Pence ran a television ad in which a man dressed like an Arab sheik, and wearing sunglasses, thanked Sharp for dependence on foreign oil.
“It was just grossly wrong and overstated. And it didn’t work,” Sharp said in an interview. “He was always personally polite. If you met him, he’d be quite polite to me or anybody else. But it was a very, very nasty, hateful campaign.”
Pence lost by nearly 20 points. And by the end of it all, Pence was ashamed of the way he had conducted himself. He wrote a letter of apology to Sharp, and also wrote an essay called “Confessions of a Negative Campaigner” that summed up his feelings about his early foray into politics.
He began with a Bible verse, and seemed to be atoning for his sins: “Jesus came to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all.”
“The words of Saint Paul provide an appropriate starting point for the confessions of a negative campaigner,” Pence wrote. “Negative campaigning is wrong.”
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It wasn’t long after that loss that Disinger and her husband sat with Pence for dinner at a fancy restaurant in Indianapolis.
“He was very trim and neat and polished. He’s a very good-looking man,” Disinger said. “He’s always had the white hair in my memory. He was so young, and his hair was so white. That was quite a contrast. A very attractive contrast I think.”
Pence was convinced to co-host the radio show, which would be thick on policy and updates on national politics.
Occasionally, callers would turn slightly hostile, and there was a button ready to press if someone used a profanity. But Pence himself usually bit his tongue.
“He’s very much in control of himself,” Disenger said. “He would not go off like a Gatling gun on anything.”
It was the early 1990s, and the political mood was not as antagonistic.
“People didn’t seem to be as angry then,” Disenger said. “People didn’t feel the need to yell and scream.”
Doing Disenger’s show was a once-a-week commitment and, eventually, Pence wanted to make it a career.
Soon, he worked his way to a bigger network, with affiliates all across Indiana.
“The thing I always liked about Mike was he was nice about it,” said Scott Uecker, the programing director at Network Indiana. “I remember telling him, ‘We need people who don’t agree with you to also listen to the show, to grow the audience.’ Mike was never mean about it.”
His producers thought of “The Mike Pence Show” as a daytime version of Larry King. Pence, though, said he wanted to be a Midwestern version of Rush Limbaugh.
“He didn’t have the edge that Rush has,” Garrison said. “Still, he was pointed. You never wondered what he thought, and he was not afraid to state his position.”
He started with a half-dozen radio stations, but that would grow to more than 20. Pence suddenly had a statewide audience, listening to him for three hours every weekday morning and providing an unmistakable boost to his political career.
“I think we all knew Mike was not done with his political aspirations,” Uecker said. “If his strategy was to go do a talk show, get my name out there — what a brilliant strategy. After doing the talk show, everybody in the state knew who Mike Pence was.”
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In 2000, a congressional seat opened up again. Rushville, the city where he got his start on talk radio, was at the center of the district. Pence handily won.
Shortly after taking office, he created a small radio studio in his congressional office so that he could regularly appear on Indiana stations, according to a 2001 story in the Indianapolis Star.
He was the only congressman with such a setup, but he would go on to coach his colleagues on how to use the medium.
Compliment your host, he told them, according to the Indianapolis Star. Speak in short, quotable sentences. And don’t try to be funnier than the host.
When Pence takes the stage Wednesday night, he will be following that same advice, trying to compliment, but not overshadow, the man at the top of the Republican ticket.