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Opinion | Richard North Patterson

Mike Pence and the rise of mediocrity

Vice President Mike Pence spoke Saturday in Reynoldsburg, Ohio. John Minchillo/Associated Press

A NEBRASKA SENATOR once said of a Supreme Court nominee, “So what if he’s mediocre? [The mediocre] are entitled to a little representation.” But in Mike Pence mediocrity is overrepresented. Not even Donald Trump commends this intellectually blinkered, right-wing provincial as America’s Savior.

He began as a talk show host in 1994 in small-town Indiana, fulminating about the global warming “myth,” the perfidy of Washington, and the verities of an evangelical Christianity menaced by cosmopolites. Piety swiftly merged with pragmatism: ambitious for office, Pence learned what worked — an antichoice, antigay agenda served up with reckless rhetoric couched in a pose of rectitude. He informed his audience that Clarence Thomas was being “lynched,” and that “despite the hysteria from the political class and the media, smoking doesn’t kill.” A quarter-century later, Pence remains as small as his beginnings.


The flexibility of his conscience surfaced in his first race for Congress. He used campaign funds to pay for his mortgage, car, credit card, golf, and groceries. To smear his opponent, he sent a mailer depicting lines of cocaine; ran an ad portraying an Arab sheik; and spread a story that the Democrat was selling his farm to a nuclear waste facility. Only after losing, did Pence deploy an ostentatious show of guilt.

Once in Congress, he joined the Tea Party and displayed a rigid intolerance for anything outside the crabbed confines of evangelical conservatism. He attacked sex education and reproductive choice with the zeal of Savonarola, decrying stem cell research, the use of condoms to prevent STDs, and organizations whose services included abortion. To further this agenda, he proposed changing the definition of rape to “forcible rape” and shutting down the government as a tactic to defund Planned Parenthood.

His apotheosis came as Indiana’s governor: a statute barring women from aborting fetuses with grave chromosomal damage; exposing doctors who assisted them to prosecution for wrongful death; and requiring that aborted fetuses be buried. A federal court swiftly struck it down.


His war against LGBT rights is unyielding. He called banning gay marriage “God’s idea.” He advocated diverting money for AIDS research to “ex- gay” therapy programs. He fought legislation to protect gays from job discrimination and hate crimes, and opposed gays serving in the military.

As governor, Pence spearheaded a “religious freedom” law allowing business owners to deny service to LGBT citizens. Struggling to defend this, he gave an incoherent interview to George Stephanopoulos which exposed his excruciating inability to transcend robotic talking points. More than narrow, he looked dense.

Equally mindless was his opposition to a needle-exchange program, provoking an outbreak of HIV-AIDS in an Indiana county. But then Pence exudes myopia. His fealty to the NRA is craven and comprehensive. He questions climate change and the theory of evolution. He tried to bar Syrian refugees from entering Indiana. In the cul-de-sac of his mind, he plays to the only audience he knows — people who think like him.

Increasingly, Indianans did not. By 2016, his reelection campaign was flagging, his normally polite constituents booing him in public. Locals were stunned when, bereft of attractive options, Donald Trump reluctantly offered him a shot at ultimate power. For Pence, this was a gift from God; for others, a revelation of character.

Shamelessly, he combined obsequious testimonials to Trump as leader, family man, and Christian with transparent calculation. Particularly revealing was Pence’s oscillation between toady and schemer in the wake of the “Access Hollywood” tape.


At first, he crowed that Trump was “still standing stronger than ever.” But as revulsion for Trump’s serial groping mushroomed, Pence rediscovered his moral compass, intoning prior to one of the presidential debates, “We pray for his family and look forward to the opportunities he has to show what is in his heart [in tomorrow night’s debate].” Whereupon he vanished.

His calculus was transparent: Pence would await Trump’s performance before defending him, poised to resign from the ticket — or replace Trump at its head. But Trump survived. “Proud to stand with you,” Pence tweeted, then attacked Bill Clinton for moral turpitude.

That’s Pence. His public persona reeks of smarmy sanctimony — every untruth, evasion, and vacuous bromide delivered in a portentous pipe organ voice accompanied by squints, nods, and shakes of the head which, Pence clearly imagines, convey a pious gravity. The effect is that of an unctuous church elder selling pyramid schemes to credulous parishioners, never doubting he is doing God’s work. Every self-serving self-deception reveals the depths of his shallowness, the breadth of his hypocrisy.

His salvation is not ours.

Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Globe. His latest book is “Fever Swamp.” Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.