In Robert A. Caro’s “The Passage of Power,” the most recent volume of his majestic biography of President Lyndon Johnson, he recalls the mental machinations LBJ went through before accepting the vice president slot on the 1960 Democratic ticket led by John F. Kennedy.
LBJ didn’t like the Kennedys, but weighed the merits of the number-two job in relation to his own stalled but ferocious presidential aspirations. He even instructed his staff to look up how many presidents had died during their term since 1860 — five out of 18. Later, when asked why he took the offer, LBJ said, “I looked it up: one out of every four presidents has died in office. I’m a gamblin’ man, darlin’, and this is the only chance I got.”
I imagine Mike Pence making similar calculations before becoming Donald Trump’s running mate last summer. This is not to imply that Trump isn’t “the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency,” as his longtime physician, Dr. Harold Bornstein, declared with suspiciously Trumpian hyperbole last year. Instead, Pence was likely banking on the chaotic Trump campaign birthing a calamitous Trump presidency. With the administration buckling under daily accusations and investigations, Pence is acting like a man ready to move on up to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
The New York Times recently reported that Pence is chatting with deep-pocketed money men like Charles Koch, and hosting dinners with his wife, Karen, for wealthy donors at the vice president’s mansion. In May, Pence launched his own PAC, the “Great America Committee.” While its name echoes Trump’s campaign slogan, no previous sitting vice president has ever formed such a separate political organization. An unnamed Pence surrogate told NBC News that any chatter that the PAC is meant to bolster the veep’s 2020 plans is misguided.
That’s probably true. Pence likely envisions his White House scheme coming into focus long before 2020. Behind that frozen smile, he has to despise Trump’s say-and-tweet-anything belligerence, multiple marriages, and situational Christianity. By comparison, Pence comes off as controlled, steely, and sane. He looks like a 1990s basic cable TV version of an American president.
Pence behaves as if he’s immune to all the drama swirling around his boss, or at least sufficiently out of the loop to seem reasonably clean. Yet like others in the Trump administration, he has also lawyered up, hiring his own attorney to represent him in the special counsel investigation and congressional inquiries into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Whether Pence will be ensnared in this administration’s bottomless troubles remains, for now, smoke from a distant fire. This much is already certain: Pence would be an awful president. The man who describes himself as “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order,” is a hard-line theocrat with more respect for the Bible than the Constitution. As a US congressman, then Indiana’s governor, he proposed policies that threatened the lives and rights of women and the LGBT community. Even in a reliably red state, Pence’s medieval beliefs, especially a so-called “religious freedom” law to legalize discrimination, were so denounced that the Indianapolis Star ran a front-page editorial under the massive headline “FIX THIS NOW.” The state legislature eventually watered down the anti-LGBT language enough to curtail the economic backlash.
If Trump is ultimately removed from office, it can’t happen soon enough for Pence, who always looks like he’s humming “Hail to the Chief” to himself whenever he walks into a room. Should that happen, Trump’s detractors would need to gird themselves for a new fight with a man whose best qualification for the job is that he’s not Trump. While that’s certainly true, saying Pence would be a better president than Trump is like claiming it’s better to be mauled by a black bear than a brown bear — the disastrous impact on this already reeling nation would be exactly the same.