By ANNIE GROER
For The Tribune
WASHINGTON — When Mike Pence, a proud son of Columbus, places his hand on the Bible today and swears to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic, he will become the nation’s 48th vice president and one of the world’s most powerful leaders.
He also becomes second-in-command to President Donald J. Trump, easily the most volatile, unconventional American chief executive in modern history. Think of Pence — who calls himself “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican in that order” — as the calm, ideological yin to his boss’ bombastic, situational yang.
At 57, Michael Richard Pence has been on quite the journey since his days as a champion orator at Columbus North High School, where the teenage fan of John F. Kennedy told classmates he, too, would like to be president.
For now he’ll have to settle for vice president. He’s the sixth Hoosier to hold the post, including Franklin Roosevelt’s two-term subordinate, John Nance Garner, who famously derided the job as “not worth a bucket of warm spit.” On the other hand, 14 men used the job as a springboard to the White House, due either to their president’s death or their own popularity.
After this unlikely duo won the bruising 2016 election, Pence said he would model his vice-presidency after Dick Cheney’s muscular tenure serving George W. Bush.
But defining his own job is not how it works, cautioned Dan Quayle, who represented Indiana for 12 years in the U.S. Senate and House before taking the supporting role under the elder President George Bush from 1989 to 1993.
“As I have told Mike, and he will find out for himself, there is not a ‘model,’” Quayle said. “The model will be decided by Donald Trump and Mike Pence.
“Every vice president has a different role and model and it all emanates from the Oval Office. It remains to be seen how it all works out.”
Indeed it does.
“Trump has zero interest in being a traditional president in the sense of digging deeply into issues and being involved in day-to-day, minute-to-minute policymaking,” said Congressional scholar Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank. “He will be more like the non-executive chairman of the board of the United States executive branch. He will have a foreign policy chief operating officer, and Mike Pence will be his domestic policy COO.”
For Republicans who raised millions of dollars and campaigned tirelessly to stop Trump’s long-shot march to the nomination, including David McIntosh, a close friend of Mike Pence and a former Indiana congressman, Pence is now also the vice president in charge of bridge building and rift abatement.
“Mike has convinced me to take a second look at Trump,” despite deep differences on trade and other policies favored by fellow budget slashers, said McIntosh, who heads the Club for Growth in Washington. Being a post-election peacemaker with deep ties to social, fiscal and religious conservatives makes Pence a valuable asset to this outsider president whose positions seem constantly to shift.
It is unclear how long this odd-couple honeymoon might last.
“Mike Pence brings political savvy and a great network in Washington to the job. Any rational president would make tremendous use of his talents,” said Ron Klain, former vice presidential chief of staff to Al Gore and Joe Biden, via email. “But Donald Trump is mercurial, temperamental and unsteady. He sadly might see Pence’s superior expertise and connections as a threat, not an asset…In the end, a vice president’s impact ultimately turns on his relationship with the president, and in that regard, Mike Pence has his hands full, and his fate is out of his control.”
All these theories about his fledgling vice presidency will be tested over time, of course. But today is dedicated to the quadrennial rituals surrounding the peaceful transfer of power and the celebration of the nation’s newest leaders.
One can only imagine what Pence will be thinking as he looks down the National Mall jammed with thousands of supporters, the U.S. Capitol behind him and the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial ahead in the distance.
Rooted in Columbus
Pence grew up in Columbus in a large Irish Catholic family, the third of six children of homemaker Nancy Cawley Pence (now Fritsch) and Edward J. Pence Jr., who worked for Kiel Bros. Oil Co. At Hanover College, where young Mike briefly considered entering the priesthood, he studied history and worked on the campus radio station. After graduating, he entered Indiana University law school.
A youthful admirer of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s and a Jimmy Carter voter in 1980, Pence was soon drawn to a charismatic former broadcaster-turned-actor — California’s Republican governor, Ronald Reagan, who won the White House that year. Pence never looked back. In fact, he will take the oath of office today on a Reagan family Bible.
While in law school, Pence met Karen, a Butler University graduate who has a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in education with an undergrad minor in art. They wed in Indianapolis in 1985, and Mike practiced law although he yearned to enter politics. In 1988 and again in 1990, he tried to unseat Democratic U.S. Rep. Phil Sharp. He lost. Twice.
The second race was particularly ugly. It included a TV attack ad using a man dressed in a long robe and speaking in phony Middle Eastern accent depicting Sharp as a tool of Arab oil interests. Pence’s phone bank canvassers also falsely told voters Sharp was selling an Illinois family farm for a nuclear waste site.
Pence’s other act of self-sabotage during that second run was using nearly $13,000 in campaign donations for such personal expenses as Karen’s car payments, their home mortgage, groceries and golf tournament fees. The practice, while completely legal in 1990 and used by several candidates, led to the passage of campaign finance reform laws.
After his defeat, Pence apologized to Sharp and vowed to cease future negative campaigning. McIntosh, a former Quayle aide, called it a “life lesson.”
A gifted public speaker, Pence took his conservative political and religious views to local talk radio, where from 1994 to 1999 he preached the GOP gospel of smaller government, lower taxes, free trade, less federal regulation and an end to legalized abortion. The devout evangelical Christian also discussed matters of faith.
Never a shouter, he dubbed himself “Rush Limbaugh on decaf,”’ debating rather than bullying his guests. At his peak, Pence was on 18 Indiana stations, building up name recognition and refining his political and sectarian rhetoric.
During the electoral hiatus, McIntosh asked Pence for advice about running against Sharp in what the radio host deemed an unwinnable 1994 challenge. Pence said he should enter the race only to spread GOP ideas to Indiana voters, McIntosh recalled. When Sharp decided to retire instead of seek another term, McIntosh became part of the Republican landslide.
After six years, McIntosh left Congress to run for governor, giving Pence an open Republican seat to contest. On Jan. 3, 2001, just a year and change into the 21st century, Pence finally got to Capitol Hill as a freshman in the 107th Congress.
Many of his colleagues had left their families back home to avoid disrupting their children’s schooling or their spouses’ careers. They felt they could better focus on official business in Washington during the week and have quality time at home on weekends. But often they were torn between family activities and political events, and more than a few Congressional commuter marriages imploded.
Mike and Karen, 60, chose another path. They moved son Michael and daughters Charlotte and Audrey, who were all under age 9, to the nearby Washington suburb of Arlington, Virginia.
The couple became almost “evangelical” on the subject of members bringing their families here, urging colleagues to do the same, said former Rep. John Mica, R-Fla. “He and his wife are solid as a rock.”
“It was really awesome because he was home for dinner like almost every night,” said Charlotte, a documentary filmmaker, of her life as a Congress-child. “It was very normal. It was like, ‘he goes to work, he comes home,’ and obviously, there’s some late votes in there, but for the most part, it was really normal,” the DePaul University graduate told her campus newspaper last summer.
“Frankly, we’ve had a pretty normal childhood,” noted her big brother, Second Lt. Michael Pence, 25, a Marine Corps pilot now stationed in Mississippi. “We’ve seen some cool things in D.C. and Indiana,” he told an Indianapolis TV station in 2013.
Pence’s 12-year Congressional record was mixed. While he never got a substantive stand-alone bill or amendment enacted into law, Pence flexed his ideological muscle.
His role was “much more as being a super-magnet trying to pull his party and policy away from the center and toward the right,” Ornstein told Bloomberg News. Pence did this by opposing such Republican White House initiatives as “No Child Left Behind,” Medicare prescription drug benefits and the bank bailout.
Although he was personally popular, Pence was trounced 168-27 by fellow Republicans in his race against Ohio Rep. John Boehner for the top Republican leadership job. But in 2008, with his old adversary’s blessing, Pence was elected chair of the GOP conference, which sets the party’s policy priorities. He was also active in a House Bible study group, which met privately to study Scripture and pray. (New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, a longtime Methodist, took part in similar Senate prayer breakfasts while in office).
After four years in the House leadership and a dozen years in Congress, Pence went home to run for governor. Had he stayed, he might have become speaker of the GOP-controlled House after Republican whip Eric Cantor of Virginia lost a stunning 2014 primary upset and the following year Boehner quit as speaker and resigned his seat under pressure from the tea party and Freedom Caucus.
But Pence, a fiscal hawk and activist Christian, wanted a shot at statewide office. As governor, he pushed an agenda that included cutting taxes and government regulations, promoting one of the nation’s most stringent abortion bans and opposing gay marriage. Though he vocally opposed President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, he nonetheless adopted a slightly modified key provision: increased state Medicaid spending he said would help Hoosiers obtain health insurance.
His worst moments came after he signed the 2015 Religious Freedom Restoration Act giving business owners the perceived right to refuse service to gays. The backlash — from corporations, LGBTQ and civil rights groups — triggered an economic threat to the state. Pence quickly backtracked, signing a bill outlawing denial of services based on such factors as sexual orientation and gender identity. The change, of course, enraged conservatives.
Pence’s popularity declined, putting his re-election at risk even as he toyed with a White House run. Ultimately, he watched as 17 other GOP combatants, including Trump, duked it out among themselves. Consumed with his own re-election fight, he remained neutral until days before the Indiana primary when he tepidly endorsed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
Unlike other Republicans, however, the courtly Pence did not assail the tweet-storming Trump, who buried Cruz in the Indiana primary election.
Now, all that the twice-divorced mogul needed was a ticket-mate. Frontrunners included three of his most vicious, thrice-wed surrogates, each burdened with personal, political and/or financial baggage: Former House Speaker Gingrich, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and ex-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
By contrast, Pence represented piety, monogamy and political consistency, plus popularity with the religious right and wealthy conservative donors like the Koch brothers, who distrusted the presumptive nominee. Pence also had experience in federal and state government, and like Trump, was a non-smoking teetotaler.
Then there was the matter of optics. Mike Pence was trim, handsome, silver-haired and soft-spoken, key traits for the reality TV star and former Miss Universe impresario. While citing Pence’s economic record as governor, and his close family ties, he couldn’t resist adding that Pence “looks good.”
Part of the selection process involved a fortuitous breakfast the Pences hosted in the governor’s mansion after a mechanical problem with his plane left Trump stranded. He quickly summoned his most trusted family advisers — adult children Donald, Eric, Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner — to Indianapolis.
Over a table set with flowers picked by the couple, Pence launched a vigorous pitch for himself that included a tough attack on Hillary and Bill Clinton, the New York Times reported.
The Pence tryout also included a Fourth of July weekend at Trump’s resort in Bedminster, N.J., after which he later told NBC News that Trump “beat me like a drum” on the golf course. It was a canny move for a pol hoping to impress a potential boss who hates to lose.
Melania Trump and Karen Pence also met that weekend and “connected as mothers,” Trump campaign manager and former Pence pollster Kellyanne Conway told the New York Times. “The thing I think both of these men have in common is their preferred leisure time is to spend their time with their families.”
As Trump was making his decision, Pence consulted his own people, including Quayle, chairman of Cerberus, a private equity firm in New York, and a Trump supporter. In May on the “Today” show, he named Ohio Sen. Rob Portman as the ideal vice president. Last week he clarified that he chose Portman because several recent vice presidents — himself and Democrats Al Gore and Joe Biden — came from the Senate.
Experience on the Hill
Quayle is now completely pro-Pence. “Mike is very valuable, particularly with his political experience,” since no top White House aides have held elective office, Quayle said.
“Trump’s people did contact me. I obviously talked to Mike about it before he accepted. I think Mike, with his political background in Congress and his gubernatorial experience, will be used quite a bit on Capitol Hill, working with legislation, casting maybe a few tie-breaking votes in the Senate. He will be very active, particularly in the first six months. He’ll begin to do more world traveling. I don’t know how much Trump is going to travel. The less he travels, the more Pence will.”
Quayle may have stated the obvious by warning Pence — who will maintain a working office in the House as well as the traditional Senate office — to avoid discussing sensitive matters with too many people. Speak directly to Trump or at most, a handful of trusted aides, to prevent leaks, Quayle counseled.
Pence also sought advice from Dr. Michael Easley, his former pastor at the 3,500-member non-denomination Immanuel Bible Church in the Washington suburb of Springfield, Virginia, where the family worshipped when he was in Congress. The kids attended Immanuel Christian School and Karen taught art there to defray tuition costs, Easley and McIntosh said.
“She didn’t come in as a congressman’s wife. She came in as a mom. All the kids loved her. I watched some neat potential develop in my boy,” said Easley, who still has one of his son’s watercolors, painted during a class she taught, hanging on his wall.
Mike Pence “is the real deal. I would trust him with my life, my family and my checkbook,” Easley said. “I told him, ‘I am excited for you and I am afraid for you.’”
Why the fear?
“Because I think to keep his integrity as he has done for all these years and to represent someone with such different views as the president” could prove difficult, said Easley, now a teaching pastor at Fellowship Bible Church, Nashville. “Mike will be unafraid and very careful confronting people. I can see Mike holding his ground. He doesn’t raise his voice. He doesn’t get angry or yell. He might say, ‘Mr. Trump have you considered this [issue], have you considered this person?”
‘They are so different’
While it is a political given that every vice president imagines himself as chief executive, “What I can envision is that Mike knows he is vice president and Trump is president. The fact that Trump picked him I find fascinating,” Easley said. “They are so different. Mike is a poised politician, he is careful with his words, careful with his language. He doesn’t say harsh or unkind things. Trump is Trump.”
Pence’s language may be tempered, but his political agenda is clear.
On Jan. 4, one day after the new Congress was sworn in, President Obama was on Capitol Hill rallying Democrats to save his landmark law, the Affordable Care Act. The vice-president elect was there, too, urging House Republicans to repeal it.
“Pence, Obamacare Slayer” screamed the front-page headline of Roll Call, the non-partisan paper that covers Congress. House members, only a third of whom served alongside him, cast Pence “as a conservative white knight uniquely qualified to dismantle the 2010 health care law, while shrugging off his decision to embrace the law’s Medicaid expansion while governor of Indiana,” Roll Call noted.
He has other attributes that are not just useful to Trump but could expand his own power.
“Beyond Cabinet choices are the critical political appointees who really run agencies, the undersecretaries, deputy secretaries and assistant secretaries,” Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute said. Backing them for key posts gives Pence a network of ideological allies who will shape policy throughout the government.
Already, several former aides are in top White House and agency jobs.
“Donald Trump’s incoming administration is increasingly becoming Mike Pence’s dream team,” said CNN.com after the appointment of Seema Varma, his former Medicaid policy consultant in Indianapolis, to head the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
Marc Short, Pence’s recent campaign spokesman and top House Republican Conference aide, will run the all-important White House legislative shop that seeks to get Trump’s programs through Congress. Josh Pitcock will be Pence’s chief of staff, after stints in Pence’s House office, the presidential campaign and as a contract lobbyist for the state of Indiana when Pence was governor.
A new home
As head of the presidential transition team here, Pence needed a post-election Washington home where he and Karen could stay between trips back to Indianapolis and visits to Trump Tower on New York’s Fifth Avenue.
They rented a $6,000-a-month, six-bedroom house in the overwhelmingly Democratic capital city. Numerous neighbors who could not abide Pence’s domestic policies hung rainbow flags from their porches and windows in solidarity with the LGBTQ movement, and planted “Support Planned Parenthood” signs on their lawns.
Even a Republican or two groused about blocked traffic and Secret Service vehicle checks around Tennyson Street NW.
But after today’s inaugural events, including a parade appearance by the Columbus North High School marching band, the Second Couple will move into their third home in recent months.
The stately Victorian mansion built in 1893 on the gated grounds of the Naval Observatory has been the official vice presidential residence since the 1977 arrival of Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter’s vice president, and his wife Joan.
In November, Mike and Karen Pence got a luncheon tour from Joe and Jill Biden. The 9,150 square-foot, 33-room hilltop house rises above sprawling grounds protected by a tall iron fence and facing Massachusetts Avenue NW. Known as Embassy Row, the neighborhood is home to envoys representing Great Britain, South Africa, Brazil, Sri Lanka, the Vatican, Bolivia, New Zealand, and, before diplomatic ties were severed, Iran. The house is just a short walk from the Clintons’ nearby manse.
The Pences are expected to bring their own furnishings and doubtless a few watercolors painted by the second lady. They are also welcome to borrow art and sculpture from the government-supported National Gallery of Art, and like their predecessors, may also want to display and promote works from home-state artists.
There is no federal budget for redecorating. But private donations to the Vice President’s Residence Foundation have been spent by the Bidens and their predecessors for improvements, the Washington Post reported. The Quayles added a heated swimming pool and a pool house.
The residence is large enough for the kids to visit, or even move in for a while. The likeliest extended-stay offspring are their two daughters: Charlotte, 23, who campaigned extensively with her parents last year, and Audrey, 22, a Northeastern University senior and international affairs major who studied Arabic in Jordan and was a freelance journalist in Turkey.
Earlier this month, the Pences and Charlotte brought three of their pets to Washington. Marlon Bundo, a rabbit, and Oreo the cat fared just fine on the Air Force plane, but Pickle the kitty got sick, according to the White House press pool report. Sadly, Maverick, their 13-year-old beagle, died before the election.
The family snake is said to be in Mississippi now with son Michael — the first Pence progeny to marry — and his new bride, Sarah Whiteside. The couple tied the knot in the governor’s mansion in December during an intimate, family only ceremony.
Although it’s a short motorcade ride from the Pences’ new home to the Washington National Cathedral, a soaring, Episcopalian neo-Gothic edifice where the president, vice president and their families will take part in a Jan. 21 service , it is unclear what church the Pences will attend regularly. It is also not known whether he will rejoin his old House Bible study group, where even adversaries find common ground in Scripture.
But prayer and ideology are not the only ways to build relationships, as several of his Pence’s opponents told The Republic.
Respected and liked
House Minority Whip Rep Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 Democratic leader, said that unlike the position-shifting “transactional” Trump, Pence is consistent and knows how the system works. “Pence has a sense of what it means to govern whether you are in Congress or a governor,” and he knows that “you can’t just issue an edict. Pence is respected and he is liked.” He also has a numerical edge: 241 Republicans to 194 Democrats in the House of Representatives.
Asked to describe the next four years with Trump and Pence at the helm and his own election-battered party in the minority, Hoyer said simply, “probably the most tumultuous” in his 36-year career.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-New York, who is Donald Trump’s congresswoman, also gives Pence high marks for civility but she’s already plotting to gain his support for one of her pet projects: obtaining surplus federal land in Washington for a privately funded women’s history museum.
Ideological opposites may not attract but they can co-exist, said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, the embattled former head of the Democratic National Committee and a partisan pit bull who agrees with Pence on almost nothing. “I get along with him well. He understands what make this place tick, which is important given how little experience or regard for process this administration has.”
Some opponents find the disciplined, doctrinaire Pence much more challenging than his freewheeling boss, said Robert Raben, a gay Democrat whose firm, the Raben Group, does extensive lobbying and political consulting for candidates and causes.
“To the extent that Donald Trump seemed to be organized around winning as opposed to governing, and was so fluid in his policy positions was great news to progressives. We could figure out where we could agree and disagree with him,” Raben said. “Mike Pence is a complete wet blanket to the notion we might be able to work with Donald Trump, certainly on social policy issues. Mike Pence’s kindness and his intellect make him devastatingly difficult to work with.”
Fun in the sun
But Pence was hardly all work/no play, remembered House Republicans who entertained his family in their districts. Being from virtually landlocked Indiana made him eager to accept invitations to warm, seaside climes.
Cuban-born Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the first Latina elected to the House, calls Pence a “good friend.” They served together on the Foreign Affairs Committee, and at one point she invited his family to join hers for a day of power boating on Biscayne Bay.
“We lost touch when he became governor but now I am talking to him a lot about Cuba” – both oppose Obama’s normalized relations with the Castro regime –“and he returns my messages and my texts.” But she quickly added, “I don’t want it to sound like I am his best friend.”
The mother of a transgender son, Ros-Lehtinen said they agree on many conservative social issues but remain worlds apart on LGBTQ rights. Not a problem, she said with a smile. Trump and Pence “are absolutely good on other issues.”
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-California, came to Congress long before Pence but they hit it off upon meeting in 2001.
“Mike had a young family living here and I kept mine in California. So I invited them to visit and basically gave him a full dose of beach culture. Mike is a little bit formal at times,” but Rohrabacher coaxed him onto a surfboard “and he may have actually been up for a millisecond.”
Rohrabacher downplayed their policy differences: support for medical marijuana (“I don’t think Mike agrees with me”) and improved relations with Russia (Rohrabacher’s longtime push for détente is closer to Trump than Pence).
Nonetheless, “I think Mike has done a tremendous service to the Republican Party and to America by being someone you inherently trust as a person of integrity.” Does that mean Rohrabacher doesn’t trust Donald Trump? “I wouldn’t say that,” he demurred.
At the end of the day — which on this particular Jan. 20, will probably conclude with several Inaugural Balls — may well find Pence marveling at how far he has come from his childhood in Columbus, through college, law school and a legal practice, as a right-wing radio host, Congressman, governor, victorious vice-presidential candidate and now, the second in command of the U.S. government.
“Mike did an exemplary job during the campaign,” said Ornstein, the congressional scholar. “He is now just a heartbeat — or an impeachment — away from the presidency.”
About the author
Annie Groer reported and wrote this story for The Tribune. The longtime Washington Post and Orlando Sentinel staffer now writes widely about politics, culture and design.
A presidential debate panelist and co-founder of the Art Deco Society of Washington, she twice represented the nation’s capital in the National Chicken Cooking Contest and once danced with Liberace across the Kennedy Center stage.
She has visited all seven continents and is at work on a memoir.