By ANNIE GROER
For The Tribune
WASHINGTON — What’s a Second Lady to do when it comes to choosing a politically safe but altogether worthy cause to promote?
If you’re Karen Pence, you’ll rely on the “old-school midwestern sensibility” and non-stop dedication that a colleague says she brought to an art therapy program for young cancer patients years ago.
Her longtime, hands-on involvement in Tracy’s Kids, based in several Washington-area hospitals, may help Pence manage one of the most undefined electoral portfolios in America.
It’s tricky enough for a president’s wife to find something serious to get behind that won’t alienate the political base. Conservatives howled “nanny state” when Michelle Obama took on childhood obesity and poor nutrition with her “Let’s Move” exercise campaign and the White House organic vegetable garden.
Much less controversial was the literacy push from librarian Laura Bush and the celebration of American crafts by amateur potter Joan Mondale, aka “Joan of Art.”
A veep’s wife has a larger problem. She can’t simply worry that her pet project may damage her husband’s career. It also must not reflect badly on the White House, said St. Louis University law professor Joel K. Goldstein, a scholar on the vice presidency.
“’Will it cause embarrassment to the administration? Will it be a source of controversy or negative stories?’” are questions that must be explored, Goldstein said. “The Second Lady has less latitude than the First Lady.”
Attorney Marilyn Quayle did not practice law while her husband served under the first President George Bush for fear her cases might pose a conflict of interest, Goldstein said.
On the other hand, Jill Biden had a doctorate in education and a teaching post at a Delaware technical school when Sen. Joe Biden became Barack Obama’s vice president. The pioneering Second Lady found a paying gig at Northern Virginia Community College. But she and Michelle Obama also did extensive volunteer work with military families.
Which brings us back to Karen Pence, who has a master’s degree in education and was a good enough watercolorist to sell her work in Indiana. She was so impressed by the work of Tracy’s Kids — named for Tracy Councill now program director — that she joined the board here.
When Mike Pence became governor in 2012, his wife created a similar program at Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis. Now she’s back in Washington and doubtless discussing what she might do here, around the country or even when she travels overseas with her husband.
Pence would make an ideal pediatric art therapy ambassador, said Matt Gerson, a longtime Washington government relations executive who started and runs the organization (and saluted Pence’s Midwestern sensibility).
“There is no pretension, no aloofness with Karen. She was captivated by it because she’s a teacher and an artist and she appreciates the trauma these kids are going through,” he said. “She came back to Washington from Indiana for one of our fundraisers, by herself, with no handlers, and it was so easy.”
Next month in a show of strategic bi-partisanship Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who was treated for breast cancer last year, and longtime board member Karen Pence will be honored by Tracy’s Kids.
Such a perfectly suitable soapbox, and just weeks into her Second Ladyship.
Tracy’s Kids helps young cancer patients and their families cope with the emotional stress and trauma of cancer and its treatment.
The charitable organization uses art therapy to engage with young patients, their siblings and parents so that they can express feelings and reflect on their treatment experiences.
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.