By Carlos Lozada, New York Times Opinion Columnist, Nov 29, 2022.
Mike Pence had a go-to line during his time as vice president of the United States. When his boss would ask him to carry out some task or duty — say, take an overseas trip or run the response to a pandemic — Pence would look President Trump in the eye, nod and say, “I’m here to serve.”
The phrase recurs in Pence’s new memoir, “So Help Me God,” which covers his years as a congressman, governor of Indiana and vice president, with a focus on Pence’s actions during the assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. It is the tale of the loyalist who finally had enough, of the prayerful stand-taker who insisted that he did not have the power to overturn an election, no matter the arguments concocted by Trump and his air-quote lawyers.
With rioters calling for his hanging and Trump tweeting that Pence lacked “the courage to do what should have been done,” the vice president turned to the aides and family members with him in an underground loading dock at the Capitol. “It doesn’t take courage to break the law,” he told them. “It takes courage to uphold the law.” It is an inspiring scene, marred only by Pence then asking his daughter to write down what he said.
Pence has been busy promoting “So Help Me God” on television, distancing himself from Trump (urging him to apologize for dining with a Holocaust-denying white supremacist at Mar-a-Lago last week) and even teasing a possible White House run of his own in 2024. The book debuted at No. 2 on the New York Times hardcover nonfiction best-seller list, and the Justice Department is now seeking to question Pence in its investigation of Trump’s efforts to remain in power after the 2020 election. Clearly, the former veep is having his moment.
Feel free to buy the book, but don’t buy the redemption tale just yet. Pence was indeed in the White House to serve, but he served the president’s needs more than those of the nation. In “So Help Me God,” Pence rarely contradicts the president, even in private, until the days immediately preceding Jan. 6. He rarely attempts to talk Trump out of his worst decisions or positions. He rarely counters Trump’s lies with the truth.
Most damning, Pence failed to tell the president or the public, without hedging or softening the point, that the Trump-Pence ticket had lost the 2020 election, even after Pence had reached that conclusion himself. Americans should be enormously grateful that the vice president did not overstep his authority and attempt to reverse the will of the voters on Jan. 6. But you shouldn’t get the glory for pulling democracy back from the brink if you helped carry it up there in the first place. And, so help me God, Pence did just that.
Why wouldn’t Trump — a man Pence invariably calls “my president” and “my friend” — assume that his vice president would help steal the election? Pence had agreed to so much else, had tolerated every other national and personal indignity with that faraway, worshipful gaze.
The irony is that Pence’s record of reliable servility was a key reason he was in position to be the hero at the end. And so the vice president became that rarest of Trump-era creatures: a dedicated enabler who nonetheless managed to exit the administration with a plausible claim to partial credit. If Pence got to do the right thing on Jan. 6, it was because he had done the wrong one for so long.
The purpose of the vice president, of course, is to serve as second banana, preferably without getting too mottled by lousy assignments, presidential indifference or embarrassing deference. (Pence fills his sycophancy quotas in the book, extolling the president’s physical stamina, likening Trump to Jimmy Stewart’s character in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and noting that he displayed a signed copy of “The Art of the Deal” in his West Wing office during his entire vice presidency.) Still, I searched through the 542 pages of this memoir for any instances in which Pence exercised enough character and independent judgment to tell Trump that he might have been on the wrong course about something, about anything. I found two such cases before the events surrounding Jan. 6. Two.
No, it’s not when the president fired F.B.I. director James Comey in May 2017, an action Trump took not for self-serving reasons, he assured Pence, but because it was “the right thing to do for the country.” (Apparently Pence is so persuaded by this argument that he quotes it twice.) It’s not when Trump praised the “very fine people” on both sides of the Charlottesville tragedy in August 2017. (Any notion of a false equivalence between neo-Nazis and those opposing them, Pence explains, was an unfortunate “narrative” that “smeared” his good friend in the Oval Office.)
It’s not when the administration separated children from their parents at the southern U.S. border. (On immigration, Pence writes, Trump “led with law and order but was prepared to follow with compassion.”) It’s not when Trump pressed Ukraine’s leader to investigate a potential Democratic rival in the 2020 election. (“It was a less-than-perfect call,” Pence acknowledges, but its imperfections were stylistic, the product of Trump’s “casual” and “spontaneous” approach to foreign relations.)
It’s not when Trump confused a frightened populace with his nonsensical coronavirus briefings in the spring of 2020. In fact, Pence explains away those sessions by suggesting that Trump believed that “seeing him and the press argue was in some way reassuring to the American people that life was going on.” And it’s not when Trump shared a stage with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki in July 2018 and accepted the Russian president’s denials about election interference. Pence says he encouraged Trump to “clarify” his views, but the vice president seemed far more troubled by media coverage of the event. “The press and political establishment went wild,” he writes. “It sounded as though the president was taking Putin’s side over that of his national security officials.” If it sounded that way, it was because that was the sound the words made when they left the president’s mouth.
That is a standard Pence feint: When Trump says or does something wildly objectionable, Pence remains noncommittal on the matter and just condemns the “ever-divisive press” that covered it. When Trump derided Haiti, El Salvador and various African nations as “shithole countries” in an Oval Office conversation in early 2018, “the media predictably went into a frenzy,” Pence laments. The former vice president even faults journalists for drawing attention to Covid infection numbers in May 2020, “at a time,” Pence writes, “when cases in more than half of the states were dropping, and case rates were also in decline, numbering 20,000 a day, down from 30,000 in April.” As if 20,000 new Americans infected with a dangerous virus each day was not newsworthy.
The two meaningful disagreements that Pence expressed to the president in real time were these: First, Pence demurred when Trump considered inviting Taliban representatives to Camp David; he suggested that the president “reflect on who they are and what they’ve done and if they have truly changed.” Second, the president and vice president had a testy exchange when Corey Lewandowski, a former Trump campaign manager, left a pro-Trump super PAC and joined Pence’s political action committee. Pence reminded Trump that he had encouraged the move, but Trump denied having done so. “By that point I was angry,” Pence acknowledges; he even admits to raising his voice. Somehow, the Taliban and Corey Lewandowski rated equally as lines that shall not be crossed.
Between Election Day on Nov. 3, 2020, and the tragedy of Jan. 6, 2021, while Trump and his allies propagated the fiction of a stolen vote, Pence enabled and dissembled. Describing the outcome of the vote in his memoir, he offers a gloriously exculpatory euphemism, writing that “we came up short under circumstances that would cause millions of Americans to doubt the outcome of the election.” (Circumstances could not be reached for comment.)
When Trump declared victory in the early hours of Nov. 4, Pence stood alongside him in the East Room of the White House, in front of dozens of U.S. flags and behind a single microphone, and “promised that we would remain vigilant to protect the integrity of the vote,” Pence recalls. In the days that followed, Pence addressed conservative audiences and pledged to continue the fight “until every legal vote is counted and every illegal vote is thrown out!”
Note those slippery, wiggle-room formulations. Pence does not directly state that he believed the election had been stolen, yet his rhetoric still appears fully in line with Trump’s position. The ovations at his speeches were “deafening,” Pence notes. So was his public silence about the truth. Less than a week after the election, Pence had already admitted to Jared Kushner that “although I was sure that some voter fraud had taken place, I wasn’t convinced it had cost us the election.” Why not share that conclusion with the public? Why stand by as the big lie grew bigger and Jan. 6 grew inevitable?
The memoir revisits several conversations between Pence and Trump in the weeks immediately preceding Jan. 6 — all missed opportunities to convey the truth to the boss. Instead, Pence reassured Trump that “the campaign was right to defend the integrity of America’s elections.” (Pence often refers obliquely to the actions of “the campaign,” as if he played no role in it, as if his name was not even on the ballot.) He dances around reality, coming closest to it when he advised the president that “if the legal challenges came up short and if he was unwilling to concede, he could simply accept the results of the elections, move forward with the transition, and start a political comeback.”
On Dec. 14, 2020, state electors officially voted and delivered an Electoral College majority to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, leading Pence to acknowledge that “for all intents and purposes, at that point the election was over.” He says so now in the memoir; if only he had said it in public at the time. Yes, he told Trump repeatedly that the vice president lacks the authority to overturn the results of the election. But not once in his book does Pence say to the president that, even if I had the authority, I would not exercise it — because we lost.
Throughout “So Help Me God,” readers find Pence still running interference for Trump, still minimizing his transgressions. When he quotes the president’s video from the afternoon of Jan. 6, in which Trump finally called on the rioters to stand down, Pence makes a revealing omission. Here is how he quotes Trump: “I know your pain, I know your hurt … but you have to go home now, we have to have peace.” What did Pence erase with that ellipsis? “We had an election that was stolen from us,” Trump said in the middle of that passage. “It was a landslide election, and everyone knows it, especially the other side.” So much of Pence’s vice presidency is captured in those three little dots.
Sometimes the problem is not the relevant material Pence leaves out, but the dubious material he puts in. Pence writes, with an overconfidence bordering on overcompensation, that he was going to win re-election as Indiana governor in 2016, that his victory “was all but assured.” In fact, Pence’s approval ratings in the final stretch of his governorship were low and polls indicated a tight contest against his Democratic opponent.
Pence writes that Trump “never tried to obscure the offensiveness of what he had said” on the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape, perhaps forgetting that Trump dismissed his words as mere “locker room talk” and later suggested that the voice on the recording might not have been his own.
Pence also writes that the White House, busy with its Covid response, did not have “much time for celebrating” after the president’s acquittal in his first Senate impeachment trial in February 2020, even though the next day Trump spoke about it in the White House for more than an hour before a crowd of lawmakers, aides, family members and lawyers. Trump explicitly called the speech a “celebration” and referred to that day, Feb. 6, 2020, as “a day of celebration,” as Pence, sitting in the front row, no doubt heard. The day would indeed prove a high point in the administration’s final year, as a pandemic, electoral defeat and insurrection soon followed.
“I prayed for wisdom to know the right thing to do and the courage to do it,” Pence writes of the days before Jan. 6. Unsurprising for a book with this title, Pence’s Christian faith is a constant reference point. Raised Catholic, Pence describes being born again during his college years and joining an evangelical church with his wife. Throughout the memoir, Pence is often praying, and often reminding readers of how often he prays.
Each chapter begins with a Bible passage, and Pence highlights individuals he deems particularly “strong” or “devout” Christians, with Representative Julia Carson of Indiana, who died in 2007, Senator Josh Hawley, Representative Jim Jordan and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo making the cut. I kept wondering if he would consider the role that his outspoken faith may have played in getting him on the ticket in the first place. If Trump picked him to reassure Christian conservatives, how does Pence feel about that bargain?
In the epilogue, Pence provides a clue. Of all the Trump administration’s accomplishments, he writes, the “most important of all” was making possible the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, which ended the constitutional right to abortion. “The fact that three of the five justices who joined that opinion were appointed during the Trump-Pence administration makes all the hardship we endured from 2016 forward more than worth it.” Pence, in other words, is the ultimate “But Gorsuch!” voter. That is what he got out of the bargain, plus a new national profile that he may leverage into a bid for the only higher office left to seek.
In the book’s appendix, Pence reprints several documents that emphasize different aspects of his public service. There is his 2016 Republican convention speech, in which he hailed Trump as both an “uncalculating truth-teller” and “his own man, distinctly American”; his 2016 State of the State of Indiana address; his letter to Congress on Jan. 6, 2021, in which he stated that the vice president’s role in certifying an election is “largely ceremonial”; and his letter to then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, six days after the attack on the Capitol, refusing to invoke the Constitution’s 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office. Pence also adds two texts in which he takes special pride, and which I imagine him citing in any future presidential run.
First is an essay titled “Confessions of a Negative Campaigner,” which Pence published in 1991 after his second failed run for Congress. “It is wrong, quite simply, to squander a candidate’s priceless moment in history, a moment in which he or she could have brought critical issues before the citizenry, on partisan bickering,” Pence wrote. He was describing himself, with regret. The second is a speech that Pence, then representing Indiana’s Sixth Congressional District, delivered at Hillsdale College in 2010. “You must always be wary of a president who seems to float upon his own greatness,” Pence declared. He was describing the Obama presidency, with disdain. The president, he wrote, “does not command us; we command him. We serve neither him nor his vision.” Pence warned that “if a president joins the power of his office to his own willful interpretation, he steps away from a government of laws and toward a government of men.”
These documents provide an apt coda to Pence’s vice presidency. One day, he may use them to distinguish himself from his president and his friend, to try to show that Pence, too, can be his own man. For now, he does not make the obvious connection between the sentiments in his essay and speech and his experience campaigning and governing alongside Donald Trump. Or if he does, he is calculating enough to keep it to himself.
After all, Mike Pence was there to serve.
Carlos Lozada became a New York Times Opinion columnist in September 2022, after 17 years as an editor and book critic at The Washington Post. He is the author of “What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era” and the winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. @CarlosNYT
Image Credits: Damon Winter/The New York Times