Mike Pence, the next president

In the hometown of U.S. vice-president Mike Pence, politics is becoming a family business—and that could have huge consequences

The boyhood home of the 46th president of the United States of America is a weathered brick ranch on a quiet, curving street with a pumpkin vine creeping across the unkempt lawn—“for comedic effect,” the current resident explains. It’s not Honest Abe Lincoln’s log cabin, but it’s no Trump Tower, either, and it certainly isn’t the equal of Trump’s boyhood manse in Queens, N.Y., with its winding staircase and its tall, white columns and its bow-down-before-me hilltop pridefulness.

In contrast, the humble house on 31st Street in the prosperous industrial city of Columbus, Ind., backs onto a field of maize, the tall stalks brittle and tawny this late in the summer, and it perches just above a little stream called Hall Creek that occasionally spills its banks and floods the boyhood home of the 46th president of the United States.

When this happened in 2008, Michael Richard Pence, one of the six little Pences who bunked in this house, came over to extend a hand of tender Christian sympathy to the woman whose property got drowned.

“I’m a small-town kid who grew up with a cornfield in the backyard and dreaming of serving my country in public office,” Pence is fond of saying. Raised a Roman Catholic in Columbus, his conversion in college to evangelical Protestantism has made him a beacon of the righteous Republican right.

His words and actions as governor of Indiana—you may recall his fervent support of a baker who refused to prepare a wedding cake with two men on top—have not hurt him with self-styled “values voters” either.

The front yard at the flood-prone ranch house turns out to be rather apt. Pence was “a fat little kid,” he told a local newspaper in 1988, “the real pumpkin in the pickle patch.”

“Mike Pence isn’t really a hick; he just plays one on TV,” counters Politico, and if you’ve just awakened to the fact that there have been only 45 presidents, counting Donald Trump, then you get the quip that Michael Richard Pence of Columbus, Ind., isn’t really the 46th—not yet. But God willing, say many of his ardent Christianist supporters, and God forbid, wails the liberal left, he sooner or later shall be.

Distanced from the presidency only by impeachment, resignation, illness or the 25th amendment to the constitution (“unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office . . . ”), the white-haired Hoosier of the holy faith prays on, and on, and waits. The Lord may maketh Mike Pence lie down in green pastures, but for the past two years, he’s been in bed with Trump.

“You know, the truth of it is, the president and I have a great passion for the American Dream because our families have lived it, in a very real sense,” Pence remarked at a steel plant in Grand Rapids, Mich., in September. “I mean, my grandfather immigrated to this country. He drove a bus in Chicago, Illinois, for 40 years.

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“In fact, it’s one of the things the president and I really have in common. His grandfather immigrated to this country as well. You know, I always tell people, you know, the president and I, you know, we’ve really got a lot in common, other than a whole lot of zeros.”

“I voted for Trump as opposed to Hillary Clinton,” says the current resident on 31st Street in Columbus, a woman named Suzanne Kanehl who is raising two children in the house where Nancy and Ed Pence brought up six. “I just didn’t have a lot of respect for her, and after Obama I thought we needed a change. But it looks like he speaks before he’s really thought about what he’s going to say. With all the tweets and stuff, sometimes it seems that he’s ranting just to hear himself rant.”

Pence, Kanehl says, “just seems much more presidential than Donald Trump. He seems like a more balanced individual, like he’s more in the mould that a president should be.”

“Maybe the old mould is broken forever,” her visitor suggests.

“I don’t think so,” answers Kanehl. “I think they still need to carry themselves with respect and show class. They should be honourable and be honest, even if they are politicians.”

“You could soon be living in a presidential birthplace,” she is reminded.

“Guess I better mow the grass,” the resident says.

Vice President Mike Pence’s childhood home in Columbus, IN. (Michelle Litvin)

Another of the tykes who lived in the house with the pumpkins on the lawn will be moving to Washington, D.C., in January. On Nov. 6, unless tens of thousands of inveterate Republican regulars in the 6th Congressional District of Indiana suddenly turn liberal, Gregory Joseph Pence, Mike’s older brother by two and a half years, is going to be elected to the House of Representatives. The 6th District voted Republican last time, 69 per cent to 26. Mike Pence held the same seat from 2003 to 2013.

Now picture this: the Democrats narrowly gain control of the House in the mid-term elections. In January, they introduce articles of impeachment against Trump. If a majority of representatives vote yea in the House, a trial in the Senate will decide if Pence really does become president No. 46. But as the ballots are counted, there is deadlock. It all comes down to one rookie member’s vote.

Greg Pence! One congressman casting the deciding vote to impeach a man whose removal would make his own brother the 46th president of the United States.

Before this dream (or nightmare) scenario occurs, it should be noted that Mike Pence’s go-to line about being distanced from Trump by “a whole lot of zeros” is, in some ways, a whole lot of corn husks. The six little Pences of Indiana hardly lived a life of penury as their father rose in the ranks—and later became an owner—of an oil company, Kiel Bros., that operated a chain of filling stations called Tobacco Road.

After Ed died in 1988, Greg joined the company and was the president of the firm when it went bankrupt in 2004, leaving the states of Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky and the federal government with more than US$20 million in costs as they worked to clean up what the Chicago Tribune called “more than 85 contaminated sites across the three states, including underground tanks that leaked toxic chemicals into soil, streams and wells” and “a plume of cancer-causing solvent . . . that threatens drinking water near the Pence family’s hometown.”

“Greg Pence has had nothing to do with Kiel Bros. since 2004,” his campaign spokeswoman scoffed in July. “This is another attempt by the liberal media to rehash old, baseless attacks.”

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Not until 2018 did Greg Pence seek political office. The primary was closely contested. And Greg’s own brother, the vice-president, obtained an absentee ballot at his previous address—the governor’s mansion in Indianapolis—even though, as Fort Wayne’s Journal Gazette noted, “a new governor now lives there with his wife and dog.”

Greg Pence now owns the Exit 76 Antique Mall, where an overhead sign that professes that there are three million individual objects for sale has been edited, the three replaced with a five.

At the Exit 76 Antique Mall, a shopper is faced with a beguiling array of Depression glass, Wayne Newton albums, duck decoys, cigar boxes, leather suitcases, potato-chip cans and copies of old newspapers. These include front pages of the Indianapolis Star with headlines that scream “NIXON KNEW OF COVER-UPS” and “FORD’S SURPRISE PARDON FOR NIXON TOUCHES OFF WIDESPREAD PROTESTS” that serve as a handy reminder of just how close we are to all of this happening again.

An accidental president pardoning his disgraced predecessor and absolving him of high crimes and misdemeanours?

What an (adverb, adverb, adjective, adjective, noun) that would be!

How does the 48th vice-president of the United States of America fill his days while he waits for his boss to go insane or get convicted? In ceremonial errands, in raising cash, in second-tier diplomacy; but mostly, day after day after day, in ritual, repetitive praise of the man who lifted him onto the national stage. “It was my honour to represent the United States, but it was my particular honour to represent the man who made that day possible,” Pence says to a gathering at the Korean War Memorial in Washington on a warm day in September, referring to the return of U.S. soldiers’ remains by the North Korean communists. “A man whose leadership and care for Americans who have served, and who serve in the uniform of the United States of America, is every day . . . a great champion of our armed forces—past, present and future—-the 45th president of the United States of America, President Donald Trump.”


Also he meets with Prime Minister Zoran Zaev of the Republic of Macedonia “to congratulate him on the historic Prespa agreement with Greece to resolve the long-standing name issue between the two countries.”

He speaks on the telephone with President Lenín Moreno of Ecuador “to discuss the positive bilateral relationship between the United States and Ecuador.”

At the White House, he participates in the Women Mayors of America conference, and in the “A Seat at the Table: Persecuted Church Summit.”

He travels to Knoxville, Tenn., and to Little Rock, Ark., (deplaning at the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport) to speechify on behalf of Republican candidates in the existential November mid-terms.

And then, at a Washington hotel, he welcomes 75 donors to a closed-door fundraising luncheon and collects about US$450,000 for—guess who?—his own big brother Greg.

For the holder of an office that one of its previous occupants once described as “not worth a bucket of warm piss,” Mike Pence has been the subject of an enormous volume of vitriol. He has been called “an obedient deputy whose willingness to suffer indignity and humiliation at the pleasure of the president appears boundless” by The Atlantic.

“Pence . . . has dutifully stood by the president, mustering a devotional gaze rarely seen since the days of Nancy Reagan,” sniffs The New Yorker.

He has been scorned for announcing that he will not dine alone with any adult female other than Karen Pence, his wife of 33 years. He has been derided for supposedly addressing her as “Mother” in the way of a backwoods Clampett or McCoy.

And, most famously, a snickering Brooklynite named Joy Behar has expressed her view on television that “It’s one thing to talk to Jesus. It’s another thing when Jesus talks to you. That’s called mental illness if I’m not correct. Hearing voices.” Behar later apologized.

It is true that Pence has stated that “Congress should oppose any effort to recognize ‘homosexual’s [sic] as a discreet [sic] and insular minority’ entitled to the protection of anti-discrimination laws similar to those extended to women and ethnic minorities.” And it is true that as governor of Indiana, he called for “an audit to ensure that federal dollars were no longer being given to organizations that celebrate and encourage the types of behaviours that facilitate the spreading of the HIV virus.”

“I used to listen to Pence’s radio show,” a member of a local school board in the 6th Congressional District named Kat Carey tells Maclean’s. (Pence liked to describe his call-in program as “Rush Limbaugh on decaf.”) “He’s very evangelical, and I can’t stand that.”

“The cover of using his religious ideology to hide his hatred of women is disgusting,” adds an Indiana gun-control activist named Mary Moore. “And not going to lunch with any woman but his wife is more than I can stand.”

With such opprobrium arrayed against him, the first two times Pence ran for Congress, in 1988 and 1990, he got creamed. But does not 2 Corinthians promise that the signs of a true apostle are performed with patience? The conservative Christian from Columbus hasn’t lost an election since.

Jeannine Lee Lake with her husband and grandson.

The Democratic Party candidate for the House of Representatives in the 6th District of Indiana is a woman named Jeannine Lee Lake. She is pressing the flesh at the Old Washington Street Festival in downtown Muncie. According to OpenSecrets.org, Lake at one point had raised $2,211 for her campaign compared to $1,277,731 for Greg Pence. But then she chanced to encounter a fellow Munsonian who went back to his car and came back with 28 $20 bills—David Letterman.

“Anything can happen in politics, but the district is a very safe Republican seat, even in what will not be a good year for Republicans,” Chad Kinsella, a professor at Ball State University, told the Muncie Star Press. “Quite frankly, I am not even sure David Letterman himself could win.”

Lake, a voluble and enthusiastic woman who has never run for public office before, tells Maclean’s that she has seen a poll that shows her within 10 percentage points of Greg Pence with less than a month until Election Day. But she understands that she is not only competing against the owner of the Exit 76 Antiques Mall, but against her rival’s brother, and his brother’s keeper.

“Donald Trump is bringing back the American dream,” Greg Pence, who served four years in the United States Marine Corps, says in a campaign video. “I believe Donald Trump cares more about the middle class than any president we’ve had in a long time, but he needs help out there. He needs more marines to go out there to help his agenda get through Congress.”

“There is no daylight between them,” Lake says. “No daylight. Greg Pence runs around in a hat that says ‘Trump-Pence.’ I am running against all of these people.

“Donald Trump sold people a bill of goods,” she continues. “People say that all politicians lie. But do all politicians lie every damn day?

“I’ll tell you something,” she exhorts. “You are talking to a person who is a person of faith. I believe the Lord has set me on this path to fight against a cruel administration. I’m not a perfect person, but I am a person of integrity who strives lawfully to achieve my goals. This will be the biggest upset in American history.

“I challenge the very efficacy of the vice-president and my opponent. They use God for political gain. If you’re going to tell me that Jesus is on your side, that is not God. I challenge Mike Pence’s faith. I challenge Greg Pence as a Christian.”

Greg Pence has yet to respond publicly to this challenge. In fact, he has hardly responded publicly to anything since he won the Republican primary—granting almost no interviews, holding no press conferences, taking part in no debates, announcing his activities on Facebook and Twitter only after they are over.

One day in August, it happened that Greg Pence and Lake found themselves at the Delaware County Fair on the same day. “I said, ‘Hi there, how are you doing, when are you going to debate me?’ ” Lake recalls. “He looked like he had seen a ghost. That’s me, a ghost—black Casper.”

U.S. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence in Washington, U.S., on May 29, 2018. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

The Saturday session of the 13th annual Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C., opens with a “biblical values” investment adviser boasting about how he was able to get Costco to stop sponsoring gay Pride parades. “They have not heard from Christians like us,” he says. “My friends, that must change.”

“It’s no wonder that Barack Obama’s values are not Christian values,” announces the woman who follows the broker in a long diatribe against same-sex marriage.

“How can I as a Christian support President Donald Trump?” the woman continues. “Let me share a Christian value: God. Forgives. Sin.”

For Vice-President Mike Pence, these are the cornfields of home.

“Before I get started, let me bring greetings from a friend of mine,” Pence starts, beaming as he takes the stage. “A leader who I promise you has been fighting every day for the values that make America great. I bring greetings from the 45th president of the United States of America, President Donald Trump.”

He says that he “couldn’t be more proud than to serve as vice-president to a president who stands without apology for the sanctity of human life.”

Pence falsely—or mistakenly—quotes Joe Biden, his predecessor as veep, as saying that “those of us who stand for traditional moral values are the forces of intolerance, including the dregs of society.”

(This is not correct. What Biden really did was to label zealots who fervently oppose equal rights for LGBTQ persons “a small percentage of the American people, virulent people. Some of them, the dregs of society.”)

“The truth is faith, family, hard work and patriotism are the glue that has bound the fabric of our nation for generations,” Pence says. He praises “the leadership and compassion of President Donald Trump.”

He urges the audience “for the sake of America, to pray, to vote, to stand.”

“Let’s keep faith that He who has ever watched over this nation still governs in the affairs of men,” urges Pence, “and that as we hold fast to Him, we will run and not grow weary, we will walk and not grow faint, and that He will yet bless America abundantly more than we could ask or imagine.”

“What do you like about Mike Pence?” a reporter asks a man named Marketto from Delaware when the speech is over.

“First of all, he’s a Christian,” he replies.

“Does it mean that we want the Democrats to get rid of Trump so that we can have Mike Pence as president?” a man named Vasquez from California ponders. “No. We can wait.”

“Donald Trump reminds me of John Wayne in True Grit,” testifies a woman named Burroughs from Florida.

“Whom does Mike Pence remind you of?”

“John Adams,” she answers. (Adams, the first vice-president of the United States, called the position “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived.”)

“It was John Adams who said, ‘A politician puts man before God. A statesman puts God before man,’ ” the attendee says. (Actually, Adams wrote that “Statesmen may plan and speculate for liberty but it is religion and morality alone that can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand.” But close enough.)

Burroughs studies her inquisitor. Just behind her, the 46th president of the United States is posing for selfies, waiting for his brother to join him on their holy Trumpian quest.

“Oh, you’re media,” the values voter says. “I thought you were a normal human being.”


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