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Monday, January 18, 2021

Mike Pence has been a truly great vice president

Vice President Mike Pence is the unsung hero of the past four years.

The courage and competence of Pence before and during the assault on the U.S. Capitol last week finally showed the world what has been occurring behind the scenes for the entire Trump presidency. As President Trump blundered from one needless controversy to another, it was Pence who kept the executive branch as a whole from careening entirely out of control.

In some respects, Pence did for four years what former White House chief of staff Al Haig did for the final four months of Richard Nixon’s presidency. As Secretary of State Henry Kissinger put it, “by sheer willpower, dedication and self-discipline,” Haig “held the government together” as the Watergate-plagued Nixon grew frighteningly unstable.

This assessment is based on a mosaic of information gleaned from several sources for the past four years, combined with some admittedly significant reading between the lines. Don’t be surprised, though, to hear this assessment borne out in the coming years as sober insider retrospectives begin emerging.

This goes against the oft-vitriolic criticism of Pence, especially from some angry Never-Trump conservatives who blame him for “enabling” the president’s abuses. However, the critics ignore the very nature of the office of vice president, which often has a publicly emasculating effect no matter how dutifully the vice president serves the country. John Adams called it “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” John Nance Garner said the office “isn’t worth a pitcher of warm (spit).” George H.W. Bush was particularly beleaguered, with the Doonesbury comic strip saying he had put his “manhood in a blind trust,” Newsweek asserting on its cover that he had to fight a “wimp factor,” and columnist George Will writing that Bush was “emitting … a thin, tinny ‘arf’ — the sound of a lapdog.”

The vice presidency was not created to serve as a public counterweight to the president.

Nonetheless, Pence has done his duty well. When the administration began, the rest of Trumpworld had little knowledge of how the executive branch worked or who had the competence to work it. Pence headed the transition, and his people and then-Sen. Jeff Sessions did a good job surrounding Trump with strong initial advisers such as three respected generals, along with knowledgeable appointees in important sub-Cabinet posts.

Indeed, most of the excellent deregulatory work for which conservatives praise Trump actually should be credited to the hard work of Pence-related personnel, often bird-dogged directly by the vice president’s office. Meanwhile, as one feature story put it, “he toiled quietly on important jobs such as liaising with Congress and Republicans, and undertaking significant diplomatic missions.” And “Pence is often called in to smooth over or dial back in private, all while never expressing overt disagreement with the president.”

Without him, Lord knows how much worse Trump could have been.

Then there’s the coronavirus task force, for which Pence now gets too little credit. Liberal caterwauling aside, much of the administration’s response to the pandemic was praiseworthy, especially the vaccine-creating Operation Warp Speed and the rapid deployment of equipment nationwide. People now forget, but even liberal New York governor Andrew Cuomo praised the administration’s efforts for the first six weeks after the task force was formed.

Indeed, almost all of the legitimate substantive criticism of the administration’s coronavirus response involved the only two things Pence had nothing to do with. First, there was the public refusal of Trump himself to take the virus seriously throughout January and February. It was only on Feb. 26 that Trump appointed Pence to form and lead the task force that made Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx famous, and that task force itself almost immediately began doing yeoman’s work.

Second, there was the bad, early, and continuing anti-mask messaging. But the early dismissal of masks came from Fauci himself. And later, despite Pence’s efforts, the mask antipathy came from a blustering Trump imagining that masklessness translated into manliness.

Not even President-elect Joe Biden has offered specifics, beyond the slow start and the mask-aversion, for which to blame the administration’s response. And neither of those were remotely Pence’s fault.

Meanwhile, the whole nation saw day after day of task force briefings in which Trump spouted incorrect or borderline insane suggestions, only for Pence to then calmly, efficiently, and deftly broker the solid information offered by the Fauci-Birx team whenever Trump took breathers from his circus acts.

Apart from the coronavirus response, critics have blasted Pence for so loyally standing by Trump no matter how outrageously Trump behaved. Those who watched more closely would have seen Pence always parsing his words carefully. He never praised Trump’s misbehavior or outrages. He only praised policy initiatives or whatever character traits (such as boldness) about which he could legitimately find something nice to say.

And here’s the key thing: You can search, and search, and search again, and you won’t find instances of Pence demonizing the other side. His tone has always been measured or constructive. His courtesy always intact. Amid the nastiness of the tornadic Trump, Pence has modeled civil discourse.

Finally, there were last week’s events. Despite severe, repeated, private and public pressure and insults from Trump, Pence showed tremendous backbone and principle in insisting he had no unilateral power to reject certified state electoral votes. He laid out his reasoning in a magnificent letter to Trump, he spoke eloquently in the legislative chamber both before and after the assault on the Capitol, and he acted with courage and attention to duty during the assault itself.

Urged to leave the Capitol complex for his own safety, he instead insisted on remaining in a secure room where he could help coordinate a response to the siege. It was Pence, not Trump, who worked with the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to activate the National Guard. While Trump dithered (or worse), it was Pence who made the firm public call for the mob to leave the building, even as Pence himself was the target of rioters specifically threatening his execution.

This was, unambiguously, crisis leadership done right.

Mike Pence is a man of competence and character, a man of principle and patriotism. His countrymen, liberals and conservatives alike, owe him sincerest thanks.



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