Following the chain of command
Mike Pence has brought a low-key but active approach to the vice presidency
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Less than six months after Mike Pence became vice president of the United States, he offered intriguing advice to the graduating class of Grove City College.
“Servant leadership, not selfish ambition, must be the animating force of the career that lies before you,” he told graduates of the Christian school. “Don’t fear criticism. Have the humility to listen to it. Learn from it. And most importantly, push through it. Persistence is the key.”
It’s good counsel, but hard to mesh with Pence’s own boss: Humility and acceptance of criticism haven’t been hallmarks of President Donald Trump’s tenure.
The contrast is hard to miss: Critics have ridiculed Pence for his unwillingness to dine alone with any woman who’s not his wife and pointed out that Trump has bragged about past promiscuousness, had three wives, and faced multiple sex scandals.
How does Pence persist?
Part of the answer lies in Pence’s belief that the president is pursuing good policy. Another part might be found in a commencement speech he gave to the U.S. Naval Academy during the same month he visited Grove City College. He told the graduates that “an orientation to authority” was critical to good leadership: “Follow the chain of command without exception.”
Pence did criticize Trump during the 2016 Republican primaries, and he endorsed Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, ahead of the contest in Pence’s home state of Indiana. But after Trump tapped Pence as his running mate later that year, Pence followed the chain of command.
Overt criticism of Trump by Pence has been rare. The most serious criticism Pence leveled came just before the 2016 election when an Access Hollywood tape from 2005 revealed Trump making sexually lewd and aggressive comments about women.
Pence reportedly considered dropping out.
“Don’t fear criticism. Have the humility to listen to it. Learn from it. And most importantly, push through it. Persistence is the key.”
He publicly said he was offended by Trump’s remarks and that he could not condone or defend them. After Trump offered a public apology (calling the statements “locker room talk”), Pence continued in the race, and his public support for the president has been unwavering.
It’s an interesting relationship and an interesting contrast: While Trump relishes Twitter battles and campaign rallies, Pence has remained low-key and understated in his work.
After widespread rioting erupted in June following the death of George Floyd, Trump made a high-profile walk to St. John’s Church in Washington, D.C., where authorities had dispersed demonstrators in a chaotic scene before the president’s appearance.
Two days later, Pence made a quiet visit to a mostly black church in Maryland to listen to a small group of men and women discuss their concerns about race and other issues. The group expressed support for some of Trump’s policies but also told Pence of the struggles they face.
Derek McCoy, a black Christian who works for Compassion International, told the vice president he sometimes has to advise his adult sons about where it’s safe to go and asks them to check in with him. McCoy said he wasn’t bitter, but that it was important to acknowledge the struggles in the country: “America is listening, and we have to have the right tone.”
Pence sat quietly in the circle as others in the group took turns talking about their experiences and giving their suggestions. He told them: “We are here with ears to hear.”
On other issues, Pence has listened to an admittedly surprising source: Joe Biden. In her 2018 book First in Line, Kate Andersen Brower reported that during the first year of the Trump administration, Biden and Pence talked at least once a month.
Biden told Brower that Pence has asked for his advice on the office and that they often discussed foreign policy. He acknowledged the pair disagree on plenty of issues, “but Mike’s a guy you can talk with, you can deal with, in a traditional sense.”
A final motivation for Pence’s loyalty to Trump may be embedded with an obvious question: If Trump wins a second term, does Pence want to run for the presidency in 2024?
Pence, 61, mostly refuses to talk about presidential prospects publicly. And speculation has already swirled around other potential Republican hopefuls, including former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C.
But it’s hard to imagine it’s not on Pence’s mind. Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris seemed to show accidentally how much the prospect can occupy even a potential vice president’s mind when she recently started a sentence: “In a Harris administration …”
She quickly added, “with Joe Biden as the president.”
—Read part 1 of this issue’s cover story package: “Prosecutor and persecutor”
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