Thursday, January 16, 2020

Books: A Look At VP Mike Pence In "Piety & Power"

Piety & Power: Mike Pence and the Taking of the White House 
By Tom LoBianco
Dey St, an imprint of William Morrow; hardcover; $26.99

Tom LoBianco has a perspective on Vice President Mike Pence that few possess, as he has covered from the Indiana statehouse to the present day in the Trump White House for the Associated Press, CNN, and the Indianapolis Star.

Drawing on years of research and over a hundred exclusive interviews with those closest to the vice president, as well as his deep ties within the Beltway and Indiana state politics, LoBianco has created the definitive biography of Mike Pence with a twist.

Piety & Power is set in the future, with President Pence taking office after Donald Trump has completed his two terms. This exercise is an attempt to show the real Mike Pence, a man whose understated style masks his ambition, as well as his political skills, and LoBianco succeeds. 

There is a look at Pence's rise in Midwestern politics, his somewhat strained relationship with President Trump, his continued financial woes, his repressed anger, and his deep-rooted faith - in his country, in God, and ultimately himself.

LoBianco follows Pence from his evangelical conversion in college to his failed career as a young lawyer to his thwarted attempts at politics until he hitched his wagon to far-right extremism, becoming the face in Congress for faith-based policy and Tea Party rhetoric.

There also is a look at someone who is under the radar, but whom the Vice President relies on, his wife Karen. She gives Pence's life meaning, but their relationship also serves as a lightning rod to those in his orbit. Anyone who wants to curry favor with Mike Pence knows that Karen is the path to him, and LoBianco provides many examples of how she has proven to be the driver of Mike's policies, decisions, and behaviors.

LoBianco writes of Pence's rise through the political ranks, "In his first two runs for Congress, he was a standard-issue Republican candidate - not taking sides in the split between conservatives and the establishment of the party. In the '90s he became a full-throated conservative and changed into a declawed version of Rush Limbaugh. In Congress, a decade later, he became a leader of the hard Right, a blend of Christian Right conservative and Tea Partiers that one broadcaster dubbed 'teavangelical.' But he dropped that image with breakneck speed in 2011 to run for governor of Indiana, this time becoming a conservative technocrat in the mold of Indiana's popular governor, Mitch Daniels. That's nothing new for any politician, of course (think John Kerry's flip-flopping, Hillary Clinton's transformation from an accented Arkansas political wife to nonaccented secretary of state and presidential candidate).

No, the interesting part about Pence's shape-shifting was the lag time - he never led the wave, he always caught it after it was cresting. That was never clearer than in April 2016, when the tsunami of Trump was about to break, washing away Reagan's Republican Party and the hopes of conservatives who had spent decades building the GOP into an ideological force. Pence couldn't decide between his past, represented by movement conservative Ted Cruz, and his future, represented by ragtag nationalist Donald Trump - so he picked both. And shortly after the wave broke, with Trump's victory in the Indiana primary a few days later, Pence was on his way to his latest evolution at Trump's side.

In a normal administration, there probably wouldn't be any need for a biography of the sitting vice president. Interest in the last Hoosier to become vice president, Dan Quayle, seemed to start with a grievous spelling error and end with a cultural skewering on Murphy Brown. And Pence is nothing close to the shadow presidency of Dick Cheney. But since the inauguration, Mike Pence has seemed seconds from taking the throne. The FBI began investigating the president's campaign in July of 2016 for possible collusion with Russia to win the election. Trump's personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, flipped against him in August 2018 in exchange for leniency in court. And the special counsel investigating Trump and his campaign had convinced almost a half-dozen Trump aides to testify in his sprawling investigation. The peril to Trump from multiple federal investigations likely matches his own threat to himself: his steady diet of Filet-O-Fish sandwiches, chocolate milkshakes, cable news, and Twitter.

The lag time in Pence's identity changes led many throughout his career to question not just who he was, but where his loyalties lay. Not least of whom was President Trump himself. After Democrats won the House in 2018, Trump began asking aides and confidants whether he could trust - and whether he should keep him on the ticket in 2020. Trump denied this publicly, but Pence and he had never developed a close relationship.

The Democrats had overtaken the House, heightening the threat of impeachment. As Democrats made their political calculations, one question was inescapable: If they got rid of Trump, who would they be getting instead?"

Piety & Power is a very enlightening read about one of the more compelling, if often overlooked, members of the Trump administration.

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