For Pence, Impeachment Inquiry Will Test A Political Path Shaped By Faith | WOSU Radio

For Pence, Impeachment Inquiry Will Test A Political Path Shaped By Faith

Nov 22, 2019
Originally published on November 22, 2019 12:46 pm

Until Ambassador Gordon Sondland's public testimony on Wednesday, Vice President Pence had managed to keep out of the center of the impeachment inquiry.

For the first time during the public phase of the impeachment hearings, a witness connected Pence to a possible quid pro quo. Sondland said that just ahead of a Sept. 1 meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, he conferred with Pence about a link between U.S. military aid for Ukraine and the investigation that President Trump sought into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

"I mentioned to Vice President Pence before the meetings with the Ukrainians that I had concerns that the delay in aid had become tied to the issue of investigations," Sondland testified.

Pence responded later that day.

"I made no comments in my meeting with President Zelenskiy concerning any investigations or tying investigations to U.S. aid to Ukraine, and I have no recollection of any discussion with Ambassador Sondland before that meeting," Pence said.

With his role in the Ukraine story under increased scrutiny, Pence finds himself ensnared in a scandal that threatens to end with just the third-ever impeachment in U.S. history. For those who know and have studied Pence, his path through the crisis is likely to feature the mix of religion and politics that he learned to synthesize decades ago.

Political calculus, faith calculus

To understand Pence, it's instructive to read his 1980 Hanover College senior thesis, says journalist Tom LoBianco, author of Piety & Power: Mike Pence and the Taking of the White House.

"It's all about Abraham Lincoln's ambivalence toward organized religion, his own agnosticism and how that played to his own political peril in his career," LoBianco said. "And I'm reading this and I'm like, this isn't about Abe Lincoln. This is about Mike Pence. You can see him reasoning through the political calculus with the faith calculus."

Even at 21 years old, Pence understood how politics and religion work together.

Pence grew up in a conservative Catholic family sort of going through the motions of his faith, but in 1978 he went to a Christian music festival in Kentucky. It was a turning point for Pence — the moment, he says, when he found Jesus.

His political career, however, was less linear. He ran for Congress twice — in 1988 and 1990 — and lost both times. Then he decided to try his hand at something else: a daily talk radio show.

LoBianco said the radio show was about more than just getting Pence's name out there.

"I think people take the wrong lesson from that when they say that, 'Oh, he built his name I.D. That's what you need to win.' I think you're missing the bigger point, which is: This is where he gets his antenna from," he said.

His political antenna pointed him to the kinds of cultural and social issues that revved up a religious audience. It helped Pence start to find his political niche.

A purpose and a calling

Pence won a congressional seat in 2000 — a seat he held until 2013, when he became the governor of Indiana. LoBianco said it wasn't a good fit.

"He didn't like being governor. As a manager, he was not good at it. And this is where he got himself into trouble in that time," he said. "He was detached. He spent too much time fundraising for his own long-term presidential goals and not enough time being in the job and living the role of governor."

Which is why, LoBianco said, the battle over a controversial religious liberty law in Indiana caught Pence off guard. The so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act was popular among social conservatives, but it led some national companies to boycott the state in 2015 over concerns that it discriminated against the LGBTQ community.

The controversy left the governor stunned, according to Jim Atterholt, Pence's former chief of staff. After the law was amended, Atterholt said, Pence met directly with members of the LGBTQ community.

Mike Pence greets the crowd before introducing Donald Trump at a campaign rally in 2016 in Green Bay, Wis.
Darren Hauck / Getty Images

"He began to meet and establish relationships with folks that just weren't regularly in our office and maybe they should have been more regular in our office," Atterholt said.

But through all that dialogue, Pence never wavered on core issues that are often used as a litmus test in conservative circles. He still believes that marriage should happen only between a man and a woman and that abortion is wrong.

"He likes to say 'I'm a conservative, but I'm not angry about it.' He loves talking to people that disagree with him and listening, and you'll never hear him say an unkind word. You'll never hear him react in a way that's unkind," Atterholt said.

It's a style that stands in stark contrast to Trump.

"His purpose as vice president is to be a partner and to provide godly counsel, to be prayerful and to give him the best counsel he can and to also be ready, God forbid, if something were to happen," said Atterholt. "He is a very loyal person and he understands that everyone's flawed in different ways. And he's very forgiving of those flaws."

In 2016, with Trump locked in a tight race for the White House with Hillary Clinton, Pence was even able to forgive Trump for the now infamous Access Hollywood tape where Trump bragged about groping and kissing women.

"Was he pleased about that? Of course not. But at the same time, he's a very loyal person and he wasn't going anywhere," Atterholt said. "I mean, he'd made a pledge. He'd made a promise and he was going to keep that promise."

Atterholt said it made sense when Pence joined the Trump ticket.

"Then-Gov. Mike Pence and currently Vice President Pence sees public service as a calling, and when that invitation came for him to be considered, he prayed about it and he thought about it, talked to a lot of people, but really in his heart, he said whatever happens, happens," Atterholt said. "If that's how I'm to be used, if that's how I can best help our country, I'm willing to do that."

"Plans to give you hope and a future"

A couple of months after the inauguration, Pence appeared on stage with David Hughes, the lead pastor of Church by the Glades, an evangelical megachurch in South Florida. Without mentioning Trump by name, Hughes made it clear that some of Pence's most loyal supporters were still coming to grips with the vicious GOP primary and Pence's new partnership with the president.

"I thought you did a brilliant job having respectful discourse with people who politically had different points of views," Hughes said. "How would you guide us? How can the church help bring unity to a country where convictions are so polarized?"

Pence didn't miss a beat. "It's just the greatest privilege of my life to be vice president to President Donald Trump," he said.

Pence knows why he was put on the ticket and how important moments like his appearance at Church by the Glades are to keeping the evangelical vote in Trump's column.

"What the president really personifies is I think the pathway forward here. He's got broad shoulders, but he's got a big heart," he said. "I tell people sometimes he's bigger than life, you know? Always memorable, charismatic. And then there's me. You know, it's like I guess he wanted to balance the ticket."

Then, he walked through the door that had been opened in this conversation, and separated himself from Trump.

"For me, for my house, it all really does come down to just wanting to treat others the way you want to be treated," he said.

Vice President Pence and President Trump listen during a conference call with the International Space Station on Oct. 18.
Win McNamee / Getty Images

It's a small reminder that yes, he has been called to serve and he will. But he is not Donald J. Trump. He is Michael Richard Pence, a man with his own ambitions. And if he can move past the impeachment inquiry, if he can defend the president but keep his distance, he could find his own path to the White House.

Pence keeps a Bible verse above the mantel in his home. Jeremiah 29:11: "For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."

But as the impeachment inquiry draws Pence further inside, the calling for Pence now — the work — is to survive the present.

: 11/21/19

A previous Web version of this story said Vice President Pence keeps a Bible verse on the mantel in his office. The verse is above the mantel in his home.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Mike Pence is living in his own world, at least one that is separate from the political crisis that has engulfed the man he works for. Two tweets say it all. Wednesday afternoon, the vice president's Twitter feed showed a photo of him visiting with school kids in Wisconsin. The caption - so awesome meeting some amazing young Americans. At roughly the same time, President Trump tweeted this - quote, "I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo." He continues, "This witch hunt must end now. So bad for our country."

Up until now, Vice President Pence has managed to keep his name out of the center of the impeachment inquiry until Ambassador Gordon Sondland's public testimony, when he described a conversation he had with the vice president in Warsaw ahead of Pence's meeting with Ukraine's leader.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GORDON SONDLAND: I mentioned to Vice President Pence before the meetings with the Ukrainians that I had concerns that the delay in aid had become tied to the issue of investigations.

MARTIN: This was the first time during the impeachment hearing that a witness connected Mike Pence to a possible quid pro quo. It forced the vice president to respond. Here he is on a local news affiliate in Wisconsin, WISN.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: I made no comments in my meeting with President Zelenskiy concerning any investigations or tying investigations to U.S. aid to Ukraine, and I have no recollection of any discussion with Ambassador Sondland before that meeting.

MARTIN: So how did Mike Pence end up here? Who is the man that now finds himself defending the president he serves through an impeachment inquiry and defending himself?

TOM LOBIANCO: If you really want to understand him, read his college thesis from 1980. It is fascinating. "The Religious Expressions Of Abraham Lincoln." I fell over. It was incredible.

MARTIN: Tom LoBianco covered Pence as a reporter in Indiana. His recent biography is titled "Piety & Power: Mike Pence And The Taking Of The White House." LoBianco got a copy of Pence's thesis from Hanover College in Indiana.

LOBIANCO: It's all about Abraham Lincoln's ambivalence towards organized religion, his own agnosticism and how that played to his own political peril in his career. And this is senior Mike Pence. This is - what? - he's 21 years old - senior in college. And I'm reading this, and I'm like, this is - I'm thinking, this isn't about Abe Lincoln. This is about Mike Pence. You can see him reasoning through the political calculus with the faith calculus. It is stunning.

MARTIN: Stunning because it shows how, from an early age, Mike Pence understood how politics and religion work together.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHY SHOULD THE DEVIL HAVE ALL THE GOOD MUSIC")

LARRY NORMAN: (Singing) I want the people to know that he saved my soul, but I still like to listen to the radio. This say rock 'n' roll is wrong. We'll give you one more chance. I say, I feel so good. I got to get up and dance.

MARTIN: What you're hearing right now was the soundtrack to Mike Pence's salvation. He grew up in a conservative Catholic family, sort of just going through the motions of his faith, and then he went to a music festival in Kentucky. What you're hearing now is music from one of the bands that performed there. And this is where Mike Pence says he found Jesus.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PENCE: And I heard lots of great singing. And I heard lots of wonderful preaching. And Saturday night, sitting in a light rain, I walked down and not, you know, not out of anything other than my heart really finally broke with the deep realization that what had happened on the cross, in some infinitesimal way, had happened for me, and I gave my life and made a personal decision...

(APPLAUSE)

PENCE: ...To trust Jesus Christ as my savior.

MARTIN: This is a turning point in Pence's religious evolution. His political career, though, was less linear. He ran for Congress twice in 1988 and 1990. He loses both times. Then he decides to try his hand at something else.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE MIKE PENCE SHOW")

PENCE: Give me a shout. Open Phone Friday on "The Mike Pence Show."

MARTIN: A daily talk radio show.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE MIKE PENCE SHOW")

PENCE: I am always jazzed because we have an opportunity to play catch up with you, the listeners of this broadcast, on topics that we covered over the course of the week.

MARTIN: Journalist Tom LoBianco says the radio show was about more than just getting Pence's name out there.

LOBIANCO: I think people take the wrong lesson from that when they say that, oh, he built his name ID. That's what you need to win. I think you're missing the bigger point, which is, this is where he gets his antenna from.

MARTIN: And his political antenna point him to the kinds of cultural and social issues that revved up a religious audience. And then you remember that senior thesis about Abraham Lincoln and how he learned to use religion as a political tool, and you start to understand how Mike Pence starts to find his political niche.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE MIKE PENCE SHOW")

PENCE: The problem here was a discomfort with adultery, and does that trouble anybody else? Give me a call on this at 800-603-MIKE. I mean, it - is adultery no longer a big deal in Indiana and in America?

MARTIN: Pence finally wins that congressional seat in the year 2000. Then, in 2013, he becomes the governor of Indiana. LoBianco says it was not a good fit.

LOBIANCO: He didn't like being governor. As a manager, he was not good at it. And this is where he got himself into trouble in that time. He was detached, and he spent too much time fundraising for his own long-term presidential goals and not enough time being in the job and living the role of governor.

MARTIN: Which is why LoBianco says the battle over a controversial religious liberty law in Indiana caught Pence off guard. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act led some national companies to boycott the state. Here's Pence with ABC's George Stephanopoulos on March 29, 2015.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Yes or no? If a florist in Indiana refuses to serve a gay couple at their wedding, is that legal now in Indiana?

PENCE: George, this is where this debate has gone, with misinformation and frankly...

STEPHANOPOULOS: It's just a question, sir. Yes or no? Well...

JIM ATTERHOLT: He really was stunned by it all.

MARTIN: This is Jim Atterholt. He was Pence's chief of staff back then. Atterholt says, after that law was amended, Pence met directly with members of the LGBT community.

ATTERHOLT: He began to meet and establish relationships with folks that just weren't regularly in our office. And maybe they should have been more regular in our office.

MARTIN: So he did a lot of talking, but Mike Pence never changed his mind about the core issues that are often used as a litmus test in conservative circles. He still believes marriage should happen only between a man and a woman and that abortion is wrong.

ATTERHOLT: He likes to say, I'm a conservative, but I'm not angry about it. He loves talking to people that disagree with him and listening. And you'll never hear him say an unkind word. You'll never hear him react in a way that's unkind.

MARTIN: But that does stand in contrast to the style of the president of the United States, with whom he serves.

ATTERHOLT: Well - but again, his purpose as vice president is to be a partner and to provide godly counsel, to be prayerful and to give him the best counsel he can and to also be ready - and God forbid something were to happen. And he is a very loyal person. And he understands that everyone's flawed in different ways, and he's very forgiving of those flaws.

MARTIN: And vice presidential candidate Mike Pence was even able to forgive this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I don't even wait. And when you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.

BILLY BUSH: Whatever you want.

TRUMP: Grab 'em by the [expletive].

BUSH: (Laughter).

TRUMP: You can do anything.

MARTIN: This is what Jim Atterholt said about the "Access Hollywood" tape.

ATTERHOLT: He - was he pleased about that? Of course not. But at the same time, he's a very loyal person, and he wasn't going anywhere. I mean, that's - he'd made a pledge. He'd made a promise, and he was going to keep that promise.

MARTIN: Did it make sense to you, as someone who knew him well, that he he joined the ticket?

ATTERHOLT: It made complete sense to me because then-Governor Mike Pence and, currently, Vice President Pence sees public service as a calling. And when that invitation came for him to be considered, he prayed about it. And he thought about it and talked to a lot of people. But really, in his heart, he said whatever happens, happens. There - if that's how I'm to be used, if that's how I can best help our country, I'm willing to do that. He sees it as a calling.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVID HUGHES: I'm a little bit nervous right now.

(CHEERING)

HUGHES: Because you are the vice president of the United States of America. Wow.

(CHEERING)

HUGHES: Thank you for honoring us.

MARTIN: A couple months after the inauguration, Vice President Pence appeared on stage with David Hughes, the lead pastor of Church by the Glades, an evangelical megachurch in South Florida. And without mentioning Donald Trump's name, Pastor Hughes makes it clear that some of Pence's most loyal supporters were still coming to grips with the vicious GOP primary and Pence's new partnership with Donald J. Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HUGHES: And I thought you did a brilliant job having respectful discourse...

(APPLAUSE)

HUGHES: ...With people who politically had different points of views. So what - how would you guide us? How can the church help bring unity to a country where convictions are so polarized?

MARTIN: The vice president doesn't miss a beat. You get the sense, when you watch this exchange, that Pence is hearing between the lines. It's as if he knows the words, the name not spoken, and he just says it out loud. Again, the question is, how can this church help bring unity to the country? And this is how Mike Pence answers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PENCE: Well, I honestly think that - number one, I'm very humbled by your comments. And it's just the greatest privilege of my life to be vice president to President Donald Trump.

MARTIN: Mike Pence knows why he was put on the ticket in the first place. He knows how important moments like this are to keeping the evangelical vote in Trump's column. This is the calling. This is the work.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PENCE: You know, for me, it - what the president really personifies is, I think, the pathway forward here. He's got broad shoulders, but he's got a big heart. I tell people, sometimes, you know, he's bigger than life, you know, always memorable, charismatic. And then there's me, you know.

(LAUGHTER)

PENCE: It's like - it's like I guess he wanted to balance the ticket, you know.

MARTIN: Pence goes on to some talking points about how Donald Trump will be a unifier. And then he walks through the door that's been opened in this conversation, and he separates himself from the man he works for.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PENCE: You know, for me, for my house, it all really does come down to just wanting to treat others the way you want to be treated.

MARTIN: It's a small reminder that, yes, he has been called to serve, and he will. But he is not Donald J. Trump. He is Michael Richard Pence, a man with his own ambitions. And if he can move past the impeachment inquiry, if he can defend this president but keep his distance, he could find his own path to the White House.

The vice president keeps a Bible verse on the mantle of his home. It's Jeremiah Chapter 29, Verse 11. And it reads, for I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

But as the impeachment inquiry draws Pence further inside, the calling for him now, the work, is to survive the present. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.