At a time when rumours abound that Trump is planning a hands-off presidency — it’s said he will spend a good amount of time in New York — an intriguing question presents itself: how much else will be devolved to Pence? Might his duties include running the American government?
Pence was born in 1959 in the Indiana town of Columbus, population 45,000, graduated from a small religious college, attended law school and made his name as a conservative radio commentator, once describing himself as ‘Rush Limbaugh on decaf’. Catholic by birth, with Irish ancestors, he became a born-again Christian in his teens, claiming that evangelical Protestantism gave him, for the first time, the chance to develop a personal relationship with Jesus. He has promised never to drink alcohol unless his wife was in the room, and apparently has stuck to the pledge. He finds the theory of evolution unconvincing and doubts the human role in global warming. He favours balanced budgets and a strong defence posture while opposing abortion, gay rights and sex education. He supported an Indiana law that would have let business owners deny service to gay people, but was forced to back away from it under intense local and national pressure.
His office, the vice-presidency, has been a mixed bag historically. Often a place where presidents have mothballed prominent rivals, it remains nevertheless — as the cliché goes — just a heartbeat from the presidency. Eight presidents have died in office, pushing eight vice-presidents into the Oval Office. Six other former veeps have advanced to the top job, sometimes in subsequent elections but once (Gerald Ford, 1974) when a sitting president had to resign. Even if the president survives but is weak or inexperienced, the right vice-president can play an influential role.
The US constitution says nothing about the work the vice-president should do, other than to break deadlocked votes in the Senate and to preside over the quadrennial work of the electoral college. In the early days of the republic, the president was the man with the most votes, and the vice-president the man with the second most. George Washington’s vice-president, John Adams, found he had nothing to do, and complained in a letter to his wife that he held ‘the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived’.
When Adams finally became president in the election of 1796, however, he was saddled with Thomas Jefferson, that year’s runner-up, even though they belonged to opposite parties and clashed over all the major issues. The Twelfth Amendment to the constitution (1804) changed the rules but further diminished the prestige of the post.
Things have looked up for vice-presidents since then. Richard Nixon sat in on President Eisenhower’s cabinet meetings and acted as his liaison with Congress. When Eisenhower was taken ill on three separate occasions Nixon ran the cabinet in his absence. Walter Mondale supervised the Jimmy Carter transition team in 1976-77 and played a major role in the Camp David negotiations that culminated in the Israel-Egypt peace treaty of March 1979. Dick Cheney was a central figure in the George W. Bush administration, and Pence may well rival him for influence and power. Cheney, too, was in charge of the transition.
The unspoken, but doubtless not un-thought, reality for Pence is that Trump has two immense weaknesses. First is his lack of experience. It’s one thing to claim that only a new broom can sweep clean but it’s another to show up, green and credulous, in a city full of tough janitors. The new president is going to need a lot of help. Second, Trump is an old man, already 70, and likely to decline in energy as the years pass. It may not be long before Pence, 13 years his junior, comes to seem like the dynamic half of Washington’s strange new duo.
Patrick Allitt is a professor of history at Emory University in Atlanta.
Extracted from The Spectator. For full article click the link.