Back when Mike Pence hosted a talk radio show in the 1990s, he described himself as “Rush Limbaugh on decaf.”
For much of Tuesday night, he was like Forrest Gump on chamomile, squarely and steadily plodding forward, seldom tugged from his talking points and never particularly rattled. His expression was a sort of upbeat blur. His voice was a lulling drone.
It wasn’t exactly a vivid performance, but it was an eerily consistent one, and it answered the question of how a man who supposedly prides himself on his virtue defends a running mate who is often bereft of it. He sets his jaw. He slows his pulse. He practices a bemused chuckle, perfects deafness to anything he prefers not to hear and purges from his memory anything he doesn’t want to own.
That included the whole grotesque cornucopia of Donald Trump’s slurs and bad behavior, which Tim Kaine had studied up on exhaustively, knew by heart and kept throwing at Pence, pressing for the barest glimmer of shame or the slightest hint of apology. It was pointless – a point that Kaine himself made about an hour into this exercise in futility.
“Six times tonight, I have said to Gov. Pence: I can’t imagine how you can defend your running mate’s position on one issue after the next,” Kaine said, his voice somewhat squeaky with frustration. “And in all six cases, he’s refused to defend his running mate, and yet he is asking everybody to vote for somebody that he cannot defend.”
That’s a fair enough summary of the vice-presidential debate, and it flagged what made the event so fascinating, which was Pence – specifically, the astonishing peace he has made with Trump and his wholehearted readiness to promote a man who should be so offensive to him.
In the face of Kaine’s incessant grilling, Pence blithely denied that Trump had made statements that he inarguably had, changed the subject to Hillary Clinton’s failings, mocked Kaine for being scripted and dismissed Kaine and Clinton as career politicians – ignoring the fact that he fits that description, too.
Substantively, it was galling. Strategically, it may well have worked. With his minimalist speaking style, Pence drew attention to Kaine’s maximalist salvos. Pence’s unflappability threw Kaine’s irritation and interruptions into relief.
One of Pence’s assignments was to counter Trump’s childish excitability with adult calm, which he did almost flawlessly. Another of his assignments was to make Trump palatable to wavering Americans by communicating that Trump was positively yummy to him. He aced that, too, meaning that he’s either a phenomenally talented actor or a master of self-deception.
I wrongly expected that the debate would be a letdown, especially after last week’s blistering matchup of Trump and Clinton. Following that faceoff with this one was like chasing a Quentin Tarantino movie with a rerun of “Touched by an Angel” – or so I assumed.
But I was forgetting the devil in Pence and what an engrossing, depressing character study the Indiana governor has turned out to be. It’s hard to think of a vice-presidential candidate in modern history who has gone so far against his supposed nature and his proclaimed values in the service of his running mate.
He has always worn his religiousness conspicuously, even flamboyantly, introducing himself time and again as “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order.”
In 1991, after losing a race for the U.S. Congress in which he harshly attacked his opponent, he published an essay, “Confessions of a Negative Campaigner,” in which he invoked Jesus and mentioned sin as he swore off such ugliness in the future.
“Negative campaigning is wrong,” he wrote, adding, “A campaign ought to demonstrate the basic human decency of the candidate.”
The Trump campaign has demonstrated anything but, and yet Pence has repeatedly vouched for Trump, even as Trump savaged the Muslim parents of a soldier who died defending America, seemed to encourage Second Amendment enthusiasts to take aim at Clinton, pinned the birther conspiracy on her, and spent the days after his own debate – a disastrous one – lashing out at a former Miss Universe and tweeting about pornography.
On Tuesday night Pence rewarded Trump’s inane, insane antics with a debate performance that reflected fierce determination and precisely the kind of thorough preparation that Trump had skipped. Pence didn’t forget to bring up the Clinton Foundation. Or the “basket of deplorables,” a knife he twisted dexterously.
Never has he taken Trump to task or taken a stand for “basic human decency.” He seems to have reversed the order of those three adjectives in his identity. “Republican” now comes first and “Christian” last.
Maybe he'll atone and make amends in another post-campaign “Confessions.” God knows he has plenty of material.