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Opinion | The Tragedy of Mike Pence

The former veep could have been a hero. Instead, he’s still looking out for himself.

Shall we crown Mike Pence in hero’s laurel and salute him for his Jan. 6 decision to uphold the Constitution? Was it really such an act of “bravery” for Pence to patiently listen to the legal advice of President Donald Trump and his B-team attorney John Eastman to deny Joe Biden the presidency, only to ultimately rebuff their guidance and do the right thing?

There’s no shortage of notables who regard Pence as some kind of savior of democracy for simply counting the electoral votes as every vice president has done before. Representative Steve Cohen, Democrat of Tennessee, thinks Pence’s actions were “heroic,” as does Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker. Representative Jamie Raskin, Democrat of Maryland, dubbed Pence a hero on national television. Writing in the Atlantic, Bulwark editor Jonathan V. Last called the former veep a hero for resisting Trump’s browbeating, for ignoring Trump threats and for refusing what appear to have been Secret Service instructions to evacuate from the Capitol complex, instead returning to the Joint Session to perform the prescribed duties that would elevate Biden to president.

Pence deserves our praise for weathering the Trump storm and completing his ceremonial role on Jan. 6. After four years of cringing submission to Trump, it’s a miracle that the hard sap that is his prefrontal cortex warmed to a temperature that allowed him to defy his boss. But experiencing a miracle or having a plucky moment doesn’t make one a hero. A hero proves his courage repeatedly. He serves as a high example to others. He demonstrates devotion to duty. The only one-off that racks somebody enough points to qualify them for hero status is risking your life to save somebody else, and Pence has yet to do that. Yes, it took guts to disobey the Secret Service demand that he board the veep limo so they might spirit him away, but given the firepower of his security entourage, that doesn’t give him the title of hero.

Pence had a chance — many chances during the Trump administration — to earn his hero’s ribbon. In November 2020, as Trump irrationally disputed the election outcome, Pence could have spoken the truth against the mendacious president. Such a move would surely have diminished Trump’s plan to persuade congressional Republicans to contest the election results. Pence had another chance for a heroic turn in the days after Jan. 6 when Secretary of Education Betsy Devos sounded out others in the administration about invoking the 25th Amendment. Such a challenge, backed by a majority of the cabinet and the vice president, would have relieved Trump of his presidential powers and put Pence in charge. But he declined.

Instead of doing any of these things, Pence searched for a way to satisfy Trump’s order to invalidate the election, according to Bob Woodward and Robert Costa’s Peril. To that end, Pence asked fellow Hoosier and former Vice President Dan Quayle if there was any way he could pause certification. There’s not much heroism at work when a blockhead, caught in a squeeze by his boss, asks a dunce for advice. Either Pence was looking for a way to satisfy Trump’s order to invalidate the election or he wanted more assurances he couldn’t do it. Regardless, as luck would have it, Quayle performed above his weight class and delivered the correct verdict. “Mike, you have no flexibility on this. None. Zero. Forget it. Put it away,” Quayle reportedly said.

Before the melee of Jan. 6, Pence’s office contacted retired federal judge Michael Luttig for his legal advice, which dittoed Quayle’s. Pence sought these outside opinions when not even Eastman, the architect of the argument to overturn the election, believed his theory was legal. Remember, he confessed to that in front of Pence’s counsel! Likewise, Pence deserves little credit for inserting himself into the chain of command to demand military defense of the Capitol. Since when is the guy who calls 911 a hero?

Pence is less a hero than he is a tragic figure whose flaws undid him. His vain desire for political power led him to support Trump and then toady to him for four years no matter what he did. Even now, when it’s abundantly apparent that Trump attempted to undo the peaceful transfer of power and effectively endorsed his veep’s murder, Pence holds his silence, declining the Jan. 6 committee’s invitation to testify and avoiding the subject on the political hustings except to say he thinks he did the right thing. Just last week, my POLITICO colleague Adam Wren noted on Twitter, reporters tried to ask Pence Jan. 6 questions during an Ohio energy roundtable. His aides escorted him out of the room. A genuine hero would speak the truth, no matter the consequences. Imagine the stories Pence could tell under oath about the week of Jan. 6 if even a microgram of the heroic lurked in his soul.

What to make of Pence’s timidity? The best explanation might be his presidential ambitions, sketched out by the Wall Street Journal last week. The Republican Party is still in thrall to Trump, and if Pence wants any chance of winning the GOP nomination in 2024, he can’t fully break with the leader of the cult. Perhaps he thinks this middle path will provide a viable path to the presidency, but it’s just as likely he’ll infuriate voters on both sides of the aisle.

Pence did the right thing on Jan. 6, but it didn’t make him a hero. Please cancel the parade.

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Pence has become the new Quayle, a pathetic veep whose president lost reelection, leaving him an opening to run (unsuccessfully) for president. Send your favorite Pence moment to[email protected]. My email alerts are taking no new subscribers. MyTwitterfeed wants to be myRSS feed’s veep. My RSS feed says, Nothing doing, pal.