So Help Me God review: Mike Pence’s tortured bid for Republican relevance

Trump’s VP is surprisingly critical of the boss whose followers wanted him dead. But surely the presidency won’t be his too

After four years at Donald Trump’s side, Mike Pence emerged as the Rodney Dangerfield of vice-presidents: he gets no respect. So Help Me God, his memoir, is well-written and well-paced. But it will do little to shake that impression.

At the Capitol on January 6, his boss was prepared to leave him for dead. And yet the Republican rank-and-file yawned. Among prospective presidential nominees, Pence is tied with Donald Trump Jr for third. The GOP gravitates to frontrunners. Pence, once a six-term congressman and governor of Indiana, is not that.

As governor, he was dwarfed by his predecessor, Mitch Daniels. On Capitol Hill, he was eclipsed by the late Richard Lugar, also from Indiana and chair of the Senate foreign relations committee, and Dan Coats, another Hoosier senator. On the page, Pence lauds all three. Say what you like, he is unfailingly polite.

Coats became Donald Trump’s director of national intelligence and repeatedly pushed back against the president. That cost Coats his job. Pence pushed back less.

The former vice-president is a committed Christian with sharp elbows but also a sonorous voice. He has struggled with the tugs of faith and ambition. Family is an integral part of his life. He takes pride in his son’s service as a US marine. Born and raised a Catholic, the 48th vice-president is now one of America’s most prominent evangelicals. So Help Me God is replete with references to prayer. Pence begins with a verse from the Book of Jeremiah and concludes with Ecclesiastes: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.”

Trump picked him as a running mate at the suggestion of Paul Manafort. Unlike Newt Gingrich and Chris Christie, other possible picks, Pence could do “normal”.

Time passes. On 3 November 2020, America delivered its verdict on the Trump presidency. Trump lost. By his own admission, Pence was surprised. He refused to believe the polls and mistook the enthusiasm of the base for the entire political landscape. He wrongly believed he would serve another four years, yards from the Oval Office, enjoying weekly lunches with the Man.

Instead, two months later, at great personal peril, he accepted reality and abided by his conscience and the constitution. Like Richard Nixon, Walter Mondale, Dan Quayle (another hapless Hoosier) and Al Gore, Pence presided over the certification of an election he had lost.

For Pence and those around him, it was a matter of duty and faith. They refused to subvert democracy. Yet along the way Pence flashed streaks of being in two minds politically – as he continues to do. He rebuffed Trump’s entreaties to join a coup but gave a thumbs-up to the turbulence. He welcomed the decision by the Missouri senator Josh Hawley to object to election results.

“It meant we would have a substantive debate,” Pence writes. He got way more than that. His own brother, Greg Pence, an Indiana congressman, voted against certification – mere hours after the insurrectionists sought to hang his brother from makeshift gallows. As the mob raged, Greg Pence hid too. After it, the brass ring came first.

Among House Republicans, Trump remains emperor. Rightwing members have extracted a pledge that the GOP-controlled House will investigate Nancy Pelosi and the justice department for the purported mistreatment of defendants jailed for invading the Capitol. Pence’s anger and hurt are visible.

“The president’s words were reckless, and they endangered my family and everyone at the Capitol building,” he recently said. But in the next breath, he stonewalled the House January 6 committee. Pence told CBS it would set a “terrible precedent” for Congress to summon a vice-president to testify about conversations at the White House. He also attacked the committee for its “partisanship”.

Bennie Thompson, the Democratic committee chair, and Liz Cheney, the Republican vice-chair, pushed back hard.

“Our investigation has publicly presented the testimony of more than 50 Republican witnesses,” they said. “This testimony, subject to criminal penalties for lying to Congress, was not ‘partisan’. It was truthful.”

From Pence, it was a strained attempt to retain political viability. Surely, that train has left the station.

Pence’s memoir does deliver a perhaps surprisingly surgical indictment of Trump. The book catalogs Trump’s faults, errors and sins. From Charlottesville to Russia to Ukraine, Pence repeatedly tags him for his shortcomings and missteps.

He upbraids Trump for his failure to condemn “the racists and antisemites in Charlottesville by name”, but then rejects the contention Trump is a bigot.

As for Putin, “there was no reason for Trump not to call out Russia’s bad behaviour”, Pence writes. “Acknowledging Russian meddling” would not have “cheapen[ed] our victory” over Hillary Clinton. On Ukraine, the subject of Trump’s first impeachment, Pence terms the infamous phone call to Volodymyr Zelenskiy “less than perfect”.

But even as Putin’s malignance takes center stage, the Trumps refuse to abandon their man. Don Jr clamors to halt aid to Ukraine, the dauphin gone Charles Lindbergh. He tweets: “Since it was Ukraine’s missile that hit our NATO ally Poland, can we at least stop spending billions to arm them now?”

These days, Pence leads Advancing American Freedom, a tax-exempt conservative way-station with an advisory board replete with Trump refugees. Kellyanne Conway, Betsy DeVos and Callista Gingrich are there, so too David Friedman and Larry Kudlow. If more than one of them backs Pence in 2024, count it a minor miracle.

Rodney Dangerfield is gone. But his spirit definitely lives on – in Mike Pence, of all people.


Lloyd Green

The GuardianTramp

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