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Getting a sense of Mike Pence


Getting a sense of Mike Pence

Four recent biographies of the U.S. vice president

Has any other vice president had so much biographical ink spilled on his life?

Journalists have offered four biographies on Mike Pence in his first 2½ years in office. Three of them are useful from different angles.

First out of the gate, Andrea Neal offered Pence: The Path to Power (Red Lightning) in 2018, having known Pence while she was a reporter and editor for The Indianapolis Star. Trained in the old news wire service traditional of United Press International, Neal offers an impartial account: She keeps her opinions out of the story and uses only named sources. She now teaches history at an elite private school in Indianapolis and brings those history skills to the story.

Some of her best reporting covers the first 30 years of Pence’s life, putting his mentors and friends in a political and social context. She also captures the dramatic reversal of Pence’s political standing, from early in 2016 when Pence looked vulnerable in his reelection bid as governor of Indiana to a surprise victory with the Trump ticket in the fall.

Next comes the least useful account, The Shadow President by Michael D’Antonio and Peter Eisner (Thomas Dunne, 2018). The authors have credentials for a good story: D’Antonio shared a Pulitzer Prize when he was at Newsday. Eisner reported for The Washington Post, Newsday, and the Associated Press.

But D’Antonio and Eisner look down on Mike Pence as an inferior member of the species. They dismiss his “niceness,” or congeniality, as a ploy meant to make his cruel conservative policies seem nice. They attempt to psychoanalyze Pence in strange ways, identifying a tendency toward “aggression” underneath his friendliness. They suggest he was attracted to Charles Colson as a mentor because the former Nixon lawyer had “lingering aggressive tendencies” even after his repentance and conversion to Christ.

Trying to explain Pence’s theology, D’Antonio and Eisner mix up Calvinism with the prosperity gospel. “The theology behind this notion depended on the Calvinist belief that God elects those who will prosper on earth and that their successes prove they are His favorites,” they write. In real life John Calvin did not think that way. He never was wealthy and suffered much sickness. 

The authors have been alerted to other errors and have suggested they will correct them in electronic versions of the book. Jeff Smulyan’s last name is not Smolyen. The late Indianapolis insurance executive J. Patrick Rooney was not part of the “Christian Right.” The Indianapolis businessman was a politically conservative Roman Catholic who appreciated the free market. He was a founding father of the school voucher movement, which gives low-income families a chance to go to private schools. But he never signed up with the Christian Right. 

Doug Coe was not part of an “elitist fundamentalism” or the Christian Right, as they suggest in trying to describe the group that puts on the National Prayer Breakfast. Coe’s closest ministry partners included liberal senators such as Mark Hatfield (Republican) and Harold Hughes (Democrat). Coe was basically apolitical, or nonpartisan, as an informal chaplain to those in high places on all sides of the political spectrum.  

D’Antonio and Eisner’s subtitle is The Truth About Mike Pence, but truth gets lost in sloppy research and a sense of superiority toward the vice president.

From her home in Idaho, Leslie Montgomery concentrates on faith in The Faith of Mike Pence (Whitaker House), published earlier this year. She has been a writer for Focus on the Family. She operates like a good news reporter, talking to many of Pence’s close friends, back to his college and law school days, to offer unusual depth on his Christian faith journey. Her sympathy for his faith helps: A sportswriter who dislikes basketball and avoids the homework won’t understand the nuances of the game. Playing experience helps.

Montgomery understands the importance of disciplines such as personal Bible study, prayer, and the accountability groups that Pence has pursued. She also realizes that Christian faith is not a claim to moral superiority. (You have to confess to being a sinner just to join.)

Montgomery captures Pence’s Irish and Roman Catholic roots and reveals how unsettling it was for some in his family when he shifted to a more evangelical and personal faith in Christ as a student at Hanover College. Hanover classmate John Gable is now an Indianapolis pastor. Back in college Pence thought the cross around Gable’s neck might draw him closer to Christ. In those days, Pence wondered where he could buy one. Gable recommended that he grasp Christ’s death on the cross in his heart, rather than wear any outward symbols.

Montgomery outlines how Pence and other students got a serious education at Hanover thanks to history professor G.M. Curtis. Instead of getting drunk on weekends, Pence and others had bull sessions at the Curtis home, learning the difference between small-government conservatives and big-government liberals.

She also spells out in detail what went wrong in Pence’s 1990 campaign for Congress. He came close to winning in 1988, and in 1990 he put his trust in consultants, who recommended he go negative. “Mike felt separated from God because he knew he’d sinned against Him and his opponent, Phil Sharp,” Montgomery writes.

Last but not least, Tom LoBianco in Piety & Power: Mike Pence and the Taking of the White House (Dey Street, 2019) offers a good perspective on Pence’s slow rise to influence in Indiana politics. Like D’Antonio and Eisner, LoBianco makes a surprising number of errors for a former reporter for CNN, the Associated Press, and The Indianapolis Star.

Indiana was not a “rock-ribbed Republican mainstay” for more than a century. It was, as he notes later on the same page, a swing state in the late 1800s and early 1900s. “Rock-ribbed” Republican came more recently. 

Dan Quayle was elected to Congress in 1976, not 1977. The “ritzy enclave,” Geist Reservoir, is in the northeast pocket of Indianapolis, not the northwest pocket. Gen Con is not “Indiana’s massive comic book convention.” It’s a gaming convention in August, not in the spring. 

Talking to Pence friends such as David McIntosh, LoBianco does capture the challenge of faith in Christ and the pursuit of political influence. The author gives an accurate summary of Pence’s conservative political philosophy by referencing Russell Kirk and his book, The Conservative Mind. Pence doesn’t fit neatly into a libertarian, free market, or Religious Right camp.