Behind Mike Pence’s Corn-Tasseled Mask
The vice president’s anecdote about growing up with a cornfield in his backyard is the kind of partial truth that defines his political style
When I started the journey of writing a biography of Vice President Mike Pence, I obsessed over a throwaway phrase he often uses when dismissing questions about his presidential ambitions.
“I’m a small-town kid who grew up with a cornfield in the backyard and dreaming of serving my country in public office.”
This “aw shucks” response is intended as a deflection, but it is also meant to conjure the image of Pence as the modest, God-fearing guy-next-door that plays so well with his conservative (and mostly rural) base of voters.
But that’s all it is: an image. And a carefully and long-crafted one at that.
If I’ve learned anything from my earliest days covering Pence for the Associated Press through the years I spent reporting Piety & Power: Mike Pence and the Taking of the White House, it’s that the cornfield bit is the centerpiece of his carefully crafted public mask, a press-release version of his life that implies more divine coincidence and hides his political acumen and ambition.
With House Democrats at the start of an impeachment investigation of President Donald J. Trump and Pence’s own plans to run for the White House in 2024 — regardless of whether Trump wins reelection — it’s more important than ever to understand the man who could easily become president.
Here’s a breakdown of the real Michael Richard Pence.
The first facet of Pence’s personality that people are most curious about is his religion. He was raised Irish Catholic and attended Catholic schools through high school before becoming a devout evangelical. The conversion happened just one year into college, in 1978, when he said he truly felt Jesus for the first time. Standing in the pastoral hills just outside Lexington, Kentucky. In the pouring rain. At the Ichthus Music Festival. (Think Christian Woodstock.)
It’s a beautiful scene, indeed. But Pence continued to attend the Catholic Church long after this life-changing moment. In fact, he met his wife at a liberal Catholic Church in Indianapolis in 1983 before marrying in a different Catholic Church near the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1985. It would be another decade — and nearly two since he first felt Jesus — that Pence officially left the Catholic Church, sometime in the mid-1990s, when he was actively recruited by an evangelical pastor at the megachurch, the Greenwood Community Church, near his home.
With Catholicism officially behind him, it was then that Pence had to decide which style of evangelical he wanted to be. Was he the quiet, Midwestern-type practitioner? Or would he buy into the Southern-Baptist-infused televangelism of the Christian right?
Based on my reporting, he’s a bit of both. In private, he practices more like a modest Midwesterner. But when he mixes his religion with his politics, he comes across more like a fiery televangelist. For instance, in his speeches to groups like John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel, Pence never explicitly speaks of the second coming of Jesus or the end of the world. But he absolutely whistles at it, with the language of “prophecies fulfilled” that catch the ears of the Christian fundamentalists.
So when people ask me if his religion is real or not, the answer is obvious. Yes, of course, it is: He’s a faithful practitioner of his brand of Christianity by all accounts I heard. But what that brand is is up for debate. Is he a “theocrat” as some progressives worry? Not as far as I can tell, although the mixture of ambition and faith places religion higher up his priority list than many other politicians.
The other question I get a lot: Is his marriage real? Yes, that’s real, too. I’ve covered a lot of politicians and Mike Pence is the only one I’ve ever been 100% sure has never cheated on his wife and never would. (With my great apologies to all the other pols I’ve covered. I’m 99% certain of your marital fidelity, though some of you still surprise me.)
The real subtext to that question, however, is what type of marriage is it: a ceremonial pairing for show or a deep, loving, familial relationship? I can confidently say it’s the latter. Throughout their lives, Mike and Karen have consistently operated as a united front, making decisions together and moving as a unit.
Still, every couple has shared goals they discuss when no one else is listening, and the Pences are no exception. Their goal is reaching the Oval Office.
As some of my sources have noted, Karen reminds them of a traditional political wife, a throwback to the 1950s — not in the sense of a housewife tethered to the kitchen, but in the sense of a powerful hidden hand driving her husband’s career and decision-making. And Karen is very much that: the most important political adviser in Pence’s orbit, the sole gatekeeper to him. She’s so powerful, in fact, that other Pence aides vie to be the sole gatekeeper to her.
So, yes, the love they share is real and unshakeable. But so, too, is their thirst for power.
And how about his other marriage, the one to Trump? Yeah, that one vexed me from the moment someone first asked me if Pence was going to be selected for his ticket. How could someone so faithful to his wife and religion even consider pairing off with someone as hedonistic as Donald J. Trump?
There are some great Biblical allegories used by Pence’s friends to help explain how such a pious man stands by Trump, a decidedly non-Godly one: Pence as the faithful servant carrying out God’s wishes while serving under a tyrant, be it the Pharaoh or Persian King Nebuchadnezzar.
But it’s the political, not Biblical, explanations of their odd coupling that make the most sense. Trump would never have won the White House without Pence bringing conservatives and quiet evangelical voters into the fold. And Pence needs Trump’s support to win his own, eventual bid for the White House in 2024.
Depending who you ask, people either believe Pence’s stories of divine delivery to power or they believe him to be a complete fraud.
Pence’s advisers tell me Trump and Pence are close and have a good, open line of communication. Trump’s advisers tell me Pence is largely an afterthought — but also a very loyal soldier. (I’ve never found evidence of Pence considering a 25th Amendment removal of Trump, as has been feared by some Trump supporters. And, as Pence’s advisers often point out to me, participating in any sort of Trump removal would be career suicide for Pence.) Until it’s his time to shine, you’ll find Pence standing obediently alongside Trump, praising his “broad-shouldered leadership” in public and praying in private for peace.
So, after eight years of covering Mike Pence, do I think he’s the small-town boy with a cornfield in his backyard who’s only ever wanted to serve his country? Yes and no.
Depending who you ask, people either believe Pence’s stories of divine delivery to power or they believe him to be a complete fraud. I never believed there was an actual cornfield behind his boyhood home. How could there be? When Pence’s family moved to Columbus from Chicago in 1959, it was a bustling gem of a city, not a modest farm town. And Pence’s family did well selling oil, not tilling the land.
So imagine my surprise as I drove down Hawcreek Boulevard in the dead of winter to see stumps of cornstalks poking through the snow behind Pence’s old family rancher.
Pence is hardly a liar, because the cornfield is absolutely real. But that cornfield is the foundation of a mask Pence has worn and crafted, precisely manicured to woo Republican primary voters. And underneath that mask is a chameleon, his colors changing year after year to blend in with and cater to the powerful who will truly carry him to the White House.