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Politico
Politico
Adam Wren

Can Trump’s ‘Straight Man’ Lighten Up?

Even under stress, his advisers say, Pence can keep it light. | POLITICO illustration/Photos by Getty Images, iStock

The last time Mike Pence headlined the Gridiron Club dinner, he was a stand-in. His boss, whose media baiting was already reaching highway-speed just two months into his first term, had no interest in playing nice with his critics, so he palmed off the job to his vice president.

Before delivering a brief homily about “doing better,” Pence dutifully lobbed a few one-liners, as is expected from speakers at the white-tie affair known for its jocular give-and-take between administration and press. He made a self-deprecating crack about Trump asking him to pick up milk on the way home, and he played off that year’s Academy Awards mixup. “They gave out the best picture award to the wrong film,” he said. “I gotta tell you, we haven’t seen that many shocked Hollywood liberals since, I don’t know, November the 8th?” But he didn’t exactly slay.

Six years later, Pence will headline the event again Saturday, but under very different circumstances. He is planning his own run for the White House now but already languishing in a pool of single-digit also-rans overshadowed by Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Pence’s closest advisers hope that he will use the appearance as an opportunity to deploy a trait he has for the most part kept under wraps over the past half dozen years: his humor.

After touching NASA hardware with a clear DO NOT TOUCH sign during his visit to the Kennedy Space Center, Mike Pence tweeted out, “Sorry @NASA...@MarcoRubio dared me to do it!” | Red Huber/Orlando Sentinel via AP Photo

This is not a set-up line. They think a man known for his slightly pained religious mien is actually funny. “His humor is under-estimated,” Nick Ayers, Pence’s former vice-presidential chief of staff, told me. If Pence would just let it show — like New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu did on the same stage a year ago to such popular effect — his advisers say Pence might redefine himself to a skeptical electorate in advance of a formal announcement he is running in 2024. But like so much of comedy, the evidence they provide is, well, let’s just say audience-dependent.

Take the time back in 2017 when Pence visited the Kennedy Space Center and touched NASA hardware with a clear DO NOT TOUCH sign on it. Pence’s Twitter response took in good stride the ribbing he was getting on social media: “Sorry @NASA...@MarcoRubio dared me to do it!”

Even under stress, his advisers say, Pence can keep it light. Jim Atterholt, Pence’s former gubernatorial chief of staff and friend who set up Pence’s legal defense fund during the Russia investigation, recalled an exchange he had with Pence when he found himself in choppy political waters as governor. Atterholt texted him that they would have to ride out the storm. Pence simply responded with two lines of lyrics from R.E.O. Speedwagon’s “Ridin’ the Storm Out.”

Gary Varvel, the former Indianapolis Star cartoonist who first met Pence in 1994 as a guest on “The Mike Pence Show,” said Pence was good on the radio precisely because he had a “self-deprecating sense of humor.” On his show, Pence referred to himself as “His Mikeness.”

Pence's comedic sweetspot is squarely in the “Dad joke” zone. | Michael Zamora/The Des Moines Register via AP Photo

Pence is no Jim Gaffigan or David Letterman, both comics with Hoosier roots. His comedic sweetspot is squarely in the “Dad joke” zone, with a penchant for quoting Chevy Chase and Rodney Dangerfield movies. But he’s known by close friends for what Tom Rose, his former chief strategist and senior adviser, calls his skill as “a dangerously fantastic mimic— scary good. I don’t know why he never lets anyone see that.” His impersonation of George W. Bush is quite good, I can attest. Seeing him do it during an interview with him last fall in Raleigh, I noted how it seemed to animate Pence in a way that he doesn’t always convey on the stump. At least, not over the last six years or so.

As he rose to become President Donald Trump’s No. 2, Pence found himself, increasingly, in humorless situations. But he occasionally did offer glimpses of that wholesome wit. “I come from the Joseph A. Bank wing of the West Wing,” Pence told members of Congress at a 2018 GOP retreat — a line less about his sartorial preferences and more about his modest financial standing compared to the millionaires and billionaires in the Trump administration. “Okay, you with me on that? Seriously, people stopped me and said, ‘Is that a new suit?’ And I said, ‘Two for one,” following the polite Midwestern custom of deflecting a compliment by stressing you got said item for a bargain.

But even those who are friendly with him wish he would flash more of his humor in public. “If Mike Pence would just be himself, and not script everything so much, instead of 7 percent in the polls, he’d be at 20 percent right now,” says longtime friend Mike Murphy, a former Republican member of the Indiana House of Representatives.

After years of playing the straight man in the Trump show, friends, allies and advisers want him to find a way back to “His Mikeness.” They say it could help him win over jaundiced political insiders skeptical of his 2024 chances, jaded journalists and Republican primary voters.

“He is so risk averse right now,” Atterholt told me. “I hope he tears off the Band-Aid with this speech on Saturday. I certainly talk to him about letting his hair down and showing some leg.”

When he was younger, Pence used humor to establish his own identity, somewhat out of necessity. | Brendon Thorne/Getty Images

Pence’s public identity as a humorless conservative scold has been defined in large part by the savage depictions of him by other humorists. The former vice president is often caricatured as a dour and bland figure, passing time during Trump speeches by “mentally baptizing senators,” as The Onion once put it. “He is a manila envelope taped to a beige wall,” Stephen Colbert once said in a bit about Pence potentially being left off the ticket.

But when he was younger, Pence used humor to establish his own identity, somewhat out of necessity. He grew up in Columbus, Indiana, as the middle of three sharp-elbowed brothers, nicknamed “Bubbles” for both his personality and his chubby frame. “I was overweight and unhappy about it,” Pence writes in his 2022 memoir So Help Me God. He tried football and wrestling, but “was not much of an athlete.”

“I tried to get people to like me or pay attention to me by goofing off and joking around,” Pence writes. “It was just a mask.”

But it also worked. “Everybody likes the funny guy, right?” Murphy said. “I think he used humor very well in high school and in college and beyond.” Family and friends would chuckle as he put on one-man shows as a kid. At Columbus North High School as a C student, amid speech contests and working on the campaign of a local Democratic judge, a then-17-year-old Pence found time to draw the “The Adventures of Mortimer” comic, according to his biographer Tom LoBianco, and at least one strip from November 19, 1976, seems to demonstrate an awareness of the era’s political zeitgeist. A student joins Mortimer, Pence’s alter-ego, watching co-ed girl swimmers at a meet.

“Wow, look at those girl swimmers in them there new ‘skin suits’! They’re outta sight!” the friend says to Mortimer.

“Yes, and I hear they cut down on water drag and allow one to swim faster!” Mortimer responds.

“Did I tell you I tried out for the girl’s swim team? Sure, what with women’s lib and everything going around, I thought, ‘What the Heck!’”

Mortimer asks his pal if he made the team.

“Na, I couldn’t fit in the suit.”

Rimshot.

The first cartoon of “Law School Daze” drawn by Pence for the law school’s newspaper Dictum. | IUPUI Special Collections

Seven years later in 1983, now at law school in Indianapolis, Pence hadn’t abandoned his dreams of cartooning. At the time, he was fresh off voting for Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election. His first strip of the “Law School Daze” in the law school’s newspaper Dictum (archived at the IUPUI Special Collections, and republished here for the first time since they debuted) ran on November 14, featuring a tense interaction with a professor in which Daze, again Pence’s alter-ego, was interrogated by a professor. Asked over coffee how he was doing, Daze tells the professor he was “fine…I think.”

“I don’t care what you think,” the professor scolds Daze. “I care what the court thinks.”

“...help…” Daze pleads, looking upward to the heavens. Pence scrawled only his last name as signature in the lower right corner, as he would with all his comics. In another cartoon, he jokes about law school students reading “Torts Illustrated.”

In one edition of “Law School Daze," Pence jokes about law school students reading “Torts Illustrated.” | IUPUI Special Collections

Varvel, the former Indianapolis Star cartoonist and Pence friend, told me that when they first met back in 1994, Pence confided in him about his own interest in cartooning. Varvel had never seen the strip until he reviewed some of the comics at my request. “His jokes aren’t real sharp,” Varvel said. But he was impressed with his drawing.

“I can look at my stuff when I was growing up in college, and I’m embarrassed by it,” Varvel told me. “But that’s cartooning, it’s a craft that just takes years to really develop. And he had an interest in it, obviously.”

The last cartoon of “Law School Daze” drawn by Pence for the law school’s newspaper Dictum. | IUPUI Special Collections

Pence’s last strip ran on April 28, 1986, and it reads as both self-aware and confessional: The title character Daze, holding a briefcase and wearing a graduation gown, staring wide-eyed at the dawning reality that he was now entering the real world. “Oh oh,” the only text reads.

After some 50 strips in three years, Pence had muddled through law school with a B average. Leafing through the cartoons, as I did earlier this week, you come away with the impression that they sustained him during a difficult time in his life. “No one I know likes law school. It was a bad experience,” Pence would later recall to the Wall Street Journal in a 1994 interview. “I wouldn’t wish it on a dog I didn’t like.”

Leafing through Pence's cartoons, one could come away with the impression that the cartoons sustained him during a difficult time in his life. | IUPUI Special Collections

Neither of the cartoon strips found their way into Pence’s 2022 New York Times bestselling memoir, So Help Me God. But he did write about his sense of humor on his radio show. Pence went to work in a dress shirt and tie, he writes in his book, but the tie would often feature “Looney Tunes” characters or the Three Stooges. His segments featured late-night-themed comedy, such as “The Top Five Signs Your Child Is About to Become a Republican.” Number one was: “Asks what his allowance will be after taxes.”

Back from a commercial break, the show’s producer would occasionally play a bumper of Franklin D. Roosevelt saying, “The only thing we have to fear is…Mike Pence!” Another one: “Mike Pence,” spliced together with Animal House’s Bluto Blutarsky adding after his name: “Seven years of college down the drain.”

In his memoir So Help Me God, Pence wrote about his sense of humor on his radio show.

Karen, his wife, would shred Pence about his show after listening to it every day.

“It was really good — once you started taking calls,” she would tell him.

For both of them, humor was a stabilizing force in their marriage and life.

“It helps you keep your feet on the ground,” Atterholt, his former chief of staff, told me.

During Halloween events in Indiana, Pence would hand out pumpkins to trick-or-treaters decorated with caricatures he drew of them. “He can draw a caricature in about 40 seconds,” Murphy told me. “It’s pretty darn good.”

During Halloween events at the governor’s residence back in Indiana, Pence would hand out pumpkins to trick-or-treaters bedecked with caricatures. | Kelly Wilkinson/The Indianapolis Star via AP Photo

In his congressional and vice presidential office, he kept custom cartoons as gifts from Jim Davis, the Muncie, Indiana creator of “Garfield,” among other Garfield memorabilia. On June 19, 2003, then-Congressman Pence made a speech on the floor of the House honoring the 25th birthday of Garfield, “not President Garfield,” he deadpanned, “but someone probably more famous in this day and age than that.

“So I rise today in the midst of serious debates and serious discussions to pay tribute to a very large, orange American tradition....”

In recent months, Pence has done more than perhaps any of his GOP competitors to distinguish himself from Trump. | Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

At the last Gridiron he attended in 2018, Pence found himself as the punchline, not its deliverer. Trump, who had agreed to speak that year, took aim at Pence: “I really am proud to call him the apprentice.” Trump told the crowd that to prepare, he had talked to some “of the funniest people around the White House, starting with my No. 2: Mike Pence! Oh, I love you, Mike. Some of you may think that Mike is not a comedian, but he is one of the best straight men you’re ever going to meet. ... He is straight!”

Pence sat with Karen to Trump’s left, red-faced and seemingly embarrassed by his boss’ potshot.

Since then Pence has struggled to emerge from Trump’s shadow. In recent months, he has done more than perhaps any of his GOP competitors to distinguish himself from Trump — on his actions on January 6, on his wobbling support for aid for Ukraine, on not committing to backing Trump as the nominee.

Pence is not the first national politician who has struggled to let his full self into public view. There was Mitt Romney, who popular culture and commentators portrayed as stilted and awkward in his 2012 presidential bid. But Greg Whiteley’s 2014 Netflix documentary “Mitt” revealed him in more intimate moments as a mischievous wit. And Bob Dole, the former presidential candidate from Kansas, had a dust bowl-dry sense of humor that didn’t always register. Pence, for his part, is well aware of the Dole parallel, according to Atterholt, who has urged Pence to let his more gregarious self shine through. “Here’s a situation where these attributes are extremely flattering, and they’re unfortunately hidden,” he told me.

On June 19, 2003, then-Congressman Pence made a speech on the floor of the House honoring the 25th birthday of Garfield. | CQ Roll Call via AP Images

It’s doubtful Pence would ever try a Sununu-style roast of Trump. But can he dial up the heat, even a little? After all this is a guy who went out of his way to celebrate the creator of Garfield on the House floor. Garfield!

But for this humor gambit to actually work, Pence will have to embrace it and not just at a single inside-the-Beltway event. Whether Pence can let the world see this authentically goofy and charming part of his life story could be a decisive factor in how he fares in the up close and personal crucible of campaigning in early primary states such as Iowa. For a man who improvised his way through thousands of hours of calls from radio listeners, who can dash off a compelling caricature of a new acquaintance in a matter of seconds, who can deadpan his way through a speech on the stump, it’s not impossible to imagine that person doing well in a presidential campaign.

Can Mike Pence become the candidate Americans want to have a non-alcoholic beer with? That is a question only Pence can answer, Atterholt told me. “It’s not his staff who is holding him back,” he said.

Last November, in a Raleigh hotel conference room, at the end of an interview with Pence, I asked Pence to give me a taste of his vaunted “Dubya” imitation.

“Well, you got to be in the moment,” Pence demurred.

“You got to give him two minutes,” Marc Short, his longtime senior adviser, urged Pence. “Tell him the story of you going to the immigration meeting.”

Pence conceded and told me a story about going to the Oval Office to meet Bush during the immigration reform debate in 2006, during which Pence had co-authored a guest-worker proposal that was going to be part of the final package.

“President said, ‘Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?” Pence recounted, nailing W.’s Crawford, Texas, twang. “Well, I noticed you’re not exactly from a border state,” Pence’s W. continued. It was legitimately funny. But despite the laughs he got, Pence didn’t milk the moment. He quickly dropped the mimicry and shifted back to his more familiar earnest mode.

We soon said our goodbyes and then he ducked out to a donor lunch, and then a Senate campaign event.

I haven’t seen much evidence of his lighter side since that encounter. But he’s got a show Saturday night.

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