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Michael Schaffer

Mike Pence Shows the World That Washington Is a Bunch of Cheap Dates

The former vice president’s appearance at Washington’s venerable Gridiron Dinner earned a rapturous response. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

If the crowd watching Mike Pence’s routine at Washington’s venerable Gridiron Dinner was unduly bothered by the homophobic implications of his Pete Buttigieg zinger, they didn’t show it when it came time to applaud at the speech’s end.

The former vice president’s appearance at the 138-year old journalistic organization’s celebrated annual gathering earned a rapturous response — partly for his self-deprecating laugh lines (who knew the schoolmarmish Hoosier had such good comic timing?), but even more for his shots at Donald Trump.

At the after-party, person after person raved about Pence’s ability to poke fun at his religious-zealot media image with lines about how his preferred pronouns are “thou” and “thine,” while few people I spoke to made any mention of the awkward, now controversial reference to Buttigieg’s “maternity leave.” (It had landed with a dud at the time.)

Even more than the humor, this gathering of Washington worthies seemed smitten with the moral seriousness of his Trump criticisms.

“His reckless words endangered my family and everyone at the Capitol that day, and I know that history will hold Donald Trump accountable,” Pence had said, before deploying his own January 6 steadfastness to flatter the Beltway media: “We were able to stay at our post, in part, because you stayed at your post. The American people know what happened that day because you never stopped reporting.”

It brought down the house.

It also demonstrated anew that Washington in 2023 is a cheap date.

How else to explain the rapture about a speech whose key applause line — “The American people have a right to know what took place at the Capitol” — is undercut by Pence’s own ongoing legal efforts to avoid testifying?

This isn’t to take anything away from folks reporting on the speech’s 2024 political implications. It genuinely is news that the man once known for abject loyalty has assumed a new, righteous, fighting posture that has thus far eluded fellow onetime administration loyalists like Nikki Haley and Mike Pompeo.

But at the same time, the glow in the ballroom of the Omni Shoreham Hotel may have said less about Pence than about his audience, a collection of reporters, dignitaries, eminences and also-rans gathered for one of the great rituals of an endangered bipartisan social calendar — part of a broader fading Washington whose gatekeepers can appear grateful when a Republican merely shows up.

That sense of being endangered, I suspect, had a lot to do with the immediate inclination to see the best in Pence’s speech.

The 2023 status quo where ambitious Republicans steer clear of Beltway insiderishness is a real threat to permanent Washington’s bipartisan sense of itself. It almost guarantees that someone like Pence — not a RINO, but a genuine conservative true believer — has to clear an astonishingly low hurdle to win praise.

Sometimes, all you have to do is show that you’re willing to play ball — that is, to do things as normal as show up at capital traditions, deliver self-deprecating remarks and note that an attempt to overturn a democratic election by force actually happened (and was bad). The sugar-rush of seeing someone graciously join the ranks quickly overwhelms any skepticism.

How old-school and friendly is the annual affair graced by the ex-veep? At least one of Pence’s self-deprecating one-liners made a circuitous way to his script via onetime Biden speechwriter Jeff Nussbaum.

Nussbaum declined to comment, and Landon Parvin, a veteran of many Gridirons who has helped Pence’s team, allowed that “most speakers would steal a line off a dead man.” But the sort of cross-aisle riffing among pro wordsmiths that leads to a Democrat’s kernel of a joke winding up in a Republican’s stand-up routine is the sort of thing that seems altogether in-place on an evening when people dress up in white tie to watch comic song-and-dance routines before singing “Auld Lang Syne” and toasting the president — and seems altogether out-of-place anywhere else in 2023.

Even when politics reappeared this week — the White House disparaged the Buttigieg gag as homophobic; Twitter piled on — nothing undercut the idea that Pence had done something brave and honorable in hitting Trump about January 6 before an elite Beltway audience.

I don’t disagree with anything Pence said when it comes to January 6, yet the platitudes seem a little much. Yes, Pence did the right thing, in the face of real danger, when it came to Americans’ right to select their government without insurrectionists’ interference. On the question of our right to know what happened that day, though, his record is a lot less admirable.

Even as he was basking in the approval of the white-tie crowd, Pence’s lawyers were fighting a subpoena for testimony about Trump’s efforts to subvert the 2020 election — something he’s vowed to go all the way to the Supreme Court to prevent. The logic of Pence’s argument is that, in his constitutional role as president of the U.S. Senate, he was protected by the Constitution’s speech-and-debate clause. He said it’s about protecting the legislative branch from the executive. In one press event, he called the effort to secure his testimony a “Biden DOJ subpoena,” the sort of divisive slam at professional prosecutors that official Washington typically hates.

Courts will decide whether this argument passes muster. But you don’t have to be a Constitutional scholar to know that this legalistic stuff is not the posture of a man who is determined to shed sunlight on every detail of that horrific day in order to prevent it from ever happening again. At the very least, it’s incongruous with the striking, almost martial, language of duty that Pence used when talking about the obligation to “stay at our post” in the face of grave danger.

I’ve heard a bunch of theories as to why Pence is fighting the subpoena. The one that’s the most forgiving — and simultaneously the most cynical — is that he expects to lose, and that the public show of not looking like an anti-Trumper champing at the bit to testify will make him more credible once he does, possibly to jurors (that’s the forgiving version) and almost certainly to Republican primary voters (there’s the cynical one).

Even if that works out brilliantly, it also looks like a man wanting to have it both ways.

Which brings us back to the white-tied crowd at the Gridiron, an audience that included senators, governors, generals, cabinet secretaries and heads of international institutions. It’s a slice of Washington that is very keen on feeling bipartisan, with balanced displays of Democratic gags and Republican gags, topped with retro homages to things we have in common (color presentation by a military band; toast to the president).

What it didn’t include, this year, was any sitting GOP member of the House or Senate.

The only sitting GOP elected official was last year’s Republican speaker, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, whose own star turn at the 2022 dinner involved a much more comic skewering of Trump — and who has also benefited from the establishment’s eagerness to welcome a conservative who will join in the traditional pastimes and occasionally punch right.

We’ve entered a moment in our country where the political logic inside one of our two political parties is to steer well clear of officially non-partisan legacy institutions, from media to culture. Leading GOP politicians like Ron DeSantis limit their media appearances to conservative outlets, nixing even the Sunday shows that used to get derided as milquetoast. The incentive structure in Republican politics encourages candidates to dis shared American institutions from Disney to the NFL for allegedly being captured by the wokes. A night out with Washington elites dressed up like 1920s-era maitre d’s is not exactly a surefire political winner. (Luckily, it takes place off-camera.)

We’ll find out soon enough whether this separation will matter when it comes to a general election where you need to win votes from people outside conservative culture. Once exposed to mainstream platforms, might a GOP candidate come off like a boxer who hasn’t had enough advance sparring practice?

But I think we already see the impact among people who exist in traditional institutions that rely on being seen as bipartisan. We, too, are out of practice, easily wowed by a modicum of bonhomie.

It’s pretty clear, by the way, that Pence’s team knew it, too. Pence advisor Marc Short told my colleague Adam Wren over the weekend that they believed the appearance would improve the disposition of a political elite who had already written off the former vice president. “This was a different audience for him,” Short said.

Of course, there’s still a bar for the humor, says Parvin, a veteran of 40 years of Gridiron routines: “You live or you die by the joke.”

“Pence got a standing ovation, which tells me that people want to feel better about each other and for life to return to normal once again,” he told me this week by email. “Humor can help do that.”

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