Former Vice President John Nance Garner once said the position he held under Franklin Roosevelt wasn’t worth a pitcher of warm spit. The only reason to do the job was the “heart beat” factor. And up until the most recent times, that’s held pretty much true with VPs, who were long relegated to funeral duty, assorted ribbon-cutting and other ceremonial activities.
Even George H.W. Bush, despite broad experience in the federal government, was kept out of the limelight by Ronald Reagan. And when Bush became president, he did the same thing to Dan Quayle. Bill Clinton, however, did treat Al Gore as a partner – for a time, that is. And then came Dick Cheney, who was a controversial player of influence in George W. Bush’s White House. Joe Biden was prominent in Barak Obama’s.
The one demand most chief executives make of their seconds-in-command is loyalty, meaning no public disagreement. Either go along or shut up.
But how far can one carry that loyalty without losing his own credibility and self-respect?
That is the question Vice President Mike Pence should be asking himself after his pitiful performance at an NFL matchup between his hometown Indianapolis Colts and the San Francisco 49ers, a game he attended for a few minutes in a transparent plan hatched by Donald Trump as part of his campaign against players refusing to stand up for the national anthem in protest of continued racial injustice in the United States.
Pence and his wife flew to Indiana in time for the anthem and then made a display of leaving when some players refused to stand. His protest so clearly came at the behest of Trump, who then praised him. Before the game started, he took his ensemble back to California at a cost to taxpayers of several hundred thousand dollars, not only giving the back hand to the state where he was governor but to the California fans attending or watching on television.
If anyone had doubt about the gesture being a setup, he told his press entourage to stay in the car as they reached the stadium. He wouldn’t be long.
Of course he wouldn’t. He well knew the San Francisco players are among the most active in the protest movement started by one of their former quarterbacks, Colin Kaepernick, and would assuredly take a knee this time.
With this act of silly obedience to an expensive, juvenile, dishonest scheme, Pence established himself officially and apparently without regret as the official White House toady – a button man who is willing to spit on his own former declarations of support for free speech to stay in the good graces of a loud-mouth boss with few scruples.
Pence’s actions raise doubts about his own suitability to succeed Trump if necessary. He thumbed his nose at the Colts, despite being a longtime fan, while at the same time denigrating the Constitution he had taken an oath to honor. One doesn’t have to agree with the protest, just the players’ right to engage in it under the First Amendment.
Vice presidents come and go. But unless they make it to the top job, they’re not remembered for long by most Americans. I recently asked a young professor: Who was the first George Bush’s VP? He paused and then said, “Oh, that guy who couldn’t spell potato.”
Would Mike Pence like to have the Oval Office when Trump is finished? There seems little doubt. He is ubiquitous, standing loyally behind Trump nodding affirmation with a slight smile at whatever the Great Man says. And he is always a defender of Trump’s most outrageous statements and tweets, applying the best spin possible, even if the result is contradiction.
If Pence makes his move, one should consider that he carried the warm pitcher of spit with pride – to the point of trying to con his fellow Americans into believing he was sincere in his display of patriotism at a professional football game.
Although I’m not sure I agree with them, the kneeling and sitting players have been more patriotic than Pence and his silly boss.
Dan Thomasson is a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.