Jane Mayer is a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of several award-winning and best-selling books. Her latest, Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, was named one of the 10 best books of the year by The New York Times. Her article “The Danger of President Pence” appears in the October 23 issue of The New Yorker. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Jon Wiener: Do you think that Mike Pence wants to be president?
Jane Mayer: There’s no doubt. The editor of the newspaper in his hometown told me, “Mike Pence popped out of his mother’s womb wanting to be president.” By the time he was in high school, he was telling his classmates that he wanted to be president of the United States. He’s hugely ambitious.
JW: But he’s never been really successful as a candidate or an elected official. He lost his first elections, he barely won the governor’s race. You say his tenure as governor nearly destroyed his political career. How do you explain his relatively weak performance as a candidate and as governor?
JM: Part of the problem is that his views are so extreme. One Republican in Indiana told me, “He scared a lot of people,” which is partly why he only got 49 percent of the vote when he ran for governor. He did serve a number of terms in Congress, of course, and he was rising in the leadership of the Republican Party in Congress, so he has some skills. In particular, he has a great gift for making extreme positions seem less threatening. It’s like the gift that Ronald Reagan had. He knows how to explain things in a way that makes him seem affable and likable, and you don’t really grasp the threat in some of the positions he’s taking.
JW: In an effort to understand Mike Pence, you interviewed more than 60 people for The New Yorker—including his mother. What is she like?
JM: His mom’s name is Nancy Pence-Fritsch. She remarried after Mr. Pence died. She was actually quite delightful, and I would say that, to the extent that Mike Pence has any charm, it probably comes from his mom. She’s a staunch Irish Catholic lady who was originally from Chicago, very proud of her roots, and moved to Indiana because of her husband’s job. She had a sense of humor. She was very proud of all of her sons. She’s got six kids.
JW: You quote Mike Pence’s mother telling you, “I was a Stepford wife.” What was she talking about?
JM: I was asking her, over coffee in Columbus, Indiana, where they’re all from, how she became a Republican, because she’d originally been a big Democrat, a fan of the Daley machine in Chicago, and of Kennedy. She said, “Well, my husband became a Republican and I guess I just sort of followed what he wanted.” Then she said, “I was a Stepford wife.” She went back to college when she was 65 and got a degree in psychology. She said that’s when she started thinking for herself. Her son, Gregory, who is Mike Pence’s brother, said, “Yeah, she was like the scarecrow. That’s when she got her brain.” Then she looked at me and she said, “You see what I have to put up with?” They were lively, nice people, funny, affable, and self-deprecating and warm.
It’s the father in the family who cast a big shadow. He was German, not Irish, and a staunch disciplinarian. He had a rule in the household, that the six Pence children were not allowed to speak at the dinner table. They had to sit there in silence while their parents spoke. Greg, Mike’s older brother, told me that their father enforced discipline with a belt. Then he said to me, “My brother”—meaning Mike Pence—“is a lot like him.”
JW: What’s the deal with his refusing to eat dinner alone with another woman? Does he really think other women will lure him into adultery?
JM: It’s the code in the evangelical right, and the idea is that you need to keep yourself out of temptation. He will not eat dinner with a woman other than his wife, alone, and he also will not go to a cocktail party or any place where they’re serving alcohol in mixed company, when she’s not present. I felt that his wife, Karen Pence—whom he calls “Mother”—acts almost like a chaperone in his life. You kind of have to wonder: Why is it he feels he needs that chaperoning?
JW: He believes you need to keep yourself out of temptation, but he supported Donald Trump after the Access Hollywood tape came out, where Trump does not try to keep himself out of temptation.
JM: This is where you see the other side of Pence. People think of him as an uncompromising Christian conservative, but, in fact, he has cut the necessary deals when he needs to in order to get ahead. Getting on the ticket with Trump was certainly the best example that he was willing to strike a Faustian bargain when he needed to. Getting on the ticket rescued him. Many people I interviewed thought that Mike Pence would never have gotten reelected as governor of Indiana. But there are very strong odds for vice presidents’ becoming president. He never would have had the chance otherwise.
JW: Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, told you that, “If Pence were to become president, the government would be run by the Koch brothers.” How did Mike Pence, the far-right Christian evangelical conservative, become a favorite of the Kochs?
JM: It’s a curious story, because the Kochs are not religious. They don’t care about social conservatism. They call themselves libertarians. They certainly are not aligned with Pence on these moral issues, on his hatred of abortion. What do they have in common? It turns out that in 2009 Mike Pence started doing favors for the Kochs. They were tremendously powerful, but they were really worried that some legislation was going to pass that would tax carbon emissions. The Kochs have a huge fossil-fuel company and it would have hurt their bottom line tremendously.
Mike Pence took up their cause. He campaigned, he pushed and wheedled, and he took a pledge that the Koch organization had created and he got many of his colleagues in the House to sign onto it, saying they would pass no legislation to stop global warming that would require spending a cent of government money. He succeeded in killing the legislation and, from there on out, in aligning the Republican party against doing anything about climate change, unlike almost any other political organization in the world. To be fair, Pence opposed doing anything on global warming also for his own ideological reasons—he had doubted the reality of climate change before the Koch pledge. But Koch Industries has rewarded him ever since. That’s when they began to push him to run for president.
JW: So would President Pence be worse than Trump right now?
JM: I asked a lot of people. Among the people who were most negative about Pence were people in Indiana, including a number of Republicans. They said he was just so far to the right, and also kind of incompetent. They were warning me against him. One Republican state legislator from Indiana said to me, “I would take Trump any day of the week and twice on Sundays over Pence,” which is kind of shocking. A number of the others did too.
There are some Democrats who, for different reasons, said kind of the same thing. Harold Ickes, a big Democratic operative, said to me, “Democrats should pray that Trump stays in office,” because if Pence came in, he would be much harder to run against. Pence would be able to work with Congress if he were president, because he’s been in Congress. He might even get something done. He might be a little bit more competent than Trump. And when it comes to conservative social legislation, he poses a different and bigger threat.
But it all comes down to how great a threat you think Trump might pose in terms of starting a nuclear war. What could be worse? Pretty much nothing. But beyond that, I can’t say that I’ve heard a lot of votes for Pence.