Politico kicked off the weekend with a big scoop: Former vice president Mike Pence was going to use his star turn as the Gridiron Dinner keynote speaker “to deploy a trait he has for the most part kept under wraps over the past half dozen years: his humor.” He’s funny, his aides say. Mostly dad-joke funny, but still funny. Did you know he wrote a comic strip during law school, “Law School Daze”? I didn’t either. It was awful.
Sorry: As a journalist, when you have more quotes from people saying your subject is funny than examples of his actually being funny, you should probably bail on the piece. As a reader, I did, about halfway through.
That’s because we were just a day away from proof of concept: the Gridiron Dinner. Would Pence slay? He did not. He got the most attention for his hypocritical but bold insistence that Donald Trump is to blame for the January 6 insurrection. That is a statement of fact, but Pence has not said it with such clarity before.
“History will hold Donald Trump accountable for January 6,” Pence told hundreds of mostly journalists at what is normally a lighthearted event. “Make no mistake about it: What happened that day was a disgrace, and it mocks decency to portray it in any other way. President Trump was wrong. His reckless words endangered my family and everyone at the Capitol that day.”
The problem is, Pence has resisted a subpoena from special counsel Jack Smith to testify about what he knows of Trump’s role before and during that day of carnage. If he cares so much that Trump be held accountable, he should share what he knows in a deposition, not at a friendly bipartisan dinner.
Then there was the homophobia. Hilarious! He made fun of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg for taking time off when he adopted twins. “He took two months ‘maternity’ leave, whereupon thousands of travelers were stranded in airports, the air traffic system shut down, and airplanes nearly collided on our runways. Pete is the only person in human history to have a child and everyone else gets postpartum depression.”
First, Mike: Everyone calls it parental leave now. Fathers commonly take it. You didn’t have to feminize the gay transportation secretary—the man your creepy former boss loves to call “Pete Butt.” (Get it?) Also: Buttigieg’s twins, born prematurely, developed RSV; one endured a long hospital stay and spent a week on a ventilator. What Christian charity you showed there, Mike.
Still, Beltway journalists gave Pence a decent grade on his speech. There were a couple of funny jokes. He poked fun at his religious faith: “I’m really not as uptight as many people think. There’s this idea that I’m some kind of religious nut. I’m really not. Just ask my sons, Jedediah, Obadiah, or Zechariah.… In fact, my preferred pronouns are ‘thou’ and ‘thine.’” A pronoun joke that doesn’t explicitly mock trans folks? Wow.
But the point of the exercise seemed to be to find Pence a lane in what is becoming a surprisingly crowded 2024 Republican primary race. We have Trump, who’s already declared, and Ron DeSantis, who hasn’t, at the top. Much further down there is South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, also declared, plus Pence, former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, and a half dozen other undeclared folks who like having their names mentioned but barely poll above 2 percent at this point.
Is pretending to be funny going to break Pence out of the single-digit pack? I doubt it. His only play, if you believe he has one, which I do not, is to try to recapture the Christian evangelical vote that has strangely gone to the godless Trump. I doubt that will work either. Evangelical voters don’t like the fact that, though he refuses to cooperate with those investigating Trump’s actions on and around January 6, he nonetheless criticizes his former boss. Pence is too loyal for the anti-Trumpers and not loyal enough for the Trump base.
For the rest of us, he’s the same odd cipher he has always been, with his religious zealotry and his strange lack of compassion for those in need. Is his alleged humor going to make it feel better when he tries to take away what’s left of abortion rights, invalidate Buttigieg’s marriage, cut Social Security and Medicare, and slash the social safety net? I don’t think so. A Mike Pence presidency is not going to happen. Maybe he should go back to cartooning.