Who is Mike Pence?
That's the question at the center of a new biography of the vice president, and former Indiana governor and congressman, that never quite gets answered in Tom LoBianco's "Piety and Power" — but not for a lack of trying.
LoBianco, a former Indiana Statehouse reporter, starts where Pence began: A suburban house in Columbus, Indiana, with a cornfield in the backyard.
He then follows Pence from his hometown to Hanover College, to law school in Indianapolis, to his two unsuccessful runs for Congress, to his years as a right-wing pundit and talk radio host, to finally winning a seat in Congress, riding the Tea Party wave, returning to Indiana to check the "executive experience" box on his resume, and finally ending up a heartbeat away from the Oval Office.
Along the way, LoBianco details how Pence lost a $1 million inheritance and $700,000 in business investments, how Pence opposed the establishment of Donald Trump's Gary casino, how Pence used congressional campaign funds to legally pay his living expenses and how former Gov. Mitch Daniels always seemed to get in Pence's way.
Through it all two things remained constant: Pence's ambition and Pence's faith.
Later, Karen Pence, his wife, became the third constant as his most trusted adviser, and perhaps the only person around whom Mike Pence lets down his guard.
"His life and career didn't come into focus until after he met Karen," LoBianco writes. "She took the young man with deeply philosophical views of politics and religion and lofty ambitions and focused him in a way that had been missing until that point."
The Pences did not speak with LoBianco for his book. Instead, he relies on historical records, contemporary reporting and interviews with Pence cronies and supporters to figure out how an awkward kid nicknamed "Bubbles," who revered Democratic President John F. Kennedy, turned into the polished politician who today almost always can be found standing just behind Trump, the Republican president.
Even then, LoBianco can't say exactly what makes Pence tick. "I've known him for 30 years, and I still don't know him," a longtime neighbor recalls in the book.
LoBianco finds there is, without question, a driving ambition within Pence to be something, propelled by Pence's "seemingly endless ability to bend and contort himself, to swim with the political power tides."
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At the same time, Pence doesn't seem to do much with his ever-increasing responsibility, LoBianco notes, echoing former Indiana House Speaker John Gregg, who described Pence as "A show horse, not a work horse," in his 2012 run against Pence for Indiana governor.
Pence never passed a single-authored law during his 12 years in Congress. As governor, he settled for half-wins on his tax cut and pre-kindergarten proposals, and notably embarrassed Indiana and nearly derailed his political career by enacting the 2015 Religious Freedom Restoration Act — widely viewed as licensing discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Hoosiers.
"Washington had gotten a peek inside the real Pence operation, and it was something far more damning than theocratic, ideological or extremist," LoBianco writes. "It was amateur."
Nevertheless, Pence's evangelical faith in God carried him through, particularly his belief that God is directing the path of his life, according to LoBianco.
Repeatedly, at key moments in his life, Pence joins his wife in prayer asking for divine guidance, be it in deciding whether to run for Congress in 2000 after two losses a decade earlier, or to stick with Trump following release of the "Access Hollywood" video where Trump declares celebrities like him can get away with sexual assault.
In both cases, "Pence kept climbing the mountain," LoBianco observes.
"The young man who once pondered how to apply Christian teachings in the political arena seemed further and further away. And the battle-scarred veteran who emerged three decades later looked more willing than ever to make the compromises needed to win."
But what precisely that would mean for the nation and the world should Pence ascend to the presidency due to Trump's incapacity or impeachment, or in his own right, largely is unknowable, Lobianco concludes, since Pence has proven himself to be "the ultimate political shape-shifter."
"The reason he is in the White House, serving next to a man who made a living breaking almost every Christian bromide, someone so amoral that Pence once said anyone fitting that description should be immediately impeached, is because, in the end, ambition and the hunger for power outweighed anything else."
"Piety and Power: Mike Pence and the Taking of the White House" goes on sale Sept. 24.