There are enough things wrong with Mike Pence the politician that you’d think liberal-leaning media outlets could focus solely on those. Of course, I’m not against delving into politician’s personal affairs — after all, they suckle at the public teat and I want to know where all my money is going. And I’m certainly not against investigating possible infidelities — if the politician in question has made a name for herself or himself by claiming to be a hyper-Christian or claiming to govern via the “Will of God”. Those folks desperately need to be investigated; far too many anti-LGBTQ pols turn out to have gay porn in their browser histories and far too many “sanctity of marriage” folks are discovered in bathrooms or on Appalachian trails with illicit lovers.
But when The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, and Slate (among others) team up to make fun of Pence’s pet name for his wife, or how Pence and his wife are so very close, I was taken aback.
I first noticed in January, when Rolling Stone published a long and meandering Pence piece, most of it legitimate criticism of the man who claims to follow the teachings of a 2,000-year-old religion that explicitly says to do the opposite of much of what Pence does. About a quarter of the way through the article, writer Stephen Rodrick suddenly drops the political line and tells an anecdote about Pence addressing his wife Karen as “mother, mother” during a dinner in his home with Democratic leaders. From there, the article leaps back into politics/biography and never mentioned that single anecdote again.
Slate picked up on the “mother” thing, and made an entire article about it later the same day. Slate writer Heather Schwedel further mentioned that Pence refers to his wife as “Mrs. Pence” in his tweets, and poked fun at the relationship while slipping in notes about Pence’s disastrous policies and personal views.
Two months later (late March), The Washington Post wrote another Pence “explainer”, this one focused on Mrs. Pence’s affect on Pence’s public life. While the tone of this one was professional, it did point out a few things that were obviously supposed to be taken as strange: “In 2002, Mike Pence told the Hill that he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife and that he won’t attend events featuring alcohol without her by his side, either.”
Slate picked up on that too, and went to town: “this kind of thinking does point toward a pretty radically retrograde mindset on the part of its adherents, one that doesn’t respect women as humans with thoughts and skills to contribute but rather sees them primarily as sexual temptations.”
As a married man, though decidedly not religious, I take issue with both of Slate’s articles, and even with the other two for mentioning the anecdotes without context, without explanation, and without saying why they thought this was so strange.
I don’t call my wife “mother, mother”, but I do refer to her as “Mommy” in front of our children, and sometimes even when speaking to other people about her — partly out of habit, but also depending on context: if the story is about our children and “Mommy” shows up to save the day. My maternal grandfather often referred to my grandmother as “mother”; I never asked him why. My other grandmother referred to her husband as “Daddy” or “Papa” in front of other people, even decades after his death.
I imagine that other people don’t do this, and some others do. I’ve never attached any significance to it, other than “different families do things differently”. So I can’t understand why Rolling Stone or Slate would find it so hilarious.
But my real issue is with the second set of stories, where it’s suddenly a problem that Pence is very close to his wife. Slate even ran a followup on March 30, amazed that so many people defended him. (The bulk of the text in this new article is copy/pasted tweets from critics and supporters.) Critics of Pence blame his religion in general, or his extreme dislike for (or distrust of) women. Others said it doesn’t matter, since “it’s probably not women Pence is interested in anyway”, using the well-worn theory that anyone who’s stridently anti-gay is probably struggling with their own homosexual tendencies.
Almost all of them missed the elephant in the room, in my opinion. Pence is an elected officials. Elected officials’ careers end in surprisingly few ways, and one popular way is scandal allegations. Though we are now in an era where scandals no longer end careers, Pence did not enter politics in this era.
Were I to go into politics (trust me, I won’t, but if I did), I would immediately adopt a very similar policy. I like to think I would say “anyone” rather than “women”, but regardless it doesn’t seem like a good idea to me to invite scandal allegations.
A few of personal anecdotes follow:
During my Christian years, the church — especially my denomination — was plagued by very famous, very public scandals, including those of Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker, but also many less famous ones at the local level. You just about couldn’t find a church where no one had been accused of anything. Pastor and secretary, youth pastor and kiddo, pastor’s wife and someone else — these were all strongly condemned of course, but yet strangely common. Often, they turned out to be unsubstantiated, but still looked suspicious. “Did you hear? Someone saw Pastor Smith going into a hotel room with a woman.” Or “Pastor Jones always closes the office door when [woman’s name] is in there.”
When I studied to be a minister, one of the classes I took was called “Pastor And His Ministry”, and it wasn’t surprising to have a section dedicated to the subject of scandals and allegations. “Avoid even the appearance of impropriety” is the phrase that stuck with me all these years. Because it might not be actual impropriety that brings you down; it very well could be the appearance of impropriety. We students were reminded that someone in the church will suspect something, even with the barest hint. Lists of examples were provided. Someone comes to talk to me in the church office? Leave the door open so the church secretary can be a witness. Meeting someone for dinner? Take your wife with you — if she’s unavailable, bring an associate or friend.
Long after I abandoned hope of becoming a preacher, and even after I lost all belief in God, I realized the advice was still sound. I personally knew many couples whose relationships had soured (or exploded) due to just such suspicions. I saw families ripped apart. About half the time one person actually had committed infidelity; the other half of the time, it just really looked like it and there was no good defense.
A few years before I met my eventual wife, I moved to a new town and got a new job — in a factory. I got to know a few people, but just a very few. I lived alone. One day as I began my shift, I was surprised to be greeted by dozens of questions about a dinner encounter over the weekend. “Who was she?” “Things looking up in the love department?” “Where did you meet her?” It turned out that one coworker had spotted me dining with a woman, and had quickly spread the word. Apparently it was common knowledge that I was alone, so folks were happy I’d found someone. The hilarious part is that it was first cousin, whom I hadn’t seen in years, and we’d barely managed to spend a few minutes together during her visit to the area. There was nothing remotely romantic about the lunch date; just the simple fact that I was with someone had sparked a flurry of gossip.
Now imagine if I’d been married at the time.
Despite my wife trusting me 100% (and it’s reciprocal), I would never want to be put in that position. Fortunately, I don’t work outside the home, so there is no room for suspicion there. And I typically stay at home otherwise — no bowling nights or poker nights or going to other people’s houses to watch sporting events — simply due to my personality. But I am still careful. When that neighbor lady knocks on our door (as she often does, to donate her son’s old clothes to my son, or to gossip about other neighbors), I talk to her outside on the front porch. It’s been very cold, and very hot, and I’ve never invited her in. When I have any other encounter, with anyone (man or woman), that any eavesdropper might consider suspicious or flirty, I make sure to mention it to my wife. I leave my phone unsecured — if she ever had any doubt or suspicion, I won’t exacerbate it by seeming to hide anything from her. She knows the passwords to my email and social media accounts, and she knows how to access my browser history.
None of this is difficult or imposing, and my wife has never demanded any of it from me. It’s not based on religion or culture or fear or sexism. It’s based on the fact that I have piles and piles of respect for my wife, and my inclination to never intentionally damage our relationship in any way.
If I was a politician (don’t worry; it’ll never happen), these same principles would apply, perhaps doubly so, because more people would recognize me, because I’d never know which person within earshot or viewing distance was a reporter or secretively recording with intent to “expose” me or ruin my career. I would never want to have to explain at a press conference: “That woman you saw me dining alone with? She is my personal assistant; we were discussing business” — and expect everyone to take my word for it. “That man you saw come into my office and then I shut the door? We were just discussing policy.”
At that point, it would be about protecting my marriage and my position as a public servant. All the good I would want to do as a representative of my voters could be ruined due to a single indiscretion, or even a perceived indiscretion.
Now, I am aware that some pundits have attacked Pence’s personal policy as a matter of sexism, on more than one front. I’ve heard/read: “If he can be alone with a male staff member but not a female staff member, then…” And yes, that is misogyny plain and simple. If that’s the case, I think he needs to revisit his policy, and it’s possible that former female staff members have grounds for discrimination lawsuits. But I haven’t seen any evidence that this is what’s happened. I’ve also read: “It’s reflective of his viewpoint that women can’t be trusted or that men can’t be trusted around women.” Those viewpoints could very well be exactly what Pence believes, and if he expresses those beliefs, he should be publicly chastised for them — but that isn’t what’s been reported. And other criticisms of this policy are likewise either guessing what his mindset might be or insinuating things that we just don’t know.
As it stands — based on the facts reported so far — I think it’s a very solid foundation for avoiding scandal — as long as Pence is treating men and women equally on this front.
This is not to say that I have any respect for Pence, either as a governor or as Vice President. Just yesterday, he broke a tie vote in the Senate, hoping to remove many avenues of healthcare for women. In his earliest days in politics, the late 1980s and early 1990s, he paid personal bills out of campaign funds, all while painting his opponent as unethical and corrupt. His actions were seen as so egregious that they led to nationwide changes in federal election laws. He lost both those early campaigns.
After a 10-year hiatus from politics, Pence returned to the ring and won six consecutive elections to the U.S. House. He proudly spouted anti-science rhetoric like “smoking doesn’t kill” and proudly opposed even Republican attempts to help people, like Bush’s Medicare prescription drug program (from The New York Times). During his 12 years in Congress, he introduced 90 bills — not one of them became law.
During his four years as governor of Indiana (2013-2017), Pence cut funding for the state’s universities, refused $80 million in federal funding for pre-K programs (he later changed his mind due to heavy criticism), and drastically cut a home health care program for aged and disabled people, despite knowing that doing so would cost four times as much in the long run as the money saved initially.
Pence personally approved millions of dollars in tax cuts to corporations that offshored jobs. When local Indiana governments tried to raise local minimum wages to help the working poor, Pence signed a statewide law banning such increases (and had worked to keep the federal minimum wage lower, while he was in Congress). He repealed an 80-year-old law that forced government contractors to pay a fair wage. He repealed a state inheritance tax law — freeing wealthy Indianans from the awful burden of paying almost no taxes on giant piles of wealth that they didn’t work for.
When the federal government recommended that schools across the country stop discrimination against transgender students, Pence vocally opposed such decency. When it came to a statewide energy efficiency program, Pence made sure it died. He doesn’t believe in science, perhaps due to the $300,000 in campaign funds he received from the Koch brothers, and favors burning more coal. The League of Conservation Voters has given Pence a lifetime rating of 4%, due to his repeated legislative assaults on the environment. When then-President Barack Obama announced his new Clean Power Plan, Pence immediately opposed it, arguing in favor of profits for power companies and against clean air (he actually claimed that cleaner air would be detrimental to residents of Indiana).
He personally caused an outbreak of HIV in his state by closing rural healthcare clinics.
After signing a discrimination-enforcing law, Pence was forced to change it to make sure it didn’t do the thing it had initially set out to do (allow religious people to discriminate against people). His anti-abortion law was so unconstitutional that it was almost immediately blocked by a federal judge.
After repeatedly claiming to be pro-Constitution and in favor of small government, Pence tried to set up a state-funded news agency, but dropped the idea after it was universally called “ludicrous” and “a disturbing changing trend in how the public gets news”.
On every front, if he learned of people needing help, Pence tried to keep Indiana from helping them. He endorsed wannabe-theocrat Ted Cruz for president. He opposes medical research and opposes comprehensive sex education. He very openly supports discrimination against gays and lesbians.
In fact, it’s very difficult to find an issue on which Pence has a stance that’s beneficial to U.S. citizens in any way, unless those citizens be very, very rich, primarily Christian, male, and heterosexual.
Not to mention how, right after the 2016 presidential election, he said it was “refreshing” that Donald Trump lied to the voters.
Let’s focus on that, and not on his seemingly eccentric relationship rules between him and his wife.