Columnist Jay Bookman writes that former Vice President Mike Pence became a hero when he resisted his former boss’ pressure not to certify Joe Biden’s 2020 victory. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi listened as Vice President Mike Pence spoke to a joint session of Congress one year ago to count the Electoral College votes. Erin Scott – Pool/Getty Images
I come to celebrate an American hero. I come to celebrate Mike Pence.
That is not, to put it mildly, a widely held opinion. Not yet, at least. The Trumpian right reviles Pence as a traitor, as a Judas whose lack of courage and commitment a year ago cost them the prize that they see as their birthright. That will probably never change. The left still sees him as a Trump sycophant, a man whose adoring, worshipful gaze marked him forever as a toady. That too isn’t likely to change. In fact, the one thing that left and right can agree upon in this country is that they all despise Mike Pence.
Historians, I think, will take a different tack. Whatever came before Jan. 6, 2021, whatever came after, at the moment when it mattered, when much was at stake, Pence simply did the right thing and helped to save the country.
First, let’s acknowledge how important his actions turned out to be. We know now that Pence was under immense pressure to try to unilaterally set aside the election outcome in Georgia and several other states, using his role as presiding officer over a joint session of Congress to rule that election fraud had made the outcome in those states unknowable.
There was and remains no basis to that claim, but if Pence had embraced it, government institutions at the state and national level that were already under immense strain might have cracked. The violence that marked Jan. 6 would have spread, probably to state capitols around the country, and bad as it has been, the damage to our government’s credibility both here at home and abroad would have been so much worse, with the outcome uncertain.
The counterargument reminds us that Pence merely followed the Constitution and the law. He just did his duty, and we’re supposed to thank him for doing the minimum? As his detractors further point out, in the days and hours leading up to Jan. 6 Pence had tried mightily to evade that duty. He met with parliamentarians and lawyers and advisors, including another former vice president from Indiana, Dan Quayle, all but begging them to give him permission to once again fold under Donald Trump’s bullying.
At one point, in fact, it seemed that Pence might simply walk away, abandoning his post and allowing U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley to preside over the ceremonies of Jan. 6.
But let’s talk a bit about the nature of heroes and heroism. Those we encounter in real life are not the heroes of mythology and Marvel; they are imperfect human beings who rise above that imperfection to do important things. And if Pence merely did his duty, it is also true that doing your duty at a time of great importance, when others shirk that same duty, is the stuff from which heroes are crafted. Those to whom we give the Medal of Honor and who are still around to talk about it will tell you almost to a person that they too only did their duty, that if they had seen an alternative they would have taken it. The same is true of firefighters who rush into a burning building, or teachers who defend their students during a school shooting.
Heroes are flawed. Heroes can be reluctant. In an extreme example, but one that the evangelical Pence knows well, even Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane begs God to spare him from the arrest, torture and execution that he knows is coming. He’s looking for an out.
“My Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from me,” Jesus prays. But when the time came, we are told he drank from that chalice.
It’s also worthwhile to judge the actions of people such as Pence and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger against those of many of their Republican colleagues. Some knew better but played along with the coup attempt anyway. Others convinced themselves to believe what it was convenient to believe. Others were intimidated into silence or were not willing to risk their political identity, their future, their friendships and professional and social networks. They were and remain cowards.
To my mind, two reported conversations between Trump and Pence stand out. In one, while a noisy, pro-Trump crowd gathers outside the White House, the men are discussing Trump’s demand that Pence unilaterally dismiss electoral votes from swing states
“If these people say you had the power, wouldn’t you want to?” Trump asked, referring to the crowd.
“I wouldn’t want any one person to have that authority,” Pence said.
“But wouldn’t it be almost cool to have that power?” Trump asked again, playing the role of the devil whispering temptation into Pence’s ear.
In another of what appear to have been numerous such conversations, Trump was more blunt.
“You can either go down in history as a patriot, or you can go down in history as a pussy,” he told Pence.
Pence chose patriot.
Historically, the American political pendulum swings somewhat freely from left to right and back left again, seeking but never finding that golden medium. The Jan. 6 coup attempted to put a violent stop to that. It was an attempt to dictate that regardless of voter sentiment, election results or court rulings, the pendulum would not be allowed to swing left; the right would not allow it. It would not allow power to shift out of its hands, and whatever steps necessary to prevent that shift were steps that by definition were legitimate.
If the pendulum ever stops, if it is pegged to one spot and not allowed to swing freely, then we have lost our country. So, I appreciate Pence, Raffensperger, Liz Cheney and others who did not let the temptation of power dissuade them from their American idealism. They have taught us that the willingness to do the right thing under duress is more rare and more important than we may have understood.
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