When a new administration takes office, the key players usually draw positive profiles to introduce them to the public—sometimes so positive that other journalists deride them as “beat sweeteners.”
There’s been almost none of that in the Trump administration.
The media have been so consumed by controversies swirling around the president himself, Steve Bannon, Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway and others that the usual grew-up-in-a-small-town stories have been few and far between.
But yesterday, a leading member of the administration actually got some sympathetic coverage: Mike Pence.
And his wife as well.
From the moment he was chosen as Trump’s running mate (over Newt Gingrich and Chris Christie), the vice president has pretty much played error-free ball. A low-key politician by nature, he hasn’t tried to grab the spotlight or positioned himself as a Cheney-like force who is quietly running things behind the scenes. He has cast himself as loyal No. 2 in backing the boss.
What’s more, as a former congressman and Indiana governor (as well as radio talk show host), Pence, a Christian conservative, is steeped in government experience, in sharp contrast to the outsider president.
But there’s this other thing: He’s not Trump.
In a largely favorable front-page New York Times piece, an unnamed Republican senator said Pence was initially viewed as “an alternative-reality president who would prod Mr. Trump’s presidency toward normalcy.” Now, says the piece, Democrats and Republican critics “still view him as a president-in-waiting, in hopes that Mr. Trump will somehow be brought down by scandal.”
That’s the framing: Mike Pence is normal, and maybe he’ll still succeed Trump.
The VP, says the Times, carries out “many of the functions that the White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, would normally fulfill if he possessed more policy experience and legislative connections: sounding out lawmakers for inside information, providing the president with tactical counsel, quietly offering policy tweaks during negotiations.”
Here’s more of Mike as Normal Guy:
“At times, Mr. Pence can seem jarringly out of place, a clean-cut 1950s Republican cheerfully navigating the chaotic ‘Mad Max’ landscape created by the disruptive duo of Mr. Trump and Mr. Bannon, trying to stay engaged while remaining discernibly aloof from the less-savory aspects of serving in the Trump White House.”
Pence views such comparisons as offensive, according to a person familiar with his thinking, believing that while he and the president have contrasting styles, they are delivering the same message to different audiences and that the veep doesn’t act as some kind of translator. The Pence camp also insists that he and Priebus have worked well together in lobbying the Hill.
The Times story also mentions that Pence’s wife, Karen, was wary of Trump’s offer to put him on the ticket. Which brings me to a favorable profile of the second lady, also yesterday, in the Washington Post.
It begins with Pence having a red phone in his statehouse office to connect directly to his wife, “a reminder, both physical and symbolic, of the direct and enduring connection between Mike and Karen Pence.”
Karen Pence, the piece says, “remains an important influence on one of President Trump’s most important political allies. She sat in on at least one interview as the vice president assembled his staff, accompanied her husband on his first foreign trip and joins him for off-the-record briefings with reporters, acting as his gut check and shield.”
And they toured the Dachau concentration camp together, “often holding hands, and huddled together on the Air Force Two ride home to debrief on the trip.”
In a way, the Pences are attracting the kind of coverage that might normally go to the first lady. Think about Michelle Obama and Laura Bush and the portrayal of their pet projects.
But with Melania still living in Trump Tower, much to the frustration of the press, we get headlines like this one in the Post:
“In New York, Searching for the Reclusive and Elusive Melania Trump.”
The story says that “Melania Trump is a virtual shut-in, her refuge 58 stories above Manhattan’s hoi polloi and laden with enough gold to embarrass a Saudi prince.” This, in turn, means “an ever-clamorous chorus of gossipmongers, pundits, historians and even body-language experts dissect her every move, fashion choice and facial expression to unearth a true State of Melania.”
But even here the stark contrast surfaces, with former Trump executive Louise Sunshine quoted as saying Melania is trying to make her way “as the wife of a very impulsive, compulsive, erratic president.”
If Melania wants to stay in Manhattan raising 10-year-old Barron, in my view, she has every right to do so. But it so happens that she gave a speech yesterday at the State Department, presenting the International Women of Courage awards.
Usually it helps a president when his vice president generates positive headlines. That’s not necessarily the case with Trump, although if the media credit Mike Pence with doing a good job, it does remind us that the president's first major decision was to pick him.