Mike Pence. This name makes few hearts beat faster. Attempts by the Democrats to use Pence, the Republican vice-presidential candidate, as a stick with which to beat Donald Trump were not a success in 2016, and this year have been pretty much abandoned.
Kamala Harris, recently chosen as the Democrats’ vice-presidential candidate, has attracted more attention, in part because Joe Biden is 77, so might not see out a presidential term.
But Trump is 74 and looks less healthy than Biden, or indeed than Ronald Reagan, who at the start of his second term was 73.
If, as some commentators predict, Trump manages in November to defy the polls and win a second term, he may not survive to the end of it.
So Pence, who would then become President, ought to be of considerable interest. But he isn’t, and in that respect he is in accordance with the American tradition.
Running mates are chosen for their electoral value, their appeal to some group of voters, not because they possess the qualities needed to take over in a crisis. Pence’s speeches, including his address last night at the Republican Convention in praise of Trump’s handling of the economy, do not excite people.
They communicate instead a worthy, God-fearing, embattled decency: a calm determination to uphold the armed forces, the right to life, the right to bear arms, “the thin blue line…we’re not going to defund the police”, manufacturing jobs, the lowest rate of unemployment for women in 65 years, an America which “remains America” rather than giving in to “socialism and decline”.
Such rhetoric may be scorned by clever liberals, but millions of Americans still want to believe theirs is the kind of country described by Pence.
Although Trump at the end of February made Pence head of the federal coronavirus task force, the Vice-President has remained almost comically self-effacing in that role, and has never criticised the President for driving a coach and horses through the administration’s attempts to bring the pandemic under control.
Generally speaking, a dull performer tends to be preferred in the vice-presidential role, who will not overshadow the presidential candidate, who has himself usually been chosen by his party not because of his outstanding gifts as a statesman, but because he has the best chance of winning the election and rewarding his supporters with the fruits of office.
Pence is an evangelical, implacably opposed to abortion and to gay rights. This loyal and respectable figure, married to the same woman since 1985, in 2016 performed the invaluable role of reassuring the quarter of American adults who describe themselves as evangelicals that Trump, despite his scandalous private life, could be trusted to champion their beliefs.
The liberal mind recoils at such low calculations. It wants to see democracy as a noble contest between brilliant, high-minded figures, so ignores or downplays the many presidents who could by no stretch of the imagination be described as brilliant or high-minded.
John Nance Garner, the Texan who served as Vice-President for two terms under Franklin D. Roosevelt, is supposed to have warned Lyndon B. Johnson, who in 1960 was wondering whether to accept the invitation to become John F. Kennedy’s running mate, that the vice-presidency “isn’t worth a pitcher of warm piss”.
In a more respectable moment, Garner explained that “there cannot be a great vice president. A great man may occupy the office, but there is no way for him to become a great vice president because the office in itself is almost wholly unimportant.”
Except that eight American presidents have died in office, whereupon the vice-president has suddenly become very important. Jared Cohen says in his recent study, Accidental Presidents, that those eight figures “are all part of a history of presidential succession which has been frivolous and has left the country exposed to Constitutional crisis or vulnerable to luck and chance”.
He adds that “the matter of succession has been trivialised by voters, candidates and lawmakers”.
Stern words. But since so many of the elected presidents were ropy, or at least went through desperately ropy patches, it seems a bit unfair to single out the selection of the eight vice-presidents who succeeded to the highest office for criticism.
Two of those eight, Theodore Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, became great presidents: about the same proportion as among those holders of the office who first entered the White House by winning a presidential election.
The American Constitution is remarkable not because it has ensured the election of an unending stream of world historical figures, but because it has survived the election, down to the present incumbent, of so many presidents who fall far below the level of events.
Gimson’s Presidents: Brief Lives from Washington to Trump is published by Square Peg (£10.99).