Congressman Mike Pence was introduced today at Indianapolis’ One America headquarters by Indiana Family Institute’s President, Curt Smith, as “America’s leading conservative voice in the Congress.” Most would be hard-pressed to disagree with this analysis, especially after listening to Pence share from his heart in a closed-door, small group session for an hour or so, as I was able to yesterday.
I had assumed that Pence would be briefing all of us on what the latest goings-on in DC happen to be. Instead, he wound up telling a part of his story I had never heard him relate, discussing the wilderness period that he endured after mounting a vigorous Congressional race in 1990. At a mere 31 years of age, he lost for the second time in a row, after previously running in 1988.
Pence lost both contests to Phil Sharp, whose name he did not mention today. Pence did state, though, that by the time he reached the end of his second Congressional campaign, he realized that something was wrong. He had given his life to Christ in 1978. However, 12 years later, he found that he was headed down a road that contained “shades of compromise.” He specifically cited the following trouble areas: increased inappropriateness in the language he used, the quantity of alcohol he was consuming and his responses to explosive political situations.
“It is difficult enough to lose an election, but it is crushing to realize that you’ve also lost a lot of self-respect in the process. Not only did I come up short; I had regrets about the job I did, getting there.” Thus, Pence summed up the demise of his electoral prospects in 1990. He recalled the Sharp campaign unleashing an attack blitz on him in the early fall and his resulting rejoinder: “Empty the silos on that guy.” (It is a stretch, for sure, to envision rhetoric like that from 2010’s silver-haired, gentlemanly Mike Pence; indeed, in the ensuing two decades, Pence and Sharp have become friends.)
At this juncture, the young Mike Pence began a critical inventory of his own life and found himself wanting. He turned to the Bible. Dual questions began to recur in his mind, “What if Jesus meant every word He said? What if He wants me to manifest His character as I seek to fulfill my dream of impacting the public debate?”
He chuckled as he disclosed that he had probably carried a day timer since he was in the second grade. He added an additional one to the stash and began to chart his Scripture readings and the lessons he was absorbing in its pages. Pence also came to the realization that while he had always comforted his friends in their afflictions by promising to pray for them, it was a vow he never kept. This, too, changed, as he began to maintain a record of prayer concerns that he encountered.
Over time, his outlook on all of life was transformed and by the time he ran in 2000 (this time, successfully) for Congress, he was a different man. Pence has always introduced himself candidly as a Christian first, a conservative second and a Republican third. This is not a marketing ploy. It is as real as the air the man breathes.
He juxtaposed the angry anxiety he experienced, wanting to torpedo Phil Sharp’s candidacy in days of yesteryear, with the truly desperate terror of 9/11 as it impacted the Capitol city. He painted a vivid word picture of the sky dank with brown smoke, jet fighter planes zigzagging through the air and people running helter skelter in all directions, sheer pandemonium lacing the ethos. (He compared it to a movie scene from Ben Affleck’s “Pearl Harbor.”) “Yet,” he disclosed, “in that moment, I felt peace.” In fact, one of his farming family constituents later related that upon arriving home on that day of carnage, she was greeted at the door by her young offspring who stated, “Mom, it must be OK. I saw Congressman Pence on TV, singing ‘God Bless America’ with the other folks.”
Pence only had time for a couple of questions today. One of the ones that he took was about maintaining closeness to his family. Pence explained that he never campaigns on Sunday. (This is technically true; I have seen him on a number of Sunday TV shows, though they generally do air quite early. But I quibble over a non-essential.) He also stated, intriguingly, that the perils to family of public life are no greater than any other sphere where success is accrued and the competition of schedules begin to interfere with family obligations.
He drew belly laughs from those assembled when he declared, “It is the greatest thing for me when I come from a meeting at the White House or some other heady gathering and head home to 4 people in Arlington, Virginia, who have no respect for me whatsoever.” His wisest choice, on which he and his wife, Karen, settled early, was to move the whole family with him to DC. A decade later, he has yet to meet a constituent who has protested this familial transplant out of the home district, though he has lost count of those who have praised the decision.
I have seen many politicians. I usually enjoy their company. Most are charming and charismatic and many are engaging speakers. But it is fairly rare that I am moved and challenged to be a better man, to love God and cherish my family more after spending quality time in the presence of a Congressman. It happened today.
Mike Pence offered a powerful admonition early in his talk today, after extensively citing the example set by our first President, George Washington:
“If you want to be a leader, you need to develop the necessary habits early in life, so that when push comes to shove, you’ll break in favor of being men and women of your word.”
Wise counsel from a man who has fleshed out and continues to embody, in both the grit and glamour of public life, the convictions he espouses.