A review of Mark Leibovich’s This Town

[Boston Globe]

This week in the Boston Globe I’ve got a review of Mark Leibovich’s This Town. The book’s been reviewed everywhere, of course, but one of my favorite anecdotes hasn’t appeared in any of them. (To be fair, it didn’t appear in my review either.)

Anyway, Leibovich spends a few pages profiling the late Richard Holbrooke. Whenever the ambassador arrived somewhere, aides would whisper, “The ego has landed.” So it makes sense that, one day, Holbrooke decided to single-handedly heal the rift between Samantha Power and Hillary Clinton. Power, you may recall, called Hillary a “monster” during the 2008 primary, leaving everyone unfathomably angry for six or seven minutes. Later that same year, Power was getting married, and Holbrooke pulled her aside and offered her a truly special wedding gift: he would use his diplomatic skills to defuse the Power-Clinton contretemps. 

A lot of reviewers (including me) have read This Town as the story of the Obama administration lapsing into the ways of Washington. But the president himself comes off pretty well in the book. When he hears about Holbrooke’s matrimonial grandstanding, Obama shakes his head. “Some people,” he tells Power, “just get toasters.”

The real facts on Indiana’s health insurance rates

[Indianapolis Star]

In today’s Indianapolis Star, I’ve got a short op ed on the claim that health insurance will go up by 72 percent under Obamacare. I’ve got a personal stake in this story since I’m moving back to my homestate later this year. But after doing some digging I found that this 72 percent number is totally misleading — and disappointingly political. It comes from Indiana’s Department of Insurance, an outfit that, in the words of one of my statehouse sources, “has traditionally preferred to do its work out of the public and political spotlight, regardless of which party controlled the reins of government.”

But that’s changing as Governor Pence’s administration makes one final push against Obamacare. Check out the op ed for more.

Also, if you want more context, the New Republic, the Washington Post, and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities have you covered. My previous reporting on Pence may be of interest, as well.

A review of Charles Moore’s major new Thatcher biography

[Boston Globe]

In The Boston Globe, I’ve got a review of From Grantham to The Falklands, the first volume of Charles Moore’s biography of Margaret Thatcher. It’s a stunningly detailed book — just about every fun fact I include in my review is something new that Moore has introduced to the historical record — and that makes sense, given his access. Thatcher’s camp let Moore dig through her personal papers and interview her, and she helped him secure interviews with everyone else and get an early glimpse at some government documents.

The only analog I can think of for this sort of access is what Edmund Morris got from Ronald Reagan in the mid 1980s. Of course, the book that resulted from that, Dutch, was widely criticized by historians because Morris invented a narrator and added in other fictional flourishes. But two quick thoughts on this: first, Morris’s book is actually really good, and his inventions are easy to spot, if also a little distracting. (I always wondered how many of those angry historians even bothered to read Dutch.) Second, Moore’s book actually makes an indirect case for why Morris needed to experiment. I get into this in my Globe review, but Moore’s biography, good as it is, never really captures Thatcher as a character.

Now that may be the Prime Minister’s fault! Thatcher and Reagan both developed reputations for having only a few core beliefs (and for being happy, in all other cases, to work from someone else’s script). And that presents a real dilemma for any biographer, no matter how good the access. Morris tried to solve this dilemma through one extreme — postmodern trickery, meta-biography, maximal interpretation. Now Moore has tried to solve it through the other — a frills-free approach that gets as much as possible on to the page. I’m not sure either writer managed a total success, but one thing’s for sure: like Thatcher and Reagan themselves, these two biographies are most interesting when considered together.

Jefferson Davis and his “presidential” library

[Los Angeles Times]

This week in the Los Angeles Times, I wrote an op ed about the opening of Jefferson Davis’s “presidential” library. I realize how crazy that idea sounds, and it’s certainly in large part a bit of clever self-promotion by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who run the library. But as I point out in my op ed, every presidential library relates a one-sided version of history. And in a weird way, the Davis library is now the best place to see the logic behind those institutions in action.

Of course, the Davis library is also one of the best place to see Southern sympathizers distort history in some troubling ways. Since 2004, the Sons have become much more radical, purging thousands of moderate members and putting more emphasis on defending the Lost Cause. (You can read about that process here.) During that same timeframe, this process  also occurred inside the Davis library. About seven years ago, a member named Robert Murphree pushed to broaden the site’s appeal; when I talked to him on the phone, he kept mentioning Monticello as the best model. After Katrina, however, the library’s other supporters cut Murphree and his allies out of the rebuilding process.

All this to say that, in a few places, at least, the Civil War still staggers on. If you need more proof, check out this short follow up I wrote for the Times in response to a few angry commenters.

Mike Pence’s fiscal (and total) conservatism

In my Indianapolis Monthly profile of Mike Pence, which you can read here, I pointed out that Indiana’s new governor has taken “vocal conservative stands on just about every issue: foreign policy, fiscal policy, social matters, and more.” Yet the media continue to fixate on those social matters (e.g., Pence’s attempt to defund Planned Parenthood). To me, that sells Pence-the-congressman short — even as it also makes Pence-the-candidate seem even more slippery.

Anyway, I wanted to review Pence’s fiscal bona fides, which seem especially relevant as he rolls out his first two-year budget at the State House. Pence became a congressman in 2000 — in the age of George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservative,” which, as Pence loved to point out, “ultimately [is] another way of saying ‘big-government conservative.”

Again and again, Pence fought for his small-government ideals. The only exception I found, and it’s a partial one, was the federal Farm Bill. Pence’s Sixth District, which covers much of southern Indiana, receives more Farm Bill money than any other district in the country. It created an obvious dilemma for Pence, and one of his staffers told me that, early on, at least, their office took a flexible tack. “Mike would talk about fighting over the size of the pie,” the aide told me, “but once the pie was set he’d fight to get his district as big a slice as he could.”

This method applied to the Farm Bill and to earmarks, as well. But Pence ultimately modified his approach, even though it meant working against his constituents’ interests. By the spring of 2008, he was refusing to vote for Farm Bill. “It has always been my ambition to support Indiana farmers,” Pence said. “But I’ve always sought to do that in a way that protects our federal budget and protects the American taxpayer at large.” Stands like this are why I suggested, in a previous blog post, that Pence has “a more consistent and coherent world-view . . . [than] other Bush-era conservatives like Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell.”

Stands like this are also why Pence became the chairman of the powerful (and extremely conservative) Republican Study Committee. In fact, one source told me that Pence did such a bang-up job that the organization changed its term limits so he could stay in power. “I don’t believe the mission of the RSC is to achieve conservative legislation,” Pence has said. “I believe it is the objective of our committee to ensure that conservative values are given their proper weight with leadership as it seeks the equilibrium of getting a bill to 218 votes.”

(This, by the way, is one of many places where you can see why John Gregg, Pence’s gubernatorial opponent, ran such a poor campaign. Gregg loved attacking Pence for not passing bills — but far more telling was the reason he didn’t pass bills, with that reason being that Pence was a far-right legislator.)

Pence and the RSC caused plenty of trouble for the compassionate crowd. The best example came in 2005, when Pence made a very public demand that any Hurricane Katrina relief be offset by spending cuts. (It was an early version of what we’re seeing today with Hurricane Sandy.) Then-Speaker Dennis Hastert and then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay called Pence in for a meeting — what Robert Novak described as “a closed-door auto-da-fe, with GOP leaders as the inquisitors and Pence as the heretic.”

That’s a pretty great description, but the Washington Post did Novak one better. After that meeting, the paper reported, the congressman “had the look of a hunted man.” Pence was scheduled to deliver a speech at the Young America Foundation. The topic? “Conservative leadership in Congress” and its “massive spending splurges.” But Pence had a change of heart. Instead, he told the crowd, “I believe in the men and women who lead the House of Representatives and the Senate. I see them as men and women of integrity and principle, who work every day to bring the ideals of our Founders into the well of the people’s house.” Then he left abruptly. According to the Post, Pence didn’t even stick around for the Q&A he’d agreed to, which left the Young America crew in a tough spot: “Unfortunately, the congressman will be unable to answer questions today,” the host said. “But we are going to have a door prize.”

Now, you can interpret this event in one of two ways: 1) Pence caved to Republican leadership; or 2) Pence was so good at needling Republican leadership that, eventually, they had to go nuclear on him. I’m inclined toward Option 2 — and not just because that makes Pence’s Young America speech a rare (and revealing) bit of unscripted drama. Pence never stopped needling. In 2010, he was one of very few Republicans to admit that attacking Democrats for their (alleged) cuts to Medicare was dumb and incoherent. Then there’s this, from Michael Grunwald’s excellent book The New New Deal:

[Eric] Cantor and Mike Pence were both part of the conservative Republican Study Committee as well as the leadership team. But as one aide put it, Pence rolled out of bed thinking about being a conservative, while Cantor woke up thinking about being a leader. Infrastructure reflected that difference. In leadership meetings, Cantor argued that the Republican stimulus alternative should go big on public works . . . Pence pushed back: Aren’t we supposed to be against government spending?

All this to say that when people portray Pence as a social crusader, they obscure an important point: he’s a crusader, full stop.

Or at least he was. But there’s one more thing worth noting here: more and more Republicans share Pence’s comprehensive ideology. He’s what the Pew Research Center calls a “Staunch Conservative.” In its political typology survey, Pew highlights “a single bloc of across-the-board conservatives . . . [who] take extremely conservative positions on nearly all issues — on the size and role of government, on economics, foreign policy, social issues and moral concerns.” Yet Pew didn’t identify this bloc until recently, in 2011. In other words, as in so much else with the Republican party, Mike Pence was way out in front.

Mike Pence’s religion

Time for my second supplemental post on Mike Pence. You can read the original Indianapolis Monthly profile here, and near the end of it I describe asking Pence for some specifics about his personal faith. It’s a fair and vital question for two reasons: because Pence comes with a fascinating (and slightly messy) religious past; and because that past continues to shape every choice he makes. Yet all Pence would say to me is “I’m a pretty ordinary Christian.” He even ducked my question about where he goes to church, and I think it’s worth comparing that vagueness to some of his older answers about his faith. Indeed, as Pence has become more prominent, he’s also become more committed to saying absolutely nothing of interest — even on a topic about which he’d presumably want to share.

It wasn’t always this way. In 1994, the Indianapolis Business Journal published a terrific profile of the 35-year-old Pence. There, he described his faith quite openly: “I made a commitment to Christ. I’m a born-again, evangelical Catholic.” You don’t see that combo every day, even in Indiana, but the Journal had caught Pence at a time when he was oscillating between his upbringing and his evangelical faith. Pence’s parents raised their children Catholic, and Pence served as an altar boy and went to a parochial school. In college, however, he fell in with a nondenominational student fellowship group — he wouldn’t tell me which one — and made his “commitment to Christ.” That didn’t end his commitment to Catholicism, and when Pence graduated in 1981 he worked as a full-time Catholic youth minister and even applied to D.C.’s Catholic University. The plan was to become a priest, he told the Journal, and while it didn’t work out Pence was still attending mass in the late ’80s, when met his wife at Indy’s St. Thomas Aquinas.

At some point in the mid ’90s, Pence and his young family switched to an evangelical mega church. (In 1995, he told the Indianapolis Star that they attended the city’s Grace Evangelical Church.) Whatever the route, though, the destination is pretty clear: Pence’s evangelical faith has informed every aspect of his political career. Here are a few of many, many examples, drawn from his early years in Congress:

  • During the 2000 election, the Star described Pence’s debate with Democrat Bob Rock: “Pence, who said he attends an evangelical Christian church, asked Rock, a Catholic, if he would support Richard Gephardt as speaker of the House if the Democrats gain control, even though Gephardt supports abortion rights. ‘I would never support him on the issue of abortion,’ said Rock. ‘I am as pro-life as you are and that is not an issue in this campaign.'”
  • In 2001, the newly-elected Pence talked to The Hill about his marriage: “He never dines alone with a woman who is not his wife. And when his wife is absent, he never attends events where alcohol flows. ‘If there’s alcohol being served and people are being loose, I want to have the best-looking brunette in the room standing next to me,’ Pence said. As it happens, Pence frequently turns down invitations for drinks or dinner from male colleagues. ‘It’s about building a zone around your marriage,’ he observed.”
  • In 2002, Pence talked to Congressional Quarterly about Israel: “‘My support for Israel stems largely from my personal faith,’ Pence said in an interview March 18. ‘In the Bible, God promises Abraham, “Those who bless you I will bless, and those who curse you I will curse.” So, in some way, I don’t fully understand [U.S. policy]. I believe our own national security is tied to our willingness to stand with the people of Israel.'”
  • In 2003, Pence talked to Human Events about whether or not he could block Medicare Part D: “I don’t know, but God has surprised me a few times since I got here, and I hope He’ll surprise me again.”

Today, there’s no question that Pence’s religion continues to shape Pence’s politics. Andrew Phipps, a Hoosier politico who also hosts gospel TV and radio shows, put it to me this way: “I don’t think Mike will ever forsake his core values — the sanctity of life, traditional marriage, and our great heritage of faith, family, and freedom.”

What has changed is Pence’s willingness to discuss just what makes up that religion. This has always struck me as somewhat shady — in a case like Pence’s, it’s essentially a politician who refuses to disclose his politics. Then again, the pattern now applies to almost every subject with Pence. He used to be a frank and fascinating interview. In 1994, he described his pre-Reagan politics like this: “[Carter] was a good Christian. Beyond that, there was a sense of, ‘Why would you elect a movie star?'” In 1995, he openly criticized Rush Limbaugh: “Conservative media, including Rush, have a tremendous blind spot when it comes to making a distinction between differences in public policy and personal differences.”

Someone might be able to get Pence to say things this detailed and interesting today, but I sure couldn’t. Instead, I got a guy — a guy who will likely run for president in 2016 or 2020 —  who did this:

Then something strange happened. Mike Pence, the guy who, the night before, had seemed to shake every single hand in Lucas Oil Stadium, the guy whose aides budget extra time in his schedule because he’s such a talker (“He’s Irish,” one of them explained)—Mike Pence, exactly 20 minutes into a 45-minute interview, said, “We gotta roll in about five, don’t we?”

Mike Pence’s “Confessions of a Negative Campaigner”

On Friday, I linked to my long Indianpolis Monthly profile of Mike Pence. Today, I’ll post the first of four supplemental blog posts on Indiana’s new governor.

While Pence served in Congress from 2000 to 2012, he took his first two shots at national office in 1988 and 1990. In my profile, I note how nasty those campaigns became, and we could spend hours piling up examples. “Mike Pence’s gutter brand of politics has sunk to a new low,” read one editorial in the Shelbyville News, “and for the Pence campaign, that’s saying something.”

In the aftermath of those races, Pence’s reputation bottomed out. But in the summer of 1991 he published a short essay called “Confessions of a Negative Campaigner.” The essay, which has not been available online (and which I’m posting in full, after the jump), offered a savvy first step in the rehabilitation of his political career. After all, most journalists today cite it, then glide right past the campaigns’ actual events. (Check out the “Confessions” Google trail here.)

That doesn’t mean those journalists have read the essay. “I haven’t read it,” one source told me, right before he expounded on its text, “but I’ve heard the general gist.” Given the way “Confessions of a Negative Campaigner” is frequently described, I’d guess this is true of most Hoosier journalists and political insiders. Because what you’ll notice, if you do read it, is that it’s not much of a confession. Pence sounds like he’s still smarting a bit from ’88 and ’90. He shows remorse, but not about his slimy tactics — instead, it’s about the missed opportunity to argue for his political beliefs.

Now there’s certainly something laudable about this second point, and from ’91 up to his recent run for governor Pence rarely wasted any similar opportunities. During that time, however, he also began describing his early regrets in a striking new way. “My faith says if someone strikes you on the cheek, turn the other,” he told the New York Times in 2006. “My response, after being attacked by my opponent, was to empty the silos on this guy.” I talked to multiple people close to Pence who dispute his chronology — that the opponent started it — but the key point here is that Pence started framing his political conversion in terms of forgiveness and sadness. That’s not what you’ll find in the 1991 essay, which you can see by clicking on “continue reading.” But it is a perfect example of how Pence will simplify and even rewrite his life narrative — something we’ll get into in my next supplemental post.

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