Former Vice President Mike Pence was in real danger on Jan. 6. Crowds outside chanted for him to be hanged on the makeshift scaffolding they’d constructed outside the Capitol building. Security video later showed how close the mob had come to obstructing Pence and his family’s flight to safety. All because Pence had refused to do what his boss had asked. The former congressman from Indiana had earlier that day rejected President Donald Trump’s demands that he abdicate his duty as vice president and refuse to certify Joe Biden’s 2020 election win over Trump.
For fulfilling his duty, Pence has been hailed as a hero in the by some members of the media. However, that narrative became more complicated this week with the release of the first excerpts from “Peril,” the forthcoming book from reporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa. Pence didn’t come to his heroism naturally. He had to be guided to it by an unlikely source: former Vice President Dan Quayle who reportedly told Pence he had no option but to do his job.
How many Americans remember anything about the vice president from 1988-1992 other than his legendary misspelling of the word “potato” when judging an elementary school spelling bee? For decades, that’s been the main reference point Americans had for Quayle, consigning him to the relative obscurity that’s met so many vice presidents before him.
Quayle was in some ways a proto-Pence. A vice president from Indiana, Quayle was a younger conservative brought onto the ticket to bolster the bona fides of a presidential candidate whose own record was less than impressive to some on the right. It makes sense that Pence called Quayle when deciding how to respond to Trump’s demands.
Costa and Woodward report that Pence rang up Quayle in late December to ask if there was any way he could give Trump want he wanted, according to the Washington Post:
Quayle was adamant, according to the authors. “Mike, you have no flexibility on this. None. Zero. Forget it. Put it away,” he said.
But Pence pressed him, the authors write, asking if there were any grounds to pause the certification because of ongoing legal challenges. Quayle was unmoved, and Pence ultimately agreed, according to the book.
CNN’s version added some additional detail to Pence’s entreaty:
"You don't know the position I'm in," he said, according to the authors.
"I do know the position you're in," Quayle responded. "I also know what the law is. You listen to the parliamentarian. That's all you do. You have no power."
And Pence did just that: He listened to the Senate parliamentarian. Together, as Politico's Kyle Cheney showed on Twitter, they crafted language that made clear that there would be no chance for alternate electoral slates from states such as Georgia to vote for Trump. And in doing so, Biden’s win was — once the Capitol was cleared of insurrectionists — certified as it had been every other presidential election beforehand.
One of the most fascinating things about books like Woodward and Costa’s is trying to guess who provided which bits of information. The narrative framing is like a novel — attributions for sources are rare. It’s part of the reason so many politicos agree to interviews. They know their version of history could be the one that’s told. For example, there’s plenty of speculation that Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is the source for some of the more flattering anecdotes about his role in saving democracy from Trump.
I don’t have access to “Peril,” which makes it even more difficult for me to guess who may have provided this particular anecdote, but the unflattering portrayal of Pence rules him out in my mind. That leaves Quayle, or at least someone close enough to Quayle to have passed it on to Woodward and Costa. No matter who gave them the story, it serves as a particularly fascinating postscript and recasts the former punchline as a beacon of moral resolve.
Meanwhile, Pence’s legacy has grown more complicated. He did the right thing in the end. Listening to Quayle meant shelving any chance of winning over Trump’s more rabid fans, effectively shutting the door on his own presidential run. But the fact that he was even looking for an out is a problem. Certifying the election results should have been an easy choice for someone dedicated to public service. There aren’t many gimmes in politics, especially at the presidential level.
Then again, that desire for easy answers is part of why people like Trump are so appealing to the masses. We want stories and characters that are one-dimensional and moral choices cast in black and white. In a way, it’s better to read books like “Peril” less as history and more as literature and find inspiration and meaning in their half-truth reflections on life.
Despite his ambivalence, Pence forswore ambition for the good of the country. Despite his treatment at the hands of the political system, Quayle defended it during a time of peril. The better angels of their nature won out over selfishness and vanity. At the same time, there’s no denying that there is likely a self-serving reason we know these stories at all; it’s hard to be a hero if there’s no narrator to tell the tale.
There’s something about this particular phone call between two Hoosiers that dances on the line between truth and allegory. Did Quayle save our democracy? Maybe. At least, someone says he did. But we should be less concerned with whether this particular story is true and more concerned with the indisputable truth: A president who’d been voted out demanded his vice president break the law to help him hold onto power, and because he didn’t, a mob outside erected a gallows.