Gail Collins: Don’t be dense, beware Mike Pence

(Samuel Corum | The New York Times) Vice President Mike Pence speaks during a coronavirus task force briefing in Rockville, Md., June 30, 2020. "Pence is very, very conservative on social issues — or at least as conservative as it's possible to be when your running mate is a well-known former womanizer who conducted his adulterous affair with one future wife on the front pages of the New York tabloids," writes New York Times columnist Gail Collins.

It’s possible you failed to notice, but the Republican convention has a theme for each night. The list sounds a little like a Lord of the Rings theme park: Land of Promise, Land of Opportunity, Land of Heroes and Land of Greatness.

You know Donald Trump’s big day is going to be Land of Greatness, right? Well, obviously. But do you think even the president felt a little wave of irony when he gave Mike Pence responsibility for Land of Heroes?

Lots of ways you could celebrate Pence’s renomination. Male fans might consider announcing that they’ll be following his lead and will go to events where alcohol is served only when they’re accompanied by their wives. The presidential campaign themes are “Keep America Great” and “Promises Made, Promises Kept.” A “Little Woman, Big Chaperone” T-shirt for the vice president’s female followers might be next.

The vice presidency has had its ups and downs. We started out very well indeed with John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Then, whoops, Aaron Burr. You may remember him as the guy who shot Alexander Hamilton. The only thing we can say about comparing Burr and Pence is that our current vice president is very unlikely to ever be featured as a lead character in a Broadway musical.

One of my favorite veeps is Richard Johnson, a 19th-century adventurer who was Martin Van Buren’s No. 2. Johnson was apparently picked solely because Van Buren was running against William Henry Harrison, who was famous for defeating feared chief Tecumseh at the battle of Tippecanoe. When Harrison’s fans yelled, “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too!” the Democrats were supposed to retort, “Rumpsey Dumpsey, Rumpsey Dumpsey. Col. Johnson killed Tecumsey.”

Neither of those slogans was really true, but everyone apparently loved yelling them. They were, you must admit, more fun to shout than “Promises Made, Promises Kept.”

People have generally paid attention to the vice presidential nomination only when they’re waiting to see who’ll get it. But now that Kamala Harris is such a sensation, maybe the office will have more glamour.

I’ve been into veep watching for a long time — when I can’t sleep, I try counting them all, like sheep. If it’s real insomnia, I try to add one little factoid, like: William King, the only bachelor vice president, was very best friends with James Buchanan, the only bachelor president.

Yeah, people talked. But not for long, since King died 25 days into his term.

Pence is very, very conservative on social issues — or at least as conservative as it’s possible to be when your running mate is a well-known former womanizer who conducted his adulterous affair with one future wife on the front pages of the New York tabloids.

In his current job Pence is pretty much tied up with the White House crises of the day, but it’s important to remember he’s very possibly a Republican presidential nominee for 2024 — if we have an election in 2024. One of the reasons he’s worth watching is trying to imagine what he’d do if the boss decided to ignore the election results this November.

Back in days of yore, nobody cared much about the vice presidency. John Nance Garner said it was “not worth a bucket of warm spit.” Garner, who served for eight years under Franklin Roosevelt, apparently figured that FDR would retire after two terms and hand over the nomination to his second-in-command. Imagine his surprise when FDR went for No. 3.

Now there’s a history lesson Pence should keep in mind.

Thomas Marshall, who was Woodrow Wilson’s veep, used to tell the story of two brothers: “One ran away to sea; the other was elected vice president. And nothing was ever heard of either of them again.” You could appreciate his attitude since he was frozen out of everything in the Wilson administration, even after the president himself was paralyzed from a stroke.

But these are stories from the old days, when a vice president counted himself reasonably lucky if he was given a project — an agency or an issue — that gave him an excuse for coming into work in the morning. The job turned into something very different in modern times. Joel Goldstein, a professor at Saint Louis University who has written a book about the vice presidency, notes that Richard Nixon almost never performed the traditional job of presiding over the Senate, preferring to travel and do political work for his boss, Dwight Eisenhower. Which was sort of ironic given that, when Nixon was running to succeed him, Eisenhower was asked about any major ideas his vice president had contributed to the administration. Eisenhower replied, “If you give me a week, I might think of one.”

The real change began with Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter’s second-in-command. “Mondale became an across-the-board troubleshooter,” Goldstein said in a phone interview.

Having a relatively powerful, activist vice president worked very well when the guy in question was Mondale. But pitfalls abounded. You may remember that Republican Dan Quayle made headlines when he corrected a schoolchild for spelling “potato” without an E at the end. “There you go,” he advised the kid after adding the extra vowel. There was some applause from the adults in the room, which just goes to show you that politicians should not always trust the instincts of the base.

Quayle was, by the way, from Indiana. As was Marshall and, yes, our man Mike Pence.

Gail Collins

Gail Collins is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.