Frank Bruni: Pence’s debate performance bugged me out

(Illustration by The New York Times; photo by Damon Winter | The New York Times) Vice President Mike Pence never exhibited any awareness — not the subtlest glance upward, not the slightest flinch or twitch — that his head had been colonized by a fly during Wednesday's debate.

We need to talk about that fly.

It was a fly, wasn’t it? If not, it was a bug doing an ace interpretation of a fly, and about two-thirds of the way through the debate in Salt Lake City on Wednesday night, it took up residence in Vice President Mike Pence’s hair, a smudge of black against a shock of white, where it lingered for a few minutes before undoubtedly realizing that there was warmer, more demonstrably human real estate to be had.

Off it flew, and on Pence droned. He never exhibited any awareness — not the subtlest glance upward, not the slightest flinch or twitch — that his head had been colonized. I first found this strange and then realized it was everything. Pence’s years of obsequiousness to Donald Trump had beaten all sensitivity and capacity for revulsion out of him.

How could he be expected to register or exile an itty-bitty pest when he routinely puts up with a great big one? That fly was some crazy combo of metaphor, visitation and karmic joke.

At this point, Pence is the poster boy for unflappability, an automaton of reflexive kudos for Trump in the key of smarmy. He’s bloodless. He’s ice. Add that constipated half-smile of his and he’s weirdly riveting.

Fortunately for Joe Biden and Democrats in general, Sen. Kamala Harris is plenty steely herself, while also exhibiting a discernible pulse. I think she had a very good night. She was too scripted, yes, and painfully evasive when it came to a question about whether Biden would or should pack the Supreme Court.

But she pushed back forcefully whenever Pence tried to paint her and Biden as radical leftists. She kept returning to the subject of COVID-19. She repeatedly reminded Americans of the Trump administration’s sustained effort to abolish Obamacare, at one point staring directly into the camera to explain what that means.

“If you have a preexisting condition — heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer — they’re coming for you,” she said. “If you love someone who has a preexisting condition, they’re coming for you. If you are under the age of 26 on your parents' coverage, they’re coming for you.”

She assailed Trump’s character on all the right fronts and with all the right passion, so that Pence’s assurances of the president’s integrity seemed as pallid as the rest of him. Was Pence marble or man? The bug, I’m confident, shared my bafflement.

And his evasions were the rival of hers. He never did offer any explanation of how the United States ended up the world leader in recorded deaths related to the coronavirus. He instead tried to suggest that Harris, in calling out the country’s failures on that score, was insulting Americans.

No, Vice President Pence. She was insulting you and your boss.

It was a memorable debate even apart from the insect. (Now there’s a sentence I never imagined writing.) It was historic: Harris is the first woman of color on the presidential ticket of one of America’s two major parties. Her status as a trailblazer was openly acknowledged, and it informed — and gave extra force to — her disapproval of Pence when he wouldn’t acknowledge implicit racial bias in policing.

She and Pence were separated not only by 12 feet but also by clear plastic shields, which called to mind sneeze guards, conjured thoughts of salad bars and prompted me to wonder which ingredient each of the candidates represented. (I’m going with cottage cheese for Pence.)

The Pence camp had resisted these droplet dams — which, truth be told, many public health experts said were of questionable use — but given how freely the coronavirus had been permitted to rampage through the White House, the Harris camp would have been justified in demanding that Pence debate from the inside of a giant Ziploc bag.

Harris and Pence were squaring off little more than a week after Trump and Biden had, and one overarching question was how far they’d depart from and how fully they’d redeem that fiasco. The answer: very far and almost fully. In the context of the Trump-Biden debate, which had all the calm, dignity and exalted purpose of a fraternity hazing, this was practically a poetry reading.

That’s not to say it was polite. On the subject of the pandemic, Harris unsparingly attacked Trump and Pence, the head of the administration’s coronavirus task force, saying, “The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country.”

And Pence kept talking over the moderator, Susan Page of USA Today, ignoring her alerts that his 2 minutes were up so that he could commandeer more time than Harris got. Page was left to sputter endlessly, “Thank you, Vice President Pence. Thank you, Vice President Pence. Thank you, Vice President Pence.” But more than a thanking he needed a spanking.

Bullying comes in many different forms: red-faced and furious like Trump’s; chalk-faced and funereal like Pence’s. Shamelessness, too. Pence’s boasts and lies may not be as gilded and rococo as the president’s, but they’re fanciful all the same.

He would not fess up to humankind’s role in climate change but said, preposterously, “President Trump has made it clear that we’re going to continue to listen to the science.” Continue? Science? Is this before or after the bleach injections?

“This is a president who respects and cherishes all of the American people,” Pence said, making me wonder if I’d spaced out and missed an antecedent and he was talking about someone other than Trump.

Pence also said: “Senator Harris, you are entitled to your own opinion but you are not entitled to your own facts.” This confused me, because Trump gets to have his own facts and Pence just beams at him.

But I was most impressed by his audacity in addressing Trump’s anticipatory claims of voter fraud and refusal to say he’d accept the election results and participate in a peaceful transfer of power.

He turned the situation completely around, suggesting that Biden was the one to worry about and bringing Hillary Clinton — who has said that Biden shouldn’t concede too quickly, given Trump’s shenanigans — into the discussion.

Hear that for what it was: a tacit admission that Trump, Pence and their supporters have utterly failed to make Biden as scary to voters as they did Clinton. The solution? Tug her back into the fray, even though she’s not really anywhere near it.

Pence followed his orders when they were ludicrous, stuck to the script when it was laughable and never betrayed an iota of discomfort, because he never really betrays anything — except the supposed principles he once had.

Frank Bruni (CREDIT: Earl Wilson/The New York Times)

Frank Bruni is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.