As the Pences take center stage alongside the Trumps at the 2020 RNC, we're republishing this 2018 story on Second Lady Karen Pence.
Before running for Congress 18 years ago, Mike Pence and his wife, Karen, sat their kids down to talk about it. To explain why they’d be uprooting their family from Indiana to start over again in Washington, D.C., they pulled out a Life magazine cover featuring a human fetus. Their goal, they said, was to end abortion.
This anecdote has become an oft-repeated part of Pence lore. A longtime ally of the Pences, Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion organization Susan B. Anthony List, offered it up as proof of the couple’s shared commitment when she introduced the now-Vice President at a February luncheon in Nashville. When he took the stage, Pence talked about the “great progress” made under President Donald Trump to limit women’s access to abortions in the U.S. and abroad and said he believes Americans will see the end of legal abortion “in our time.”
The story of the Pences’ entry into politics is meant to be a lesson not just in who they are, but how they make decisions—which is to say, together. “It is really ‘they’ ran for Congress... ‘Their’ decision to run for governor. ‘Their’ decision to go on the ticket with Trump,” says Dannenfelser. “The kind of marriage they have is truly an equal partnership. It is based on their beliefs — their Christian beliefs — that it's a calling, not just a job.”
The Pences also share a talent for staying under the radar in an administration where that might be considered a superpower. They rarely inspire negative headlines in spite of a shockingly leaky White House riven with conflict. As the president weathers another round of scandals that would seemingly run counter to the Vice President's religious values—particularly accusations from two women that Trump cheated on his wife—the second couple, hand in hand, has stayed the course.
They are there to serve this administration—and, if other vice presidents are any example, to wait their turn for a shot at the big job. If Mike Pence were to become President—and Karen his First Lady—they would arguably be the most conservative to hold the office in decades. What would that mean in a post-Trump America? And what kind of partner would Karen be to a President Pence? We talked to friends, colleagues and allies about their life together, their role in the Trump administration and, ultimately, their motivations.
Karen met the future vice president in Indianapolis in 1983 at St. Thomas Aquinas Roman Catholic church, where she was playing guitar. As the story goes, per the Indianapolis Star, Pence approached Karen, then a shop teacher, after the service and learned Karen’s sister was his fellow law student at Indiana University. He cajoled the sister’s phone number out of the school registrar—hoping to find out more about Karen. But when he made the call, it was Karen, who was babysitting her niece and nephew at the time, who answered the phone. Pence lost his nerve and hung up.
He eventually called back and they went ice skating for their first date. Less than a year later, he proposed by hollowing out a loaf of bread and stashing an engagement ring in the center. Karen answered with a gold cross engraved with the word “yes” that she’d had made in anticipation of the proposal.
They exchanged vows in 1985—and shellacked the bread for posterity.
This was the second trip to the altar for Karen. She was 21 when she wed John Steven Whitaker, her high school sweetheart. The marriage foundered because of the couple's youth and the distance created by the rigor of Whitaker's medical studies, Whitaker told The Washington Post. “We were kids,” he said. “We probably didn’t necessarily know what we were doing.”
A few years later, she married Pence. Though the Pences were fairly quick to wed, starting a family took longer—six frustrating, faith-testing years, as Karen described the experience to The Federalist. Today, their elder daughter, Charlotte, is reportedly in training to be an agent at United Talent in Los Angeles. She is also the author of a children’s book, illustrated by her mom and starring the family rabbit, titled Marlon Bundo's Day in the Life of the Vice President. Younger daughter Audrey is a student at Yale Law who’s described herself as “politically independent” and “socially liberal.” Son Michael, the eldest of the three, serves in the Marine Corps.
— Vice President Mike Pence (@VP) June 18, 2017
Karen worked as a teacher while Pence transitioned from lawyer to running a think tank to hosting a talk radio show in the 1990s. He described himself as “Rush Limbaugh on decaf” during his stint helming The Mike Pence Show. Mike ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1988 and 1990, and finally won in 2000.
While in Congress, Pence established a number of personal rules that the Indianapolis Star described as allowing him to “avoid any infidelity temptations, or even rumors of impropriety.” Aides who worked late with him had to be male. He did not dine alone with women other than Karen, nor attend events with alcohol unless she was also present. He referred to the rules in a 2002 interview with The Hill as “building a zone around your marriage,” adding, “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.”
The vice president has referred to his spouse as his “prayer warrior,” according to the New York Times — and, of course, a 2017 Rolling Stone article sparked snark by detailing how then-Governor Pence addressed his wife as “Mother” at a dinner with Indiana lawmakers.
Some have called the Pences’ dynamic archaic and raised questions about whether the vice president’s personal policies are appropriate for a man in a modern work environment. It’s one thing to keep a marriage sacrosanct, wrote Jia Tolentino in the New Yorker, and entirely another “to avoid all women as a group and as a rule because of the abstract possibility of sexual temptation.”
Dannenfelser describes the Pences’ rules as an effort to protect their relationship from the strains public life can put on marriage. “The strength of her stand at the center of the family is true, but it's not this hardened battleaxe thing,” Dannenfelser says of Karen. “If you are that steady rudder out of love, it's a totally different picture than if you're a steady rudder because you are a military ruler of a family.”
When Pence secured a spot in Congress in 2000, his family moved to the Washington area to be with him during session. Karen went to work as a teacher at Immanuel Christian School in nearby Springfield, Virginia. In 2013, they moved back to Indiana when Pence was elected governor of the state. Karen established the Indiana First Lady’s Charitable Foundation to raise money for groups focused on children and the arts, including the Art Therapy Committee at Riley Hospital for Children.
— Karen Pence (@FirstLadyIN) November 24, 2016
It was also during this time Karen tried her hand at entrepreneurship. As she explained in a profile on the Bishop Chatard High School site, after taking a dip in a chilly Indiana lake, she found someone had made off with her towel. Inspiration struck for the “That’s My Towel” charm, a business she launched in 2015 that offered hook-on trinkets as towel ID tags.
Karen put her towel charm ambitions on hold when her husband entered the vice presidential arena the following year. But the vice presidency wasn’t the original plan: Until mid-2015, Mike Pence had considered his own run for president, but gave up that ambition in part because of an Indiana law which prevented him for running for president and governor concurrently.
Pence played the crowded presidential field cannily. In April 2016, before his state’s primary, he endorsed diehard conservative Texas Senator Ted Cruz for president. But in the same breath, he commended Trump for having “given voice to the frustration of millions of working Americans with a lack of progress in Washington, D.C.”
Trump won May’s Indiana primary—and the Republican nomination. Pence joined the ticket in July.
Mike Pence wasn’t Trump’s first choice either: He was interested in New Jersey Governor Chris Christie as his VP. Republican strategist Kellyanne Conway pushed for Pence. Consultant Michael Caputo, who worked on the Trump campaign, says Karen "was regarded as a plus,” with the Indianans serving as both "a nice contrast and complement to the Trumps."
But before signing on, Pence turned to Karen.
"They prayed about it, and his—both of theirs, to be honest—sense of duty and service to our country is paramount,” says Marc Lotter, who has known Pence for decades, served on his campaigns for Indiana governor and vice president, and worked as his press secretary in the first year of the Trump administration. “They discussed this as a family and how it would impact their family. And anyone who knows Mrs. Pence knows she is his rock."
While it may seem surprising the Pences would hitch their wagon to a twice-divorced reality show star who once told Howard Stern that avoiding STDs had been his “own personal Vietnam,” political strategist Barry Bennett says it fits into a larger narrative the Christian right has embraced.
Bennett managed the 2016 presidential bid of Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon who gained early currency among GOP evangelicals, before advising the Trump campaign. He believes the Pences were motivated by feelings they shared with the evangelical portion of the electorate that eventually helped elect Trump: They were disenchanted with mainstream conservative politicians who never followed through on promises like making it possible for churches to participate in political activity and moving the embassy in Israel.
“All of these politicians had great church attendance,” Bennett says. “They just didn’t keep their word.
“By the time Trump got to picking a VP, he very well knew what the faith community wanted—and how they had been misled. That meant a great deal to the Pences.”
These days, the Pences live in the Vice President’s residence at Number One Observatory Circle in D.C. with a cat named Hazel, a dog named Harley, and, of course, Marlon Bundo. When it came time to for Karen to decorate her new home for Christmas, she decked out the Queen Anne-style house with trees adorned with ornaments crafted by members of the art therapy program at the Riley Hospital for Children.
While the Trumps regularly spend weekends golfing and entertaining at Mar-A-Lago, the Pences’ ideal weekend is more low key: "If it’s Friday night, we’d better be having pizza for dinner. Supreme, thin crust with an O’Doul’s," Karen recently told a crowd at CPAC. “Every. Friday. Night.”
As second lady, Karen Pence has an official cause, art therapy, which she has supported for decades. Jim Williams, vice president of development at Riley Children’s Foundation, describes Karen, who is also a watercolor painter, as passionate. She stays in touch with art therapy practitioners at the hospital and money she helped raise is going toward building art studio space for the young patients.
And in the stormy Trump administration, Williams says that from his time working with Karen, he learned she isn't the kind of person who is easily distracted. “She knows what she wants to accomplish — and she's very focused on accomplishing those goals," says Williams. He recalled observing one test of that focus just after Trump put Pence on the ticket: In August 2016, Williams says, Karen hosted an event to honor Riley’s art therapists. The Secret Service had set up a perimeter that prevented attendees from parking too close to the governor’s mansion.
"One of the guests arrived and said something [like], 'After that walk, I'm voting for Hillary'—right to Mrs. Pence. And she just smiled and said, 'Well, welcome to the residence,’” Williams says.
Williams and his colleagues were mortified, but their hostess brushed it off.
"She's like, 'Ah, you know, it happens. People have their triggers and not everybody loves us and I understand that, but [we're] here to promote Riley and the art therapy program, and that's the most important thing this evening,'” he says.
Karen has said she deliberately stays out of policy-craft, but it’s clear the Pences have a shared agenda. At the March for Life reception in January, the second lady noted she and her husband have long been “very involved in pro-life issues.”
“Before we came to Capitol Hill, we were supporting crisis pregnancy centers and speaking for life,” she said, “and it's an issue that's near and dear to our hearts.”
They continued to focus on the cause after Pence's election to Congress. In 2011, they were honorary co-hosts of the Susan B. Anthony List annual gala. That year, Pence co-sponsored a bill called the “Life at Conception Act” that offered Constitutional protection to “each born and preborn human person.” Such so-called “personhood” legislation, if enacted, could outlaw abortion even in cases of incest or rape.
And it's clear the Pences have had an influence on the president, as well. Trump—whom Pence has praised as “the most pro-life president in all of history”—this year marked the 45th Annual March for Life by giving personal remarks from the White House Rose Garden. It was the first time a sitting president had addressed the marchers directly via satellite feed. (The previous year, Pence was the first sitting VP to attend the march, along with his wife and Kellyanne Conway.)
Back in Indiana, Pence earned a reputation for opposing needle exchange programs, and when he ran for Congress in 2000, his campaign website included a statement about funding “institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior." LGBT advocacy groups called that code for pushing conversion therapy; Pence representatives sharply disputed that, insisting it referred to promoting safer sex.
For her part, Karen, while a schoolteacher in 1991, wrote the Indianapolis paper a letter to the editor to criticize a piece in its “Children’s Express” section that had included a number for a LGBT support service. “I only pray that most parents were able to intercept your article before their children were encouraged to call the Gay/Lesbian Youth Hotline, which encourages them to ‘accept their homosexuality’ instead of reassuring them that they are not,” she wrote.
While Pence’s view may have tilted harder to the right than those of most Americans, his presence on the ticket comforted Conservatives who were uneasy with Trump’s more liberal history. "On social issues, I don't think you get more conservative than these two," says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. He questions how Pence would enforce policies that run counter to his beliefs—like existing abortion laws—if he were to succeed Trump. And he doubted the Second Lady would be a softening influence. "Karen Pence is much more conservative than Laura Bush. She's more conservative than Barbara Bush, or, for that matter, Nancy Reagan."
The Pences’ public image, of course, stands in contrast to the scandals involving the boss. Lately, that means the president’s denials of having had an “intimate” relationship with porn star Stormy Daniels just after Melania gave birth to their son, Barron, as well as a relationship during the same time period with former Playboy model Karen McDougal.
“I'm sure the Stormy Daniels stuff is not sitting well” with the Pences, a former Trump campaign advisor tells Town & Country.
It’s not the first time they’ve had to privately struggle with a public scandal. When an Access Hollywood tape was released of then-candidate Trump bragging that, “When you’re a star, [women] let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy,” the Pences were reportedly appalled. A source told The Atlantic that Karen found Trump “reprehensible” and “totally vile.”
Pence’s public schedule briefly disappeared from the Trump website but eventually the vice presidential candidate made a formal statement saying he refused to condone or defend Trump’s comments. Amid speculation about a Pence departure from the ticket, Trump apologized to the public and offered personal mea culpas to both Pences.
As a practical matter, though, the Pences can no longer distance themselves from the President while remaining in his orbit. “What are [Karen Pence’s] choices?” the Trump campaign veteran asked. “Any potential shot [Pence] has at becoming president has to be predicated on positioning himself as the natural heir to Trump.”
But how do people so deeply connected to their religious identity as Mike and Karen Pence rationalize it? Bennett reasons that the Pences, like many Americans, don’t expect perfect leaders.
“What we want today is someone aligned with us, who is passionate and true to his or her word,” says the political strategist. “I think that's where Mrs. Pence and millions of Americans find themselves. Christians believe in forgiveness and redemption—but we vote for like-minded politicians and we pray they hold the courage of their convictions.”
Today, the Pences are excruciatingly careful not to deprive Trump of spotlight. They’ve given no public quarter to talk about potential coups or use of the the 25th amendment, which allows removal of a president unfit to serve. They condemned reports of planning for a 2020 campaign for the Oval Office as “disgraceful” and “fake news.” (A spokesperson for the Second Lady declined to make her available for an interview or to answer questions about the couple’s political plans.)
Vice presidents have always taken pains not to upstage the boss, but Pence may tread extra lightly given Trump’s tendency to be “conspiracy-theory oriented,” Sabato says: “You could just imagine Trump getting jealous of Pence easily, and Pence seems quite aware of that.” The political scientist describes Pence as overshooting the job’s customary deference to the president and straying into the realm of “downright sycophantic.”
Meanwhile, the couple have positioned themselves carefully as an ideal foil to Trump drama, should they one day need to step into the role. Over the first year of the Trump presidency, whether she means to or not, strategist Michael Caputo says Karen has "given glimpses" she would be a fine First Lady should her husband someday run the White House.
"After the glamour of the Trump presidency," he says, she’d come off as "down to earth,” more just plain folks than the current residents.
"That’s what most of us are, after all," he says. "And we’ll be ready for that."
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