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'The Shadow President' A Missed Opportunity To Better Understand Mike Pence

The word "nice" is a persistent problem for journalists Michael D'Antonio and Peter Eisner in their new, hostile biography of Mike Pence, The Shadow President: The Truth About Mike Pence.

The truth about Pence, according to them, is that he is a sinister zealot, an opportunist, and a "Christian supremacist" biding his time until he can take over the presidency from Donald Trump.

But here's the problem: Sources keep calling Pence things like "nice." Luckily, D'Antonio and Eisner have a strategy — they just pretend that "nice" means its opposite.

For instance: One source said he didn't know Pence well, but that he was "always nice." The authors suggest the source was "echoing comedian George Carlin's bitter riff about people who cover their true personalities with a veneer of niceness." Sure, that's what everyone is referencing when they call someone "nice."

Later, a source calls a Pence staffer "great," which the authors somehow use as evidence of a culture of fear in the VP's office.

D'Antonio and Eisner's tactic — taking an innocuous descriptor and spinning it to sound almost satanic — is characteristic of this book that bypasses legitimate concerns about Pence for innuendo and conspiracism.

Pence, walking into a shooting club in Columbus, Indiana, "did his best to look like a regular guy." (Pence does look like a regular guy.)

Pence, greeting a male colleague by grasping him on the shoulder, demonstrates "great ape dominance behavior." (He has "a thing about shoulders.")

The authors work especially hard to imply something creepy about Pence's faith, often by lacing the narrative with religious imagery. In one passage, they imagine Pence biding his time while he waits for his power grab:

Imperfect vessel...the patience of Job...this sounds less like Pence than like Dan Brown's murderous albino priest from The DaVinci Code.

At one point D'Antonio and Eisner describe 12 conservative donors "gathered like the apostles at a Mexican restaurant in Indianapolis."

The Shadow President is, above all, a missed opportunity. There is plenty to uncover about the "real" Mike Pence. Read, for instance, Jane Mayer's careful, fact-based, and damning portrait of Pence in The New Yorker, "The Danger of President Pence," which relied on sources in the White House and Pence's family to argue convincingly that Pence is an extremist with an agenda more harmful than Donald Trump's. Or McKay Coppins's excellent feature on Pence's religion in The Atlantic, "God's Plan for Mike Pence." The Shadow President, in contrast, leaves you with nothing but questions: What is the truth about Mike Pence? What does he actually believe? How did the apostles get Mexican food?

The Shadow President looks like a book, but belongs firmly in the world of partisan TV. It induces the same kind of inert, glazed irritation as cable, that feeling of wanting to leave but being caught by the graphics and hyperbole, the perpetual promise that the next segment will be more horrible, more outrageous, more shocking than the last — after this short break. Nuance is flattened, everyone has a camp, and words seem to unmoor from their meanings and drift away.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Annalisa Quinn is a contributing writer, reporter, and literary critic for NPR. She created NPR's Book News column and covers literature and culture for NPR.
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