A recycled story about Vice President Mike Pence (and his wife) has reignited the culture war.
In case you missed it, a Washington Post profile about Karen Pence, the veep’s wife, notes that “In 2002, Mike Pence told The Hill that he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife and that he won’t attend events featuring alcohol without her by his side, either.” (Most events I attend include alcohol, but I would love to attend one that features it.)
This revelation caused a bit of a stir on Twitter. Slate staff writer Isaac Chotiner tweeted, “This is the type of promise you can make if you don’t really think of women as full people who hold important jobs etc.” He continued: “Also just imagine the freakout from Pence et. al. [sic] if a Muslim politician said this.”
Parker Malloy of Upworthy observed, “Pence basically says that women shouldn’t be able to exist in public without a chaperone.” Mother Jones Editor in Chief Clara Jeffrey said, “If Pence won’t eat dinner alone with any woman but his wife, that means he won’t hire women in key spots.” Melissa Gira Grant weighed in, saying, “the whole ‘i, a good christian [sic] man, am seen alone only w the mother-wife’ thing is also about keeping women out of public space.”
This snarky criticism fits into the “This is why Trump won” rubric. The mockery and outrage espoused by cosmopolitan media elites seems to portray not just an irreverence for the devoutly religious (or traditional)—but also an intolerance for individual autonomy.
Politicians erect these boundaries for practical reasons (to avoid the appearance of impropriety—or to circumvent accusations of inappropriate behavior that might otherwise wreck a political career). But who’s to say this isn’t simply a man who realizes that the flesh is weak and who is taking extra precautions to guard his heart and preserve his relationship?
The temptation to stray in your marriage is, last time I checked, a pretty pervasive conundrum. “It’s about building a zone around your marriage,” Pence told The Hill.
“Unless very securely married, virtually any man will sleep with any attractive young woman,” warned George Gilder in Men and Marriage. Affairs with staffers happen. Just ask Pence’s former colleague, and fellow Hoosier, Mark Souder.
Is it more prudent to tempt fate or to take preemptive action—even if that action might be viewed by some as a bit extreme? As Vox’s Eleanor Barkhorn reminds us, “Christians take sin and temptation SUPER SERIOUSLY. Our sacred text tells us to cut off our own hand if it’s causing us to sin!”
But really, setting up these sort of boundaries can be a completely secular, even obviously rational thing to do—in terms of self-preservation.
If you have a problem with liquor that you’re trying to tackle, you probably don’t hang out at bars. If you’re trying to lose weight, you might want to impose some strict (and borderline irrational) rules on yourself: “I’ll never eat after six,” you might say, or “I’ll always eat an apple before going out to dinner so that I don’t overeat.” Is it crazy for a man who wants to preserve his marriage to impose some safeguards to keep himself in check?
One of the keys to avoiding a mistake is first to avoid situations where you might be tempted. Let’s be honest: When you decide to have that last late-night cocktail at the hotel bar, you’ve pretty much made your decision; Resistance is futile.
When conservative writer David French went on a yearlong tour of duty in Iraq, he and his wife Nancy agreed on some self-imposed rules. As Kathryn Lopez (reading from David and Nancy French’s book) notes, “There would be no drinking during the year of separation. Nancy would not ‘have phone conversations with men, or meaningful e-mail exchanges about politics or any other subject.’ Nor would she be on Facebook, where ‘the ghosts of boyfriends past’ could contact her.”
This might sound lame or square. It might also be a tacit admission of weakness. But who cares? As long as a couple agrees that this is how they want to comport themselves, why is it any of my business what they decide is best for their marriage?
Let’s be honest about something else: Power is an aphrodisiac. Just as there are rock band groupies and baseball fan groupies, there are also political groupies. Just as separation from loved ones creates challenges for our men and women serving in the military, so too does serving in Congress. However, men and women serving in Congress face a different sort of temptation. Many of them were nerdy kids in high school, but they now find themselves trying to do, as John McCain jokes, “the Lord’s work in the city of Satan.” Once you get that Congressional pin—that White House badge—you automatically become more attractive and intelligent.
As Pence noted in that same Hill interview: “I’d be way less than honest if I told you that the steppin’ and fetchin’ that people do for you doesn’t really make me feel good myself… The temptations of the spirit—pride and conceit—are much more powerful in this town. This is a ‘Bonfire of the Vanities,’ and you can get caught up in it.”
I recently interviewed Trey Radel―who became known as the “cocaine Congressman”―about his new book Democrazy. Though he didn’t address the question of marital infidelity, his fall from grace was clearly initiated by his own decisions. “I got caught up in a lifestyle,” he told me, “and that lifestyle was insanely focused on work and my social life.”
Of course, there’s a huge difference between a business lunch and a romantic dinner (or a wild night on the town). And it’s not unreasonable to think that Pence’s rules might be a bit fastidious. What is more, if female political operatives adopted similar rules, their career advancement might be hindered.
I asked my wife, a political fundraiser, how she might fare with a client who observes such strict rules. “In between meetings, where would we go? Would the client sit in a coffee shop with me? I dine with men alone all the time.”
I asked her if these types of rules had posed a serious problem for her.
“I think it’s such a rarity; I’ve encountered it once.”
Still, one could imagine that such rules might impact mobility, creating a biased work environment, whereby the male politician only pals around with male staffers (who are allowed into his inner sanctum), while always keeping female staffers at a distance. It’s only natural that the male politicians would favor the staffers with whom they spend the most quality time.
Pamela Colloff, executive editor of Texas Monthly, tweeted: “Trying to imagine what my career would look like if I’d refused to dine solo with male editors & interview subjects.”
In Pence’s case, this is now a moot point. When you’re the vice president, there should always be someone with you—whether you’re talking to a man or a woman. But are female reporters or staffers at a disadvantage because they can’t have alone time with a given male politician—just because he wants to institute these boundaries?
Any boss who wants to observe these rules should be aware of the potential unintended consequences—and take steps to ensure he isn’t inadvertently harming the career trajectory of his female staffers.
But ultimately, I’m pro-choice on this one. You have the right to exercise personal responsibility. If your priority is to protect your reputation, marriage, and political career, you have to do what you have to do, even if it means there might be some collateral damage.