WASHINGTON — There’s a hidden hand guiding affairs in the nation’s capital, and that hand comes from Indiana.
It belongs to Mike Pence, the former Hoosier state governor and soon to be vice president of the United States.
While I have been out here working on an independent reporting project and doing two radio shows from NPR’s D.C. studios, I’ve been struck by a disconnect between the near panic among much of the American public about the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency and the quiet serenity of Washington’s governing class in response.
During the two shows we did, at least 70 percent of the emails and social media questions and comments expressed either anxiety or outrage about Trump’s election.
The nation’s power structure doesn’t seem to be experiencing the same feelings.
There’s a reason for that.
“Mike Pence is going to be the most powerful vice president in our lifetimes — and maybe in the history of the country,” longtime Republican political strategist Cam Savage told me.
Recent developments support that.
It can be seen in the news that former U.S. Sen. Dan Coats, R-Indiana, will become Trump’s director of national intelligence.
Coats and Pence come from the same part of Indiana’s ideological landscape. They’re firm social conservatives with strong libertarian leanings at the points of the political spectrum that do not clash with their theological underpinnings. They speak each other’s language.
Coats’ appointment signals to Congress, which spent a day deriding Trump’s dismissal of American intelligence efforts, and other parts of official Washington that they are being heard.
In addition to being a purebred conservative, Coats is also a tenacious, unrelenting advocate for his positions.
Years ago, when I was in D.C. working on a newspaper profile on Coats, I heard story after story from members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate about Coats’ ferocious, in-your-face competitiveness. The tales of his play — all sharp elbows, hard drives and, even in middle-age, determined dives to grab loose balls — in pick-up basketball games in the House gym were legendary.
I learned as much when I interviewed him at the time. We went around and around on some relatively minor point, me probing and pushing, him responding with a tight-lipped smile that said, “You can keep trying all you want, but I’m not moving.”
The message Coats’ appointment sends to the power structure is this: You’re upset we have an incoming president who says he doesn’t want and won’t pay attention to daily intelligence and security briefings. Fine. We’ll send in a pit bull to make sure that he must pay attention.
Signs of Pence’s hand also can be seen in the move to make Trump’s much ballyhooed wall along the Mexican border a congressional decision rather than a presidential one. The move extricates Trump from a tricky political problem — following through on a promise to have Mexico pay for the wall upon which he could not possibly deliver — and removes some of the power to create international incidents from the new president’s hands.
Pence’s performance thus far has been remarkable, in large part because it reveals a disciplined willingness to stay out of the spotlight many people, myself included, doubted was part of his makeup.
When Pence was governor, his press operation became the subject of jibes for sending out news releases and announcements for even the most trivial developments. If the governor said gesundheit to a sneezing senior citizen at a photo op, we journalists were sure to get an alert about the incident.
In this new role, though, Pence has willingly faded into the background. Sensitive to the fact that he serves a chief who seeks the limelight the way a junkie craves his next fix, Pence has been willing to tame his own need to be noticed. Instead, he works quietly, reassuring members of the Congress in which he once served that everything will be OK, that he will be the ears for a president who never stops talking long enough to listen.
That’s why official Washington is so calm about the prospect of a Trump presidency.
They see Trump as a wild horse who has been haltered, corralled and who soon will be tamed.
The horse whisperer is from Indiana.
His name is Mike Pence.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.