News reports of Vice President Mike Pence’s refusal to wear a mask during his visit to the Mayo Clinic this week reminded me of something that occurred when I worked in the Reagan administration.
It was January 1, 1986, the date on which California law required all drivers and passengers to wear seat belts when riding in a vehicle. On that very day, several White House reporters asked whether that would apply to the president and Mrs. Reagan while riding in the Secret Service-driven limousine. It was an interesting question, especially since the Reagans were in California.
Because I was the first White House press aide in the briefing room at the Palm Springs hotel at the time, the inquiry fell to me to answer. So I called the senior Secret Service agent on the trip and posed the question to him. He was a bit flustered, and said something about “unique security requirements” and the need for the president to “be immediately evacuated” in case of emergency. In other words: probably no seatbelts for the president and first lady.
I understood his reasoning, but did not want the next day’s headlines to be “Reagans Ignore California State Laws,” so I decided to short-circuit the system and called the real decision-maker.
Nancy Reagan answered the phone with a cheery “Happy New Year, Mark,” to which I responded in kind and then got to the purpose of my call. With literally zero hesitation, Mrs. Reagan responded by saying: “Well, of course, we will. Ronnie and I always follow the law. And we need to set an example.” I informed the press and the Secret Service.
Fast-forward to Pence’s refusal to wear the required mask at Mayo Clinic. It’s hardly surprising. Indeed, it is the latest and maybe most dangerous symptom of a deeply troubling and defining failure of the Trump administration: arrogance and the unwillingness to accept the fact that when you work or live in the White House, you should set an example for how to behave.
Pence claims that because he has been tested for COVID-19 it’s okay to go without a mask. But just because he tested negative Monday does not mean he was not exposed afterwards and is not contagious on Tuesday. That’s why he should have worn a mask—not just to protect himself, but to protect others.
That’s what public service is about.
One suspects that the real reason Pence didn’t wear a mask is because he (or more likely his boss) is horrified by the image of the vice president of the United States wearing a mask to protect against a virus that the administration claims to have under control.
The always obedient Pence also made the silly claim that not wearing a mask allows him to look people in the eye.
This is simply untrue. Medical masks do not prevent eye contact. If anything, eye contact is enhanced when smiles, frowns, and other facial expressions are concealed. Not that any of that actually matters. This was mere smokescreen. Pence knows it. We know it. And he knows we know it, too.
Trump and his aides—including Pence—have behaved with a scandalous disregard for the importance of setting an example in the most visible position in the nation. Whether it’s the refusal of Trump and his co-stars to social distance at press briefings, Ivanka and Jared traveling to New Jersey for Passover when normal people had been asked to stay at home, or Trump demeaning the dignity of the presidency by his constant insulting of those who dare disagree with him, the president and his team act as though the normal rules of society do not apply to them.
If nothing else, Ronald Reagan got it about being an example. Whether it was being polite, kind, neatly dressed and groomed, or not acting as if he was more important than the people who put him in office, Reagan always conducted himself in a way to which parents could point their children as worthy of emulation.
It is a—perhaps the—fundamental failing of Donald Trump that he models, allows, and thereby encourages behavior which suggests some people are better than others.
That’s not what America is about.
And if the vice president wasn’t going to uphold this principle on his own, then the officials at the Mayo Clinic should have insisted that he wear a mask, or denied him entry.
Because in this country, the rules apply to everyone.