The Winter Olympics are back, and so is Slate’s Olympics Jerk Watch, a recurring feature in which we assess the relative jerk value or lack thereof of the games’ biggest names. In previous iterations of this column, we’ve primarily focused our gaze on allegedly loutish Olympic athletes, such as famed Olympic douche Ryan Lochte. But I’d like to kick off our tour of Pyeongchang by focusing on a lout of a different color. Vice President Mike Pence is clearly a jerk. But is he an Olympics jerk? That is the question we seek to answer today.
Name: Mike Pence
Home country: United States of America
Known for: Being Donald Trump’s vice president, leading the U.S. delegation to Pyeongchang, staging walkouts of sporting events, homophobia.
Why he might be a jerk: He’s Mike Pence. Case closed!
What’s that? Case not closed? Very well, let’s consider the evidence. In 2000, while running for a congressional seat in Indiana, Pence maintained a campaign website that, under the heading “Strengthening the American Family,” stated the following:
Congress should oppose any effort to put gay and lesbian relationships on an equal legal status with heterosexual marriage.
Congress should oppose any effort to recognize homosexuals as a “discreet and insular minority” entitled to the protection of anti-discrimination laws similar to those extended to women and ethnic minorities.
Congress should support the reauthorization of the Ryan White Care Act only after completion of an audit to ensure that federal dollars were no longer being given to organizations that celebrate and encourage the types of behaviors that facilitate the spreading of the HIV virus. Resources should be directed toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior. [Emphasis mine.]
Those are, without question, jerky policy positions. Many people interpreted that final sentence as an endorsement of gay conversion therapy, which does not work and can be extremely damaging to those forced to suffer through it. Pence and his representatives, naturally, have denied that interpretation, but I have seen no plausible alternative explanation for the statement.
Vowing to fund sham “conversion therapy” and then later claiming you meant something else is a true jerk move. But how does this relate to the 2018 Winter Olympics? Well, as head of the U.S. Olympic delegation, one of Pence’s main jobs is to meet and greet the American athletes prior to the Opening Ceremony. But in a January interview with USA Today, openly gay American figure skater Adam Rippon expressed his lack of interest in encountering Pence in Pyeongchang, citing Pence’s aforementioned policy statements, among other things.
Did Pence react by apologizing to Rippon? Did he take the high road and refuse to engage? He did not. Instead, he responded by calling the reporting on his homophobic policies “fake news,” and ripping USA Today for “trying to distort 18 yr old nonstory to sow seeds of division. We won’t let that happen! #FAKENEWS.” Ah, #FAKENEWS, the shouty hashtag refuge of the Trump-adjacent jerk. Pence’s outburst was driven by another USA Today story claiming that, in the immediate aftermath of Rippon’s criticisms, the vice president had staffers try to arrange a meeting between the two men—an opportunity Rippon declined. Now, however, Pence’s office claims it “did not reach out to set up a conversation with Mr. Rippon.” Way to gaslight Adam Rippon, you jerks!
Pence’s job in Pyeongchang isn’t limited to creating awkward moments and bashing the press. He is also there for diplomatic purposes—a tough task, given that he is the representative of a president who recently deemed Haiti and several African nations “shithole countries.” How has that been going? Well, Pence reportedly arrived late to a Friday dinner hosted by South Korean President Moon Jae-in, then left early and skipped the very special dessert. At Friday’s opening ceremony, Pence was one of the few people in the stadium who notably refused to stand and applaud when the combined North Korean and South Korean teams entered together. Photographs indicate that, during the opening ceremony, he either conspicuously ignored or entirely failed to recognize Kim Yo-jong, the sister of Kim Jong-un, despite the fact they were literally sitting an arm’s length apart.
Finally, Pence brought Fred Warmbier as his guest to Pyeongchang. Fred Warmbier is the father of Otto Warmbier, the deceased American student who suffered traumatic brain damage while incarcerated in North Korea after he was arrested and convicted for allegedly trying to steal a poster from a hotel. Given the fragile state of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and North Korea, this feels like an iffy move.
Why he might not be a jerk: Although I believe Pence has handled the Rippon contretemps badly, he has still handled it better than his boss would have. Can you imagine what Donald Trump would have tweeted if Rippon had criticized him in USA Today? It is best not to imagine. (I guess this is less a case for why Mike Pence isn’t a jerk than it is a case for why he isn’t the biggest jerk, but Mike Pence should take what he can get.)
While I know Pence’s behavior at Friday’s dinner seems churlish at first glance, maybe it was a boring party—and, anyway, Slate has long endorsed ghosting. Also, awkward behavior around the North Koreans is not necessarily indicative of jerkiness. The North Korean regime is awful, and I suppose it would have been even weirder if Pence would have greeted Kim Yo-jong with a hearty bear hug. Lastly, though it may have been impolite to bring Fred Warmbier to Pyeongchang, the North Korean regime did kill Fred Warmbier’s son, and we shouldn’t forget it. Maybe it’s actually a good thing that Mike Pence is forcing us to remember.
Jerk Score: As a reminder, we judge our Olympics Jerk Watch candidates on style, technical merit, and execution. I’ll give Mike Pence 2 out of 3 for style, because a true jerk would have spit on the special dessert before leaving. 2 out 3 for technical merit, because in his tweets he inexplicably failed to use the #MAGA hashtag or refer to Rippon as “Little Adam Rippon.” 2 out of 3 for execution, because, to his credit, Pence has never publicly suggested that gays and lesbians deserve the death penalty. And 1 out of 1 points in the category of “does he maintain a double standard when it comes to standing at patriotic moments during sporting events?” 7 out of 10 for Vice President Mike Pence. Next!