Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
November 25, 2019

Trump’s Thanksgiving Wingman: Pence in Iraq

Vice President Mike Pence and wife Karen. Posted to Twitter by Mike Pence.

As we gather together this week with friends and family, let us give thanks that we are not the one who’s getting impeached by the House.

This uplifting photograph is among several others shared on Twitter by Vice President Mike Pence, soon after he and Second Lady Karen Pence made a surprise trip late last week to visit with US troops stationed in Iraq. News reports say that VP Pence was there to “reassure” the Kurds — recently subjected to military assault from Turkish forces in northern Syria — that the Trump administration has not abandoned them. The highest honor, according to Pence, was visiting soldiers for Thanksgiving.

To his credit, Pence can be counted on to deliver a steady diet of visual comfort food. Especially for a handful in the GOP who might secretly rage against Trump, Pence providing backup is a sight for sore eyes. He has (so far) kept his hands clean of Trump’s appetite for scandal. And with Karen by his side, he practices a form of public morality that indulges those who hunger for a return to the old political style of Ronald and Nancy. If this whole being president thing doesn’t work out for Trump, then maybe it could be Pence who gets to pardon a turkey? Get it, Mr. Vice President?

In real life, though, the House impeachment inquiry into President Trump’s handling of military assistance to Ukraine has amplified anxieties in domestic politics. The stealth trip to Iraq may have been booked under foreign policy, but at home and abroad, calming nerves is a task that falls to the President’s right-hand man.

Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP. Caption: Vice President Mike Pence and his wife Karen Pence, second from left, serve turkey to troops at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019.

What’s especially notable about Pence’s visit is that, like many of those stationed in Iraq, the visual narrative of the trip also is serving double duty. On the one hand, the VP’s mission is to produce a fresh round of conventional US foreign policy optics. This includes images of dignitaries shaking hands and troops gathering around the glow of paternal encouragement.

Such imagery reminds us that the president’s top guy is on the job. But the subplot in these photos is hard not to notice as well: that US forces have been active in the Middle East for so long now that Visiting The Troops has become an American pastime, a national tradition with its own familiar visual recipe. From Bush-Cheney to Obama-Biden and now Trump-Pence, the ingredients may change but the brand remains the same.

Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP. Caption: Vice President Mike Pence and his wife Karen Pence arrive to speak to troops at Erbil International Airport in Erbil, Iraq, Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019.

Cue, for example, the brown leather bomber jacket, heavy equipment painted military-industrial tan, attentive service members standing by, and the US flag above all else.

In addition to delivering on the optics of reassurance and reinforcing brand USA, the other mission that’s being accomplished with these photos is to reframe Pence’s visit to Iraq as a visual test flight for a Pence administration. Just don’t tell Trump. Impeachment may or may not hasten turnover at the Oval Office, but when that turnover does happen, Pence will be prepared.

Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP. Caption: Vice President Mike Pence and his wife Karen Pence greets troops at Erbil International Airport in Erbil, Iraq, Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019.

It’s almost as if he used the trip to Iraq to shore up on some muscle memory for retail politics. This is not the Iowa State Fair, of course, and Karen may not yet be feeling that campaign magic, but the VP seems ready, willing, and able to work the line anyway.

Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP. Caption: Vice President Mike Pence and his wife Karen Pence wave as they take the stage to speak to troops at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019. The visit is Pence’s first to Iraq and comes nearly one year since President Donald Trump’s surprise visit to the country.

From what is known of President Trump’s insatiable desire to be heralded with praise, one imagines he is shielded from imagery like this. No doubt it serves the Vice President well. This photo in particular is nearly flawless in its visual adoration of Mike and his wife Karen. In another context, it could be depicting a landslide victory on election night, one in which voters opt for a return to normalcy, and central casting.

–Philip Perdue

Photo: Posted to Twitter by @VP. Photo 2: Andrew Harnik/AP. Caption: Vice President Mike Pence and his wife Karen Pence, second from left, serve turkey to troops at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019; Photo 3: Andrew Harnik/AP. Caption: Vice President Mike Pence and his wife Karen Pence arrive to speak to troops at Erbil International Airport in Erbil, Iraq, Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019; Photo 4: Andrew Harnik/AP. Caption: Vice President Mike Pence and his wife Karen Pence greets troops at Erbil International Airport in Erbil, Iraq, Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019; Photo 5: Andrew Harnik/AP. Caption: Vice President Mike Pence and his wife Karen Pence wave as they take the stage to speak to troops at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019. The visit is Pence’s first to Iraq and comes nearly one year since President Donald Trump’s surprise visit to the country. 

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