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U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, on April 24, 2020.

OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence was thought to be an insignificant player. Then, President Donald Trump put him in charge of the coronavirus task force. That’s about as big an assignment as any Vice-President has ever had, and one that could make or break both him and the President. Not to mention the state of the nation’s health and economy.

Until now, the 60-year-old former governor of Indiana has been written off as an all-too-servile Veep, and as a remarkable bore. He’s so dull, one wag cracked, that in the moment before he dies images of someone else’s life will flash before his eyes.

The plan in giving him the COVID-19 assignment, said comic Trevor Noah, “is to have Mike Pence bore the virus to death.”

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Barbs aside, Mr. Pence was never as powerless or as useless as imagined. For all his faults, he’s experienced and level-headed. With the pandemic, he now faces the challenge of a lifetime, which is to curb this President’s worst instincts and to put prudence and good sense in place of bullheadedness while reopening the U.S.

Mr. Trump reversed his position on the Georgia state government’s plan to open some businesses this week. He had initially supported Governor Brian Kemp on the move that health authorities regarded as dumb and dangerous. But it was his infectious-disease specialist and task-force member, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who convinced Mr. Trump to make the change, not the Vice-President.

Mr. Pence is not one to cross the boss. He’s as sycophantic as Vice-Presidents come, which is saying a lot. But as such, he’s earned the mad king’s trust – something few have been able to do – and he is therefore listened to. He also has good relations with state governors (having been a governor himself helps), and with lawmakers on Capitol Hill (having been a Congressman also helps.)

He’s grounded, religious, calm, stable and unappealing. His go-to facial expression is a cold, blank stare. It’s hard to imagine a more complete contrast to Mr. Trump.

Chairing the task force daily, he takes the temperature, reports to the President in his dispassionate fashion, then watches as Mr. Trump reliably flies off the handle in the daily press briefings.

The Veep then takes the podium himself, and in his monotone drone, tells everyone what a wonderful job is being done to combat the virus, all credit due to the President himself.

For the most part, it’s Pravda-styled propaganda. The reality is that the United States, on a per-capita basis, is doing very badly compared to other nations on the counts of confirmed cases of coronavirus, and deaths from the disease.

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This is supposed to be the most advanced country in the world. Instead, as Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz alleged this week, its handling of the virus has been more like that of a third-world country.

That is more true of the early response, when Mr. Pence was not yet in charge, than as of late when there’s been more willingness from the White House to listen to experts, to let state governments have the run of things, and to get massive economic-relief programs in place.

But by sending out contradictory messages, along with his usual flurry of falsehoods, Mr. Trump keeps the administration embroiled in controversy. After laying out specific timing guidelines for when the states could reopen for business, Mr. Trump turned around and tweeted the very next day that Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia should feel free to “liberate” themselves.

Sent out to do damage control on the Sunday morning talk shows, Mr. Pence engaged in a drawn-out evasive filibuster on NBC’s Meet the Press. Of the contradiction accusation, he told a flustered Chuck Todd that “I don’t accept your premise and I don’t think most Americans do either.” Having sat silently while the Veep went on and on, Mr. Todd was mocked on comment platforms as having conducted one of the dullest interviews ever.

Mr. Trump surely loved it. Mike Pence does “an unbelievable job,” he says. “He gets along with people, I think, much better than I do.”

He gets along with Donald Trump, too. But rather than being petrified to offend him, he has to use the rapport he’s established to rein the President in and have him proceed with good sense while reopening the country. Mr. Pence need not worry that he’ll be dumped from the ticket at this late date. He can stand his ground. The stakes are too critical not to.

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