In November 2010, Mike Pence gave a lecture at The Federalist Society's National Lawyers Convention, and I happened to be there for my first exposure to his oratory. I remember the speech because it was an exercise in pomposity and sanctimony so insufferable that I walked out before he was done. Only now do I realize it was also a towering specimen of hypocrisy.
Pence's subject that day was the presidency, a topic on which he had—I can't say "has"—uncompromising opinions. His mission was to instruct his audience on the proper characteristics and conduct of anyone holding the office. Though he largely avoided the name "Barack Obama," it was clear he thought the 44th president is an affront to the Framers.
The presidency's "powers are vast and consequential, its requirements—from the outset and by definition—impossible for mortals to fulfill without humility and insistent attention to its purposes as set forth in the Constitution of the United States," declared Pence, his gaze steely and his jaw firmly set.
Of power, he said, "Those who are entrusted with it must educate themselves in self-restraint."
"A true statesman lives in what Churchill called a continuous 'stress of soul,'" Pence informed his audience. "And that's why you must always be wary of a president who seems to float upon his own greatness."
Pence told a story to illustrate the humanity and humility of Calvin Coolidge. "A sensibility like this—and not power—is the source of presidential dignity, and it must be restored," he said. "It depends entirely upon character, self-discipline and an understanding of the fundamental principles that underlie not only the republic but life itself.
"It communicates that the president feels the gravity of his office and is willing to sacrifice himself, that his eye is not upon his own prospects but upon the storm of history, through which it is his responsibility to navigate with the specific powers accorded to him and the limitations placed upon them not merely by man but by God."
For those who feared Obama's presidency would bring about the destruction of America, Pence solemnly invoked the "great generations" that have gone before us: "They are silent now, but from the eternal silence of every patriot grave, there is yet an echo that says, 'It's not too late. Keep faith with us. Keep faith in God. And do not, do not ever despair of this republic.'"
I had interviewed Pence once and found him mild and affable, so the fire and brimstone surprised me. At the Federalist Society convention, he sounded like a politician slightly unhinged by Obama and trying to establish a reputation as a profound thinker.
But when Pence accepted the second spot on a ticket with Donald Trump, he made clear that he didn't believe a word he said. The address is full of lines that would disqualify Trump from a moment's consideration.
Trump has not the slightest trace of the humility and dignity Pence once deemed essential, and it's hard to imagine his being constrained by the limits of presidential authority. As for the Constitution, Trump thinks it contains an "Article 12" and wants to censor the internet without regard for the First Amendment. "Somebody will say, 'Oh, freedom of speech, freedom of speech,'" he snorted. "These are foolish people."
Does Pence think Trump has ever endured "stress of soul" or even has a soul to be stressed? Does he think Trump has "character, self-discipline and an understanding of the fundamental principles that underlie not only the republic but life itself"?
Pence warned us against any "president who acts like, speaks like and is received as a king"—a contemptuous description he used with Obama in mind. But no candidate has ever behaved with a more brazen air of royal prerogative than Trump. And a party whose principles have almost nothing in common with his views has meekly submitted to his majesty.
Does Pence think Trump would be a president who "feels the gravity of his office and is willing to sacrifice himself"? Does he believe Trump would exercise his powers with respect for "the limitations placed upon them not merely by man but by God"? It's enough to make a cat laugh.
If Pence would listen for the words echoing now from those patriot graves, this is what he would hear: "OK, now despair for the republic."
© Copyright 2016 by Creators Syndicate Inc.