Scant surprise that the Trump transition effort is in disarray.
After all, the Trump team is headed by the same Mike Pence who gave a speech six years ago almost to the day deriding the Obama transition team for seeing an urgency in the very task he now faces.
“Listen to the exact words of President Obama’s transition team, who said at the point of his election, quote: ‘It’s important that President-elect Obama is prepared to really take power and begin to rule day one,’” Pence told the Federal Society’s national lawyers convention at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., on the afternoon of Nov. 19, 2010.
The then-congressman from Indiana described this as “unprecedented presumption.” He said of presidents in general, and clearly meaning Obama in particular, “It is neither his job nor his prerogative to shift the power of decision away from the people, to him and to the acolytes of his choosing.”
Acolytes being pretty much what Pence, as head of the Trump transition team as well as the vice-president elect, is now charged with choosing for the new administration.
And poor Pence must do so for a man whose quest for White House pretty much fits what the 2010 speech condemned.
“The presidency… isn’t it amazing, given the great and momentous nature of the office, that those who seek it seldom pause to consider what they’re seeking?” Pence said. “Rather, unconstrained by reflection or principle, there’s a mad rush towards something that, once its powers are seized, the new president can wield it as an instrument with which to transform the nation and the people according to his highest aspirations.”
No presidential candidate in American history has been as unconstrained by reflection or principle as Trump.
And a man who has expressed admiration for Vladimir Putin and Bashar Assad along with other despots would hardly share the view Pence then expressed regarding presidential power.
“But other than in a crisis of a house divided, the presidency is neither fit nor intended to be such an instrument,” Pence said, apparently referring to Lincoln during the Civil War. “We as a people are not to be ruled and not to be commanded.”
That line drew considerable applause. Pence went on, “The president should never forget this: that he has not risen above us but is merely one of us, chosen by ballot, dismissed after his term, tasked not to transform and work his will upon us but to bear the weight of decision and to carry out faithfully the design laid down in the Constitution and impassioned by the Declaration of Independence.”
Pence offered a warning that the new president would not likely heed if his transition chief were now to repeat it.
“Power is an instrument of fatal consequence,” Pence said in the speech. “It is confined no more readily than quicksilver, and it escapes good intentions as easily as air flows through mesh. Therefore, those who are entrusted with it must educate themselves in self-restraint.”
That would seem to be a lesson beyond Trump’s grasp.
Pence went on in his speech, “A republic—if you can keep it—is about limitation, and for good reason, because we are mortal, and our actions are imperfect.”
Trump too often seems not even to recognize limits, much less heed them.
“The tragedy of presidential decision is that even with the best of choice, some, perhaps many, will be left behind, and some, perhaps many, may die,” Pence continued. “Because of this, a true statesman lives in what Churchill called ‘a continuous stress of soul.’ He may give to Paul, but only because he robs Peter.”
Trump’s harsher detractors have suggested he has no soul and pointed to instances where he has robbed both Peter and Paul and given to nobody.
Pence in his speech then offered a warning that was clearly referring to Obama, but would much better fit Trump. It is a warning we all should heed in the present day.
“And that’s why you must always be wary of a president who seems to float upon his own greatness,” Pence said. “For all greatness is tempered by mortality, and every soul is equal.”
He added, “It is a tragedy indeed that new generations taking office attribute failures in governance to insufficient power, and invariably seek more of it.”
Pence kept on.
“The president is not our teacher, our tutor, our guide or our ruler. He does not command us, we command him. We serve neither him nor his vision.”
The Pence of now would be well advised not to announce to Trump that Trump does not command him and that he serves neither Trump nor Trump’s vision. The Pence of then continued, “We fought a war so that we don’t even have to treat kings like kings. And if I may remind you, we won that one.”
This remark was rewarded with laughter as well as applause. Pence was solemn as he spoke of the humble sensibility of a president such as Calvin Coolidge. Pence quoted what Coolidge had written after his son died from blood poisoning incurred from an injury on the South Lawn of the White House:
“What might have happened to him under other circumstances, we do not know, but if I had not been president… In his suffering, he was asking me to make him well, and I could not. And when he went, the power and the glory of the presidency went with him.”
The Calvin hardly sounds like The Donald. Pence said of Coolidge, “A sensibility like this, and not power, is the source of presidential dignity, and it must be restored. It depends entirely upon character, self-discipline and an understanding of the fundamental principles that underlie not only the Republic, but life itself.”
Pence could hardly have spoken of character, self-discipline and fundamental principles in a speech about Trump.
Pence did make an observation that could apply to Trump if Trump goes after such Supreme Court rulings as Roe v. Wade.
“A president who slights the Constitution is like a rider who hates his horse. He will be thrown…”
Pence here got more laughter and applause.
“…and the nation along with him.”
Pence noted in general of the nation’s highest office, “The president solemnly swears to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution. He does not solemnly swear to ignore, overlook, supplement or reinterpret it.”
He went on, “Other than in a crisis of morality, decency and existence, like the Civil War, if he should want to hurry along the Constitution to fit his own notions or designs, he should do so by amendment rather than adjustment, for if he joins the powers of his office to his own willful interpretation, we step away from a government of laws and toward a government of men.”
Tell that to Trump.
“The president should regard the Constitution and the Declaration like an obsessed lover,” Pence said.
But hopefully no preamble grabbing.
“They should be on his mind all the time; the prism through which the light of all questions of governance pass,” Pence said of the two sacred documents, “Though we have—sometimes gradually, sometimes radically—moved away from this, we can move back to it. And who better than the president to restore this wholesome devotion?”
Two words that even a fair number of his supporters would not associate with with Trump are “wholesome” and “devotion.”
Pence imagined aloud what our forbearers might advise us, whoever the president might be.
“I have no doubt that they would tell us to channel our passions; speak the truth simply; and do what’s right, slowly and with resolution; to work calmly, steadily, without animus or fear; to be like a rock in the tide, let the water tumble about us, be firm and unashamed in our love of country.”
Pence invoked Lincoln by name.
“We too have voices of shades who emerge from our past… what Lincoln in his first Inaugural Address called the ‘mystic chords of memory stretching from every patriot grave’ that bind us to the great and to the humble, the known and the unknown. And if I hear them clearly, what they say is that although we may have strayed, we have not strayed too far to return, for we are, every one of us, their descendants.”
The Pence of then was saying what many of us are now hoping in the aftermath of Trump’s election.
“The sinews are still there, quite lively, waiting to flex. We can still astound the world with justice, reason and strength.”
Pence may be bungling the Trump transition effort, but the words he uttered six years ago carry the same sentiments that many of us are summoning when horrified by the surreal reality of a Trump presidency.
“I know this is true. But even if it were not, we could not in decency stand down, if only for our debt to history, the debt we owe to those who came before, who did great things, who suffered more than we suffer, who gave more than we give, who pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor—for us, whom they did not know.
He went on, “Many great generations are gone, but I see them in my mind’s eye. By the character and memory of their existence, they forbid us to despair of our republic. I see them crossing the prairies in the sun and the wind. I see their faces looking out from steel mills and coal mines, and immigrant ships crawling into the harbors at dawn. I see them at war, at work and at peace. I see them long departed, looking into the camera with hopeful and sad eyes. I see them embracing their children who became us. They are our family and our blood, and we cannot desert them.”
He concluded, “In spirit, all of them come down to us in a connection that out of love we cannot betray. 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.’”
Among the patriot graves is one in Plymouth Notch Cemetery in Vermont whose tombstone bears the name Calvin Coolidge and notes he was born on the Fourth of July, as befits an early champion of racial justice and religious tolerance and social equality.
Coolidge also began as a vice president and, if you listen closely, the echo from his grave can be heard to carry two additional words.
And poor us.