Pence received a somewhat lukewarm response from the graduates
He showed no inclination to move even a smidgen away from Trump
Vice President Mike Pence’s commencement speech at Notre Dame on Sunday drew national attention due to the fact a group of students decided to protest the address by leaving once it began. How big a deal was the walk-out actually? And how did Pence do overall? I reached out to longtime South Bend Tribune political columnist Jack Colwell, who was at the Pence speech, for answers. Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.
Cillizza: How was Pence received at ND, broadly speaking? There’s a ton of focus on the protests. Is that representative of his overall reception?
Colwell: Pence received a somewhat lukewarm response from the graduates when his honorary degree was presented just before the speech. There was polite applause. But only a few students stood. There was a warmer response when he concluded his remarks, with most of the graduates standing and applauding. The warmer response then was no doubt because of his usual sunny disposition and the many times he expressed praise for Notre Dame. There was more enthusiasm from parents and guests in the stadium stands throughout the speech than from the graduates on the field.
Cillizza: The protesters. How many? How disruptive? And how big an impediment to Pence’s actual speech?
Colwell: About 200 people walked out when Pence began to speak. That includes graduates and some parents and friends who joined them. There was no disruption. They walked out silently. Pence continued without pause with his speech and never mentioned the departure. A couple hundred walking out was a small portion of the crowd estimated by Notre Dame to be 24,000 – graduates, guests, faculty and staff. Now, more graduates than those who walked out had expressed displeasure with selection of Pence. But most were not about to leave their commencement ceremony.
Cillizza: Let’s talk about Pence’s actual speech as a piece of political rhetoric. Effective?
Colwell: The speech was similar to Pence speeches heard for years when he was governor. He used no harsh rhetoric and no denunciations of the type associated with President Trump. He talked of his religious faith and American ideals, especially freedom of speech and of religion. He of course included traditional commencement admonitions to follow precepts and principles and to provide future leadership. As a commencement speech, it was effective. It was not at all a policy speech.
Cillizza: Pence left Indiana not terribly popular. Has that changed since he became vice president?
Colwell: Pence faced a tough race for reelection as governor at the time he was selected as the vice presidential nominee. He seems more popular now, in part because of pride among Hoosiers that he was elected vice president. But those angry with his support of the “religious freedom” law – cited by opponents as providing freedom to discriminate – have not forgiven him. Basically, supporters of Trump like Pence and those who dislike Trump also dislike Pence.
Cillizza: Finish this sentence. “The most important takeaway from the Pence speech at Notre Dame is _________.” Now, explain.
Colwell: The most important takeaway from the Pence speech is that he showed no inclination to move even a smidgen away from President Trump. Despite speculation that he is seeking to ease away from defending the President, Pence had high praise for Trump. He said Trump has taken steps to protect religious liberty at home, including for Notre Dame, and had just spoken out in Saudi Arabia against religious persecution around the world. And he forcefully repeated his oft-expressed belief that “the greatest honor of my life is to serve as vice president to the 45th president … Donald Trump.”