November 21 2010

Pence: Pensive on the Presidency

Charlotte Hays

Isn't it amazing, given the great and momentous nature of the office, that those who seek it seldom pause to consider what they are seeking?

That's from a talk on the nature of the presidency delivered by Indiana Congressman Mike Pence, who may or may not run for the presidency but who has definitely given us some things to think about in chosing the next occupant of this momentous office. Pence's talk is available in Imprimis, the indispensable digest of speeches given at Hillsdale College, and should be read even if Pence isn't going to run.

It's entitled "The Presidency and the Constitution," and it seems to have several themes: the limits of presidential power, the enormity of presidential power, the basis for presidential authority, and certain qualities of a republic's president that have been lost. The last is summed up in this anecdote: 

There is no finer, more moving, or more profound understanding of the nature of the presidency and the command of humility placed upon it than that expressed by President Coolidge. He, like Lincoln, lost a child while he was president, a son of sixteen. "The day I became president," Coolidge wrote, "he had just started to work in a tobacco field. When one of his fellow laborers said to him, ‘If my father was president I would not work in a tobacco field,' Calvin replied, ‘If my father were your father you would.'" His admiration for the boy was obvious.

Young Calvin contracted blood poisoning from an incident on the South Lawn of the White House. Coolidge wrote, "What might have happened to him under other circumstances we do not know, but if I had not been president. . . ." And then he continued,

"In his suffering he was asking me to make him well. I could not. When he went, the power and glory of the Presidency went with him."

Pence is obviously writing in the shadow of the Obama administration, which he believes has spread the authority of the great office into aspects of life unwarranted by the Constitution ("The president is not our teacher, our tutor, our guide..."), but he is also clearly writing about a tendency that didn't start with President Obama. He contrasts the modesty of a president at home to the sense of authority he must convey abroad (here Pence is pointed: "Outside our shores, the President of the United States of America bows to no man. When in foreign lands, you do not criticize your own country.")

I urge you to read this speech. 

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