Mike Pence’s swearing-in is full of symbolism
WASHINGTON — Vice President-elect Mike Pence, unlike Donald Trump, won’t address the crowd after he’s sworn into office Friday.
Instead of a speech, Pence has two other ways to send a political message. He’s chosen conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, a man of few words on the bench, to administer the oath of office, and he will swear the oath with his hand on Ronald Reagan’s Bible.
Reagan is the politician who inspired Pence to leave the Democratic Party of his youth.
Pence made continuous references to Reagan throughout the campaign, including arguing that Trump has much in common with “the great communicator.”
And he told USA TODAY Wednesday he finds himself drawn more and more to Reagan’s vice president, George H.W. Bush, as a role model for the job of No. 2.
“Because then, as now, there was a transformational leader,” he said. “It just informs me that the last administration that revived the country and literally changed the world is a good place for me to look for an example of a vice president who supports a president like that,” Pence said.
Reagan also changed Pence’s life.
Raised in an Irish Catholic family, Pence’s early political heroes were the Kennedys. He was a youth coordinator for the Bartholomew County Democrats and voted for Jimmy Carter for president.
Pence doesn’t know what it was that later made him connect with Reagan.
“But there was something about the man,” he said during a campaign speech he gave at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. “I don’t know if it was the fact that he was an unambiguous Irishman, his Midwestern roots, but he inspired me.”
Reagan biographer Craig Shirley isn’t surprised by Pence’s feeling of kinship with Reagan.
“The both came from the Midwest. They are both very firm conservatives in their conviction, but very gentle in their manner,” he said. “And they both got their start in radio.”
Reagan’s first job out of college was as a radio announcer in Iowa. Pence was a radio talk show host for much of the 1990s before his 2000 election to Congress.
One of his favorite stories — one that he says his children have heard 1,001 times — is how he met Reagan during an unsuccessful bid for a House seat in 1988.
“I felt like I was talking to Mount Rushmore,” he’s said in one of his many retellings of that encounter.
By the time Pence made it to Congress more than a decade later, however, he felt like a late arrival to the Republican Revolution. But Pence remained guided by the principles of a strong military, less government, less taxes and traditional moral values during his 12 years in Congress and four years as Indiana’s governor.
When Pence became Trump’s running mate, one of his favorite campaign events was traveling to the Reagan Library to draw comparisons between Reagan and Trump.
Pence was given the rare privilege of being allowed to work out of Reagan’s last office as he finished up the speech he would deliver that September day.
“The most straight talking candidate since Ronald Reagan is running against one of the most dishonest candidates ever,” Pence said in that speech. Both Reagan and Trump, he said, shared the same “broad-shouldered leadership and common-sense conservative principles.”
Shirley said there are similarities between Reagan and Trump, but there are also a lot of differences.
Both were “outside status quo” candidates who were threats to the establishment. But Reagan campaigned and governed more as a philosophical conservative, Shirley said, whereas Trump didn’t campaign “in the traditional American conservative style and not in the Reagan style.”
Reagan’s children spoke out against Trump during the campaign. Both Michael Reagan, a conservative, and Ron Reagan, a liberal, said their father would have been appalled by Trump’s candidacy.
The Reagan family Bible that Pence will use Friday was owned by his mother, Nelle. It’s kept under bulletproof glass at the Reagan museum and is the first artifact a visitor sees.
“You can’t miss it,” said John Heubusch, executive director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute.
There are comments written throughout the margins of the book, put there by both Nelle and her son.
Reagan used the Bible for his inaugurations as governor and president, with the book open to this underlined verse:
“If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14)
Shirley said it was one of Nelle Reagan’s favorite verses. “That’s in part why Reagan chose that passage,” he said.
Pence, who likes to describe himself as a “Christian, a conservative and a Republican – in that order,” coincidentally closed many of his campaign speeches with those words.
“It’s an ancient verse that encourages people to pray with a promise that God will hear from heaven and heal their land,” he told IndyStar.
The more than 100-year-old Bible, which has never been out of the possession of the Reagan family or foundation, will be transported to Washington by one of Reagan’s first advance men who is on the foundation’s board. It will be locked in a safe in the Senate until minutes before the inauguration ceremony. There’s even a plan for how to protect the Bible from the rain which has been forecast for Friday.
“It’s very fragile,” Heubusch said.
In addition to Reagan’s Bible, Pence will also use the Bible he opens every morning.
Pence personally called Thomas to ask him to administer the oath. He’s said he admires Thomas’ philosophy and his “courage on the bench.”
When he takes the oath, Pence told Fox News Sunday, he will be thinking about “what an honor it is to stand next to a man who I know can restore and revive this country.”
“I’ll also be thinking, as the grandson of an Irish immigrant, what a great country this is,” he said.