Commentary: Pence at Notre Dame, the way it’s supposed to work

By John Krull 

INDIANAPOLIS – Mike Pence is a big boy.

The current vice president of the United States and former governor of Indiana must be smart enough – and mature enough – to understand that things he has done and said have upset some people.

John Krull, publisher,

This was true when he was governor and presided over some of the ugliest and most divisive battles over social issues in Indiana history. It is even more true now that he is the right-hand man of the most polarizing political figure – President Donald Trump – in recent U.S. history.

That’s why the protest in response to his commencement address at Notre Dame University shouldn’t upset Pence that much.

Roughly 150 people – graduates and some of their parents – walked out when the vice president began to speak. Some others turned their backs to him as he spoke to indicate disapproval. And a few people booed.

Given the thrust of his speech – that colleges and universities should be among the last places to shut down robust and open discourse – Pence would have to be the king of the clueless to object to some people indicating that they don’t much care for what he’s said or done.

The truth is what happened at Notre Dame is the way things are supposed to work.

A great university invited the vice president of the United States to come speak. The vice president came and exercised his First Amendment right to say what he thinks. Some people in the audience didn’t approve and used their First Amendment rights to indicate as much.

No one attempted to stop the vice president from speaking. No one tried to prevent the folks in the audience from protesting.

Free speech met and was met by free speech.

That’s a good day for democracy.

A good day for America.

There are, I know, people out there who want to fault Notre Dame for inviting a “controversial” speaker to commencement. These folks argue that graduation speeches should be pleasant offerings that won’t offend anyone.

The problem with such thinking is that the only way to deliver a speech that is guaranteed to offend no one is to say nothing of any importance or originality.

My tolerance for wasting time is not great, so I would rather listen to someone at a commencement who makes my blood boil than a speaker who lulls me into a coma. I can handle being angry much more easily than I can being bored.

There also are people who argue that criticizing the vice president of the United States was disrespectful.


We’ll set aside, for now, the fact that many of the people who claim it is an American’s duty to show reverence for the vice president or president often were among the first to lambast previous occupants of those offices who came from different political parties.

Instead, I’ll just remind everyone that elected officials in this country aren’t our masters. They’re our servants.

And, while I personally think it’s just good manners to treat all people with respect, there’s nothing in our law or customs that prevents us from giving public officials a hard time. In fact, our tradition of making fun of, criticizing and belittling our leaders is as old as the republic itself.

To his credit, Vice President Pence always has seemed to understand and accept that.

I often don’t agree with Pence, but one thing I respect about him is that, unlike his boss, he rarely whines about being criticized.

My advice to people thinking about entering the public arena is the same as the counsel I gave my son when he first thought about playing football:

The only way to avoid being hit is to not step onto the field. If you do step onto the field and you cry about being hit, the only thing you communicate is that you can’t take it – which pretty much guarantees that the next hit will come even harder.

Mike Pence always has seemed to grasp that, which is why the Notre Dame kerfuffle isn’t likely to bother him that much.

That’s because, unlike the president of the United States, he’s a big boy.

And big boys understand that being criticized is part of the job of being a big boy.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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3 Responses to Commentary: Pence at Notre Dame, the way it’s supposed to work

  1. Nancy Gilliland

    This is a GREAT commentary, John.

  2. Thanks, John, for the best observations I’ve heard on this topic.I did think the Star and others had overblown coverage.

    Your observations help to bring perspective.

  3. I have quietly sat through many a speech, seminar classroom or training session where I disagreed with the position or political leaning of the speaker. Sometimes I ended up modifying my position. Other times I learned something or it made me rethink my position. Intolerance and rudeness when pre-judging a speaker is an indication of immaturity and bigotry. I will agree with you that Mike Pence does seem to handle it very well indeed.