Political columnist: Notre Dame Commencement good time for Pence to be 'his own man'

Published: May. 19, 2017 at 4:33 PM EDT
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40,000 people are expected to attend this year's commencement at the University of Notre Dame.

Vice President Mike Pence will deliver the commencement address. It is the former Indiana governor’s first visit to Michiana since taking office and the first time the university has invited a Vice President to give the commencement address.

Given the current political climate and talks of impeaching President Donald Trump, a longtime and local political columnist says the address is an opportunity for the vice president to make a statement.

"There's some concern that he’s being viewed as kind of a tool [of the President],” said Jack Colwell. "He's being put out to express things for the president that perhaps are not totally the truth. He might want to get some message out about being his own man."

Notre Dame is no stranger to hosting speakers in high political standing. Many past presidents have been on the field to usher graduates into the real world.

"So [Pence’s visit] does kind of continue that pattern and, as a result, it will focus attention once more on Notre Dame," Colwell said.

The campus has also been at the center of protests during high-profile commencements.

"We've certainly had hundreds doing that when President Obama was here," said Paul Browne, the university’s VicePresident for Communications and Public Affairs. "And we had some last year in smaller numbers for Vice President Biden."

Biden and John Boehner, former Speaker of the House of Representatives, were the 2016 recipients of the Laetare Medal. It is an award given each year by the university and recognizes outstanding service to the Catholic Church and society. It is the most prestigious award given to American Catholics, according to the university’s website.

Protestors plan to gather this year because of Pence's position as right hand man to President Trump and also to protest his policies, which they believe are counter to university and Catholic teachings.

Pence does not have the same robust speaking style as the president, so Colwell believes any statement made by Pence would be subtle.

"It would be more edging away on some issues if that's what he wanted to do," Colwell said. "But maybe it'll just be the standard commencement speech and there won't be any big news value to it at all."

Colwell says Pence will probably err on the side of a traditional speech.

"[The commencement crowd] would not want to hear a political speech," Colwell said.

Details and excerpts of Pence’s speech have not been released, but Notre Dame staff say one thing is certain: "We do expect he'll slap the 'play like a champion' sign before he leaves," Browne said.

Sunday’s commencement can be watched at http://commencement.nd.edu/commencement-weekend/live-webcast/

NewsCenter 16 will have continuing, team coverage of the vice president’s visit and commencement address in our Sunday newscasts at 8 a.m., 6 p.m. and 11 p.m.