photo of Vice President Mike Pence by D. Myles Cullen, courtesy The White House
Many people (including more than a couple of U.S. presidents) seem to believe vice presidents should be seen and not heard. As for the current holder of the office, Mike Pence, a fairly large coterie seems to believe he should not be seen, either – at least not far beyond the nation’s capital.
Pence attracted a lot of press attention, most of it unflattering, during a recent trip to Ireland. He stayed at a Trump property some 180 miles away from Dublin, the site of some of his business meetings. The Trump facility happened to be near Doonbeg, a village where Pence has ancestral roots. The vice president paid personally for the costs of bringing family members on that leg of the trip. But American taxpayers did have to pay for his government entourage and transportation to and from Dublin.
This flap had scarcely died down when Pence took an eight-vehicle motorcade to Michigan’s Mackinac (pronounced MACK-in-aw) Island for a speech at the Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference. The assignment is hardly an unusual one in the life of a vice president. Such small-bore political chores are part of the job in the run-up to a re-election campaign. But motorcades are unheard-of on Mackinac Island. Most of the island is a state park; motor vehicles have been largely banned on all of it since ... well, since vehicles have had motors.
Much has been made of the supposed disrespect the vice president showed by turning up with approximately 24 tons of gas-guzzling SUVs in a place where nearly everyone travels on foot, by bicycle or in a horse-drawn conveyance. Even the operator of the island’s ferry service took flak for carrying the vehicles to the island, which sits in Lake Huron between Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas.
To those inclined toward outrage over the vice president and the administration he serves, this was just another example of environmentally and politically offensive behavior. Those feelings are understandable. Pence could have stayed home or given another speech in another place. Many have noted that when President Gerald Ford visited Mackinac Island in the summer of 1975, Ford – a dyed-in-the-wool Republican and native Michigander, and did I mention his last name is that of a car company? – traveled by horse-drawn carriage.
But of course there is more to the story of Ford’s visit to Mackinac, as there usually is. The part that wasn’t widely known at the time but has been reported since, thanks to the Detroit media, is that the Secret Service insisted on having a motor vehicle available for the president’s use and protection. They smuggled a secure car onto the island in the dead of night ahead of the president’s visit. Ford never used it, but the car was ready to go.
What has been less discussed is a connection between Ford’s Mackinac visit and what came next. Less than two months later, Ford was the target of an assassination attempt by Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, a devoted follower of Charles Manson. Fromme got to within a few feet of Ford on the grounds of the California State Capitol in Sacramento and pointed a pistol at the president before Larry Buendorf, a Secret Service agent, wrestled it away from her. After the assassination attempt, the Secret Service may have had second thoughts about the wisdom of allowing a president to ride in a wide-open horse-drawn carriage on a popular tourist island easily accessible by public ferry service, private boats and personal aircraft. (The island has an airfield with a 3,500-foot runway, and also a helipad.) In peak tourism season, the island’s population of around 450 swells to more than 15,000.
Pence is currently the first in line to succeed a president who is the target of an ongoing impeachment investigation by the House of Representatives. If Pence were out of the picture, the next in line of succession would be House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. It is possible that, in the fevered imagination of one or more disturbed individuals, removing Pence from the line of succession seems like a good idea right now. Of course the Secret Service is going to take every feasible step to protect the vice president.
The federal government has designated more than 111 million acres across the country as protected wilderness. Wilderness areas have no roads, and motorized vehicles of all sorts are prohibited within their boundaries. Pilots are expected to stay at least 2,000 feet above the ground in such areas, except in emergencies.
Mackinac, while primitive, is not a wilderness. The island is simply a laid-back vestige of an earlier time, popular with tourists who value quiet and solitude. Planes and helicopters are welcome at the airport. Snowplows and snowmobiles are allowed as well, which makes sense in a place that receives about 17 more inches of snow in an average year than Burlington, Vermont. Ambulances and other emergency vehicles operate freely, as do construction vehicles. News vans have been allowed to facilitate coverage of noteworthy events. Michigan park regulations allow for other vehicles to operate there under temporary permits. For all the outrage it generated, the vice presidential motorcade left behind only photos and videos to remind people it was ever on the island.
Michigan, not coincidentally, is a critical battleground in next year’s election. We ought to view Pence’s visit, and the criticism it engendered, in that context. In today’s security environment, the practical choice for a president or vice president is either to travel with motorized security or not to travel at all. Pence’s detractors have made their preferences clear. They have every right to do so, but there are other people out there who want to see and hear from their veep.