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  • Strict constructionist Chief Justice flubs oath, Obama presidency survives unscathed

    Article II, sec. i of the U.S. Constitution prescribes the presidential oath of office: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States and will to best of my ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States."

    But Chief Justice Roberts, who administered the oath to Barak Obama, is a strict constructionist and didn't feel the need to bring the Constitution along to the presidential inaugural. Instead, Roberts spoke from memory, flubbing the oath by asking Pres. Obama to repeat the phrase, "that I will execute the office of President to the United States faithfully."

    Chief Justice Roberts administering the oath of office  

    Roberts administering the oath of office, sort of, as Pres. Obama places his hand on the bible that Abraham Lincoln used in his first inaugural

    Roberts, who seems to have inherited his linguistic mangling from George W. Bush, the president who appointed him, made two errors when he went off-book.  He said "President to the United States," and he moved the adverb faithfully to the end of the sentence.

    Legal Times presents this transcript of the swearing-in, from MSNBC:

    ROBERTS: I, Barack Hussein Obama...

    OBAMA: I, Barack...

    ROBERTS: ... do solemnly swear...

    OBAMA: I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear...

    ROBERTS: ... that I will execute the office of president to the United States faithfully...

    OBAMA: ... that I will execute...

    ROBERTS: ... faithfully the office of president of the United States...

    OBAMA: ... the office of president of the United States faithfully...

    ROBERTS: ... and will to the best of my ability...

    OBAMA: ... and will to the best of my ability...

    ROBERTS: ... preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

    OBAMA: ... preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

    ROBERTS: So help you God?

    OBAMA: So help me God.

    ROBERTS: Congratulations, Mr. President.

    Roberts corrected the to when he repeated the phrase, but faithfully continued to wander around the 35-word oath, both when Roberts said it and when Obama repeated it. This failure to adhere to the letter of the Constitution will certainly prompt stricter constructionists than the Chief Justice to wonder whether Obama is really our 44th president after all.

    But it's not likely that anyone will listen to them. The high court already dismissed a wacko complaint that Obama wasn't qualified to be president because he was from Hawaii and his father was British. Some constitutional scholars even insist that a president elect automatically becomes president at noon on inauguration day, whether or not the oath is administered.

    George Washington began the tradition of adding the words "so help me, God," and Obama continued the long tradition of using that phrase. Later, in his inaugural address, the president characterized the United States as a nation of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and nonbelievers. The inclusion of Hindus and Muslims as normal components of the American melting pot was a pretty progressive acknowledgment of the impact of the Immigration Reform Act of 1965. But the president's nod to atheism was even more radical, not to mention encouraging (though Sarah Palin will certainly use it against Obama if she runs in 2012).

    Pres. Obama's eloquent inaugural speech, while emphasizing the economic and military struggles ahead, and not full of one-liners and sound bites, confirmed that the nation is in for at least four years of well-chosen words in rhetorically balanced periodic sentences, just one of the many refreshing changes that the new administration brings with it. As the Daily Show's Asif Manvi put it, Obama makes "sweet, sweet love to the English language."

    Chart of most frequently used words in Obama inaugural 

    The New York Times printed an interactive "cloud" of the most frequently-used words in the president's inaugural (words highlighted in yellow occur more frequently in this speech than in other presidential inaugurals).

    Immediately after the inauguration, the president went inside the Capitol and signed three proclamations, the first official documents of his administration (one network said they concerned maintaining government continuity; another claimed they were cabinet nominations; and a third insisted that they were proclamations calling Americans to public service).

    In this brief signing ceremony, super-cool, no-drama-Obama, whose Blackberry is never far from his nimble fingers, exhibited a truly endearing act of dorkiness: the left-handed president used the lefty-hook he no doubt learned in elementary school penmanship class, arcing his hand around his pen in order to approximate the handwriting of the privileged right-handed majority.

    Pres. Obama signing his first official documents 

    He's a lefty. Immediately after the inauguration, Pres. Obama signed his first official documents using the classic lefty-hook encouraged by unenlightened handwriting teachers who never anticipated that the keyboard would replace the pen.

    Perhaps some lefties have to move toward the right to get elected, but surely some ultraconservative blogger is already claiming that the documents signed by the new president are invalid because they weren't signed properly (or they weren't properly signed, depending on where you want to put the adverb).

    Rahm Emanuel cocks a friendly snook at a critic 

    Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel had this comment for anyone out to ruin the president's first day.

    UPDATE: At the luncheon following the swearing in, Chief Justice Roberts admitted booting the oath and accepted the President's challenge to a rematch. Roberts went to the White House Map Room the next evening for the do-over, and following the letter of the law this time, not just the spirit, the Chief Justice re-administered the oath in just 25 seconds. The brief ceremony at 7:35 p.m. was witnessed by pool reporters and a few aides. Though both Roberts and Obama said everything right, in another nod to nonbelievers, this time the president didn't use a bible -- the Constitution doesn't require one. Even nonbelievers (the political ones, not the atheists) must now acknowledge that the country has a president. 

    While the retake may not have been necessary, at least Obama is now one-up on Roberts, whose confirmation he voted against. Good thing it wasn't Scalia administering the oath of office -- he might have refused to do it twice, arguing that two rights would make a wrong.

    Historical note: Do-overs of the presidential oath are rare, but they've been done before. It turns out that Barak Obama is actually the third president to retake the oath of office. Vice Pres. Calvin Coolidge was initially sworn in by his father when Warren Harding died, but after critics suggested that those words might not be valid, silent Cal opted for a rerun with a federal judge the next day. And Vice Pres. Chester A. Arthur took the presidential oath privately, in his New York office, a day after Pres. James Garfield died, then repeated the oath publicly, two days later, when Arthur got to Washington (even back then, Amtrak was slow).

    Pres. Obama sworn in a second time by Chief Justice Roberts 

    Roberts administers the second oath at the White House, sans bible. Obama is not the only president to take the oath twice. Calvin Coolidge, who had been sworn in by his father, had the oath readministed by a federal judge when critics questioned whether Silent Cal’s first oath was valid. Vice President Chester A. Arthur also took the oath twice after the death of Pres. James Garfield: first privately, in his New York City office, a day after Garfield died, and second, two days later, in a public ceremony in Washington, D.C. (Amtrak was slow, even back then). 

WallisRose@aol.com Jan 21, 2009 12:28 pm

He's a Lefty, too.  No wonder I like him so much.



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