The Oaf of Office

I had the television on all morning yesterday as I worked. As melancholy as I was feeling about the day’s events, I remain a lifelong politics junkie. It was like watching a star player from a rival team being inducted into the Hall of Fame; as much as I may despise the rival player, I love the game and all of its trappings too much not to watch.

Since childhood, I’ve known the presidential oath of office by heart. I guess that’s why I was so taken aback when the Chief Justice botched it so badly during the inauguration. And why I thought it was so fitting that Dianne Feinstein had said that the Chief Justice would be administering the Presidential “oaf” of office. Did that ever turn out to be a self-fulfilling turn of phrase. Listen for yourself:

Some of my conservative friends immediately began sending around emails ridiculing Obama for not reciting the oath properly. But I jumped to his defense. After all, I asked, what would you do if the C.J. clearly botched the words? Repeat the incorrect words? Point out, in front of hundreds of millions of people, that he’d said it wrong? Or pause and hope the C.J. realized what he’d done wrong, and then correct his own mistake? That final choice seemed to be what Obama was trying to do, and I give him credit for trying to let everybody on stage save some face.

But the problem is, they never did get it right. And part of me wondered if we’d soon see kook fringers begin to claim that the new President had not been lawfully sworn into office, and was therefore illegal. Given the intensity with which some claimed (and continue to claim) that Obama lacks U.S. citizenship, and seeing the degree to which these kinds of charges de-legitimized the more mainstream conservative critics of the man, I was concerned that the “invalid oath” story might develop a life of its own.

So, I was pleased to learn tonight that the Oath had been quietly and privately re-administered this evening, which will hopefully quash all that kind of talk. And we history/political junkies know that there are numerous precedents for administering the Oath more than once. Most recently, a snow storm made any kind of outdoor activity on January 20th, 1984 very dangerous. Ronald Reagan took the Oath privately on January 20th at the White House, and then had a public ceremony at the Capitol later when the weather cleared.

But my favorite example, and the one that most closely parallels the current case, was that of Calvin Coolidge. In a story near and dear to the heart of every notary public (and yeoman farmer), then-VP Coolidge got the news about President Harding’s death in the middle of the night while visiting his family’s farm in Vermont. His father, John Coolidge, a notary public, swore his son into office then and there. When Calvin Coolidge returned to Washington, some people expressed doubts that his father had had the legal authority to administer the presidential oath. To quash these doubts, Coolidge took the oath again — this time from a Supreme Court justice.

Heck, I suppose the President could take the oath every day if he wanted to — much the way public school children recite the Pledge of Allegiance each morning. And maybe that wouldn’t be a bad idea. Regardless, I’m just glad they got it right — and hope that four years from now we only have to do it once.

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