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Obama's Botched Oath of Office

By now, even those who didn't watch yesterday's inauguration ceremony of Barack Obama have heard about the debacle surrounding his oath of office, or "Oaf of Office" as the New York Post put it. As described by the New York Times, Obama flubbed first by jumping the gun and beginning the oath, before Chief Justice Roberts had a chance to complete the first phrase. As a result, Obama ended up saying the first to words, "I, Barack" twice. Then, Roberts, relying on memory, fed Obama the wrong phrase, asking him to repeat "I will execute the office of the president faithfully" instead of the correct, "I will faithfully execute the office of the president." Obama recognized the error and paused, but even on the second try, Roberts followed up with "Faithfully the office of president of the United States," omitting the word execute.

So does the flubbed oath represent another historic precedent, like the inauguration of the first African-American president? Nope. As Tony Mauro writes at the Blog of the Legal Times, the oath was garbled once before, by Chief Justice William Howard Taft who administered it to Chester A. Arthur Herbert Hoover. As a former president, Taft had taken the oath himself.  From the BLT:

Taft did not use the back-and-forth, prompt-then-repeat style of giving the oath, which helped trip up Roberts and Obama on Tuesday. Instead, Taft did it in the form of a command, beginning with "You, Herbert Hoover do solemnly swear..." followed by the entire oath, so that all Hoover had to say was, "I do." Not a bad idea, come to think of it, except that Taft's recitation of the oath had Hoover swearing to "preserve, maintain, and defend" the Constitution instead of the "preserve, protect, and defend" formulation set forth in the Constitution.

In that pre-blog era, according to [Jim Bendat's book, Democracy's Big Day], the only one to notice the error was an eighth-grade girl from upstate New York who heard the blunder on the radio. She wrote Taft, who replied that he was quite sure he had made a different error, stating "preserve, maintain and protect." He chalked up the error to "an old man's memory."

But that was not the end of it. The schoolgirl, named Helen Terwilliger, stuck to her guns, and the dispute became something of a public controversy. Three newsreel companies checked their tapes and pronounced the girl correct. Taft eventually confessed error, but shrugged it off. "After all, I don't think it's important."

Mauro also notes that questions were raised about Coolidge's oath of office, which was administered by his father, a notary public. But Attorney General Harry Daugherty and Solicitor General James Beck voiced doubts that the father had authority to swear in anyone other than Vermont state officials, so Coolidge took the oath again.

In this situation, experts say that Obama's flubbed oath wouldn't impact his legitimacy as president but that he might want to re-take the oath as a precaution, reports the Washington Post:

Charles Cooper, head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel under President Ronald Reagan, said that the oath is mandatory, that an incorrect recitation should be fixed and that he would be surprised if the oath had not already been re-administered.

Akhil Reed Amar, a Yale University professor of constitutional law, said, "Out of a super-abundance of caution, perhaps he should do it again."

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on January 21, 2009 at 04:40 PM | Permalink | Comments (7)


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