Two weeks ago, it was the Flub Heard ’Round The World. Today, President Barack Obama’s forgettable and fumbled exchange with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. ’76 has been relegated to a historical footnote and their subsequent reenactment assigned to the annals of White House lore. As a nation, we seem ready to both trivially group Barack Obama with Chester Arthur and Calvin Coolidge—predecessors who gave the oath another go—and direct future visitors to the White House Map Room to admire the fireplace before which history was made. This is political travesty of the first order.
The inauguration of an American president bears all the signs of fine constitutional craftsmanship. As a people, we explicitly mandate that the president-elect assume his or her finely detailed duties at a precise time, on a specific day, and in a prescribed manner. The unambiguous character of our language has always rendered the recurrent execution of these commands—what Ronald Reagan characterized in his 1981 inaugural address as “nothing less than a miracle”—an awe-inspiring spectacle of constitutional clockwork.
The expectation that events would run like clockwork was disappointed on January 20, casting the tiniest of palls on an extraordinary day certain to join our mystic chords of memory. When the chief justice rendered “faithfully” the successor to the word “president” and not the predecessor of the word “execute,” I felt betrayed of the perfection promised not by the historic character of Barack Obama’s inauguration but by the Constitution itself. Time was hardly “out of joint”—Hamlet’s famed remark, coincidentally, was also associated with taking an oath—but it was momentarily and painfully dislocated. I clenched my teeth and turned to my brother, watching along with me in Quincy House, and winced. It was an inauspicious commencement, to say the least.
Over the next day and a half, I labored—largely successfully—to banish from my mind the image of “faulty mechanics.” This, of course, is both what Obama and Roberts practiced and what they momentarily were. The sight of the President and the chief justice warmly greeting each other at the ensuing Congressional luncheon was comforting but less than redemptive. The first photos of the president conferring with his chief of staff in the Oval Office were more soothing.
Word broke the next evening that the President and Chief Justice had executed, for all intents and purposes, a private do-over at the White House. It took twenty-five seconds and was performed, according to White House counsel Greg Craig, “out of an abundance of caution.” Strict fidelity was delayed but not denied.
The first online comment I encountered while reading this story was a vain and hate-laced suggestion that President Obama took his second oath with his hand on the Koran, not the Bible. The second comment gushed over Michelle Obama’s frock from the night before. The third attacked the chief justice for not employing a three-by-five card the first time around. Something had stirred within me from the moment I encountered the story on the Drudge Report, but these initial rapid-responders intimated that perhaps the moment was simply insignificant.
Nothing could be further from the truth. For those inclined to interrogate President Obama’s political posture respecting the second oath, nothing embodies repudiation of your predecessor’s constitutional legacy better than honoring the small details. Former President Bush repeatedly abused the large principles, and his successor frequently said so during the presidential campaign. In re-taking the oath, President Obama said so again.
But there is a more transcendent and textually self-reflexive message about American constitutionalism at play here. The linguistic coincidence is delightful, and only with its recognition did my awkwardness about the events of January 20 evaporate for good. The now-infamous verbal cog in the constitutional mechanism—the word “faithfully”—invokes the very quality most on display in the repeat performance at the White House. In other words, Mr. Obama’s very pursuit of strict constitutional fidelity powerfully confirms our new president’s understanding of—and intention to perform—his Constitutional Oath. By saying it again, he only confirmed how deeply he had meant it the first time.
Eric B. Lomazoff is a sixth-year PhD candidate in government and a resident tutor in Quincy House.