I Do Solemnly Swear That I Have Heard Enough About the Oath

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Just when you think American political discourse can't get any more trivial, and I often do, then it does.  Get more trivial.  You know what I mean.

As you all likely know by now, President Obama took the oath of office for a second time on Wednesday, since he and the Chief Justice had managed to screw it up in front of about half a billion people the day before.  (Historically, this seems to be the third time for a second oath.)  An enormous number of words (to which I recognize I am now adding) has been spewed forth onto the Internet about this, many of those words being used to speculate that Obama was or is not really president since the oath of office was not administered perfectly.  What seems remarkable about this to me, since it's a frenzy about language, is how little of the speculation actually includes all of the language that matters.  So I will try to do that.

Here's what the Constitution actually says:

Before he enter on the execution of his office, he shall take the following oath or affirmation:–"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

Here's what Obama actually said on Tuesday:

I, Barack — I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear that I will execute the office of president of the United States faithfully, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.  So help me God.

Transcript from Language Log, Jan. 20, 2009 (citing NBC & ABC transcripts; Roberts' words deleted).  Or, by all means, listen to it yourself via YouTube:

It seems indisputable that (regardless of what Justice Roberts said, because who cares) all of the words in the required oath came out of Obama's mouth.  One of them, "faithfully," was said out of order.  In other words, as the Language Log has analyzed in much more detail than you would ever want, the error "came down to a problem of adverbial placement."

In still other words, people who have mostly looked the other way for years while the government was engaging in torture, indefinite detention of even citizens without trial or counsel, and warrantless wiretapping, among other (arguably?) illegal things, and a nation that at the moment is mostly ignoring the fact that a trillion or so dollars of its money is being handed out to banks who refuse to say what they are doing with it, are now deeply concerned because an adverb was out of place.

Not even a noun or verb!  A modifier!

But let's be honest — there is a lot more wrong here than just adverbial misplacement.  Look at the constitutional oath again.  Does it say anything about the oath-taker saying his name?  No!  But Obama did!  Twice!  How self-centered can you be?  Also not in the constitutional text: "So help me God."  The Constitution also doesn't say anything about putting your hand on a Bible, having your wife hold the Bible, raising your non-Bible hand, or having a judge administer the oath, for that matter.  He added all this stuff!  What's going on here?  Do we really want someone this reckless and lawless in the White House?

Hey, if you don't get to move adverbs around, you don't get to add anything either.  Otherwise, when I take the oath, which I concede will be never, I'm going to add "When I feel like it" at the end.

And what if Obama had his toes crossed?  You can't prove he didn't!

Anyway, it might all be moot, because arguably Obama was already President at the time he took the oath, which turned out to be a few minutes after noon.  Back to Ye Constitution:

The terms of the President and Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January, and the terms of Senators and Representatives at noon on the 3d day of January, of the years in which such terms would have ended if this article had not been ratified; and the terms of their successors shall then begin.

U.S. Const. Amend. XX, sec. 1 (emphasis added.)  The outgoing officeholders' terms end at noon — period.  Nothing else is required.  So if they're out, who's the President at 12:00:01 (if the successor has to be sworn, but hasn't been)?  I don't think the last clause above can mean anything other than that the terms of the "successors" also begin automatically at noon — otherwise, it is just telling us that successors follow predecessors, which we knew already.  On the principle that language in a Constitution ought to mean something, this seems to require that the officeholders' terms end, and the successors' terms then begin, automatically, at noon.

So where does that leave the oath?  Doesn't it also have to mean something?  Article II does say the president "shall take" it "before he enter on the execution of his office."  That seems to say that if he hasn't taken it, he is still President — he just can't do anything yet.  The 20th Amendment might supersede that interpretation, but assuming it doesn't, the only question (if any) should be whether anything Obama did between the bungled oath on Tuesday and the re-oathening on Wednesday was legitimate.  As far as I can tell, though (and I could be wrong), the only official act he took on Tuesday was to declare that day a National Day of Renewal and Reconciliation.

If anybody wants to start a fight about Reconciliation Day, I would be fine with that.

Link: NYTimes.com (article on the oathening)
Link: Prof. Steven Pinker, "Oaf of Office," New York Times (Jan. 22, 2009) (suggesting that Justice Roberts was tripped up by his abhorrence of splitting infinitives).