Roberts blows it

While I’ve avoided the inaugural event entirely, a friend just played for me over the phone Chief Justice Roberts’s staggering, mind-blowing screw-up of the presidential oath. I’ve never heard anything so bad, so embarrassing. What a thing to do to a new president, at the historic moment of his swearing in! I said to my friend, “Roberts should go shoot himself.” I don’t literally mean it, of course, but that was my reaction.

* * *

Here is a YouTube video of the stunningly botched oath of office. And here is the New York Times commenting on it:

I Do Solemnly Swear…(Line, Please?)
By Adam Liptak

For a couple of smooth-talking constitutional experts, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and President-elect Barack Obama sure had a hard time getting through the constitutional oath of office.

The oath of office being administered to Barack Obama by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

There was, first of all, a false start from Mr. Obama, who started to respond before the chief justice had completed the first phrase. Mr. Obama ended up saying the first four words—“I, Barack Hussein Obama”—twice.

Then there was an awkward pause after Chief Justice Roberts prompted Mr. Obama with these words: “that I will execute the office of the president to the United States faithfully.” The chief justice seemed to say “to” rather than “of,” but that was not the main problem. The main problem was that the word “faithfully” had floated upstream in the constitutional text, which actually says this: “That I will faithfully execute the office of the president of the United States.”

Mr. Obama seemed to realize this, pausing quizzically after saying “that I will execute –”

The chief justice gave it another go, getting closer but still not quite right: “faithfully the office of president of the United States.” This time, he omitted the word “execute.”

Mr. Obama now repeated the chief justice’s initial error of putting “faithfully” at the end of the phrase. Starting where he had abruptly paused, he said: “the office of the president of the United States faithfully.”

It was smooth sailing from there. All of the words in the oath were uttered, along with “so help me God” at the end.

People will argue about what the failure to utter the words in the precise order required by the Constitution means. But it will be an academic argument. It is not clear who would have standing to raise the argument that Mr. Obama had not become president as a consequence, and it is hard to believe that any court—or other body—would want to adjudicate the question.

There is, in any event, no rule against a do-over. When questions were raised about whether Calvin Coolidge should have been sworn in by his father, a notary public, he took the oath again, this time from a Supreme Court justice.

If I had been in Obama’s shoes, once Roberts had clearly wandered off into his private dyslexia land and was ruining the greatest moment of my life, I would have turned away from Roberts, faced the crowd, and recited the oath of office by myself:

“I do solemnly swear 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.”

There is no need to have someone recite the oath, as though a president doesn’t have the intelligence to remember a 35 word sentence.

Alternatively, and more realistically, Roberts and Obama, once they realized they had botched it, should simply have said, “Let’s start that over from the beginning,” and done a clean job of it.

But getting the words wrong wasn’t the only problem. The two men apparently did not rehearse the oath together beforehand, so that Obama would know where in the oath Roberts would pause; and that’s how Roberts first got confused, when Obama began speaking over him before Roberts had paused. So the failure to rehearse is certainly Obama’s fault. However, Obama handled that first flub well; he paused, waited for Roberts to finish, and then re-said his own line from the start. From that point it might have gone ok. But instead there then came Robert’s astonishing re-writing of the oath, so that the words, “that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States,” became, “that I will execute the office of President to the United States faithfully.” Obama was understandably thrown, and, after saying “I will execute,” sensing the missing word “faithfully,” paused. If he had really known the words and was quick enough, he might have recovered from Roberts’s wrong recitation and just given the words correctly. That didn’t happen. Then, after Obama paused, Roberts, instead of righting himself, went completely over the cliff, starting the troublesome clause over again, getting it wrong, stopping, starting again, leaving words out, so that the sentence never got recited correctly and the “faithfully” remained at the end of the clause. So Roberts didn’t screw up once, or even twice, he screwed up about five times in a row.

And even the jumbled opening of the oath, with the two talking over each other, was not the beginning of Roberts’s problems. Even before the oath began, he struck a wrong note addressing Obama as “Senator.” Everyone knows he’s no longer a senator. Now it’s possible the two agreed on the honorific beforehand, as due to a former senator, but still, it sounded odd. Also ominous, if you listen to Roberts’s voice when he says, “Are you ready to take the oath of office, Senator”? his voice goes strangely high on the word “Senator” and you sense that something is not right with him. I wonder if Roberts has a neurological disorder or is on drugs or something.

Thus the moment of the swearing in, that magical-historical moment of transition when a man becomes president, the moment that is ordinarily played and replayed over and over in documentaries and newscasts about a president, and, even more in this case, the super-historical moment of the first nonwhite becoming president, and thus for liberals the greatest moment of transition in the history of the world, was turned into a painful embarrassment by Roberts’s astonishing mangling of the words of the oath. So the moment is lost to history. The tape of Obama taking the oath, which otherwise would have been played ten million times on televison in the years to come, will never be played, because it’s too painful.

I can imagine that Obama is so angry at Roberts he will never want to set eyes on him again. If I had done what Roberts had done, I don’t know how I would ever get over it. But today’s elite are so in love with themselves it probably rolled right off Roberts’s back.

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However, based on Joseph Lowery’s resentful, anti-white closing prayer at the inaugural proceedings, I no longer feel bad about Obama’s ruined oath-taking. Instead of seeming like a painful, terrible foul-up that should never have happened, it feels like justice—justice, delivered inadvertently by the Chief Justice himself, as though some force outside himself were making the normally ultra-smooth Roberts screw up as he’s never screwed up before in his life.

George Washington in his first inaugural address spoke of Providence as “that Almighty Being who rules over the Universe, who presides in the Councils of Nations.” Maybe, in matters big and small, in ways tragic and ways playfully mischievous, in ways we normally do not see and do not understand, he’s presiding there still.

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Paul Cella writes:

All of that is well said.

Man, was that awkward. I could hardly believe my eyes and ears. The sooner that goes down the memory-hole, the better, I say.

Virginia writes:

Maybe Roberts had problems because of wondering if Obama really is constitutionally eligible to be president.

Sam H. writes from the Netherlands:

Good stuff.

You write:

“I wonder if Roberts has a neurological disorder or is on drugs or something,”

Remember this? This was in 2007, the second time he, supposedly a healthy man, suffered a so-called “benign, idiopathic seizure

I always suspected that, to satisfy his burning ambition to rise to the Supreme Court, and having instilled the lessons of the Bork episode, he had devoted himself to being the ultimate stealth nominee, but as a result adopted an overly conciliatory, evasive demeanor, perhaps at the cost of his integrity. One of my mentors remarked that he “didn’t like the way Roberts looked out of his eyes” at his confirmation hearings. [LA replies: That’s a very interesting analysis. When I first saw Roberts, at the time his nomination was announced, I also thought his eyes were strange, in a way I can’t describe. But it made me feel he was not real, not all there, not someone I would trust.]

It would be terrible for the republic if Roberts turns out to be ill and the current lot gets to put yet another liberal on the Court to replace him. In many ways, the Supreme Court is the last bit of resistance standing in the way of Obama.

Mark P. writes:

Does this signify an implied Constitutional court resistance to Obama?

January 21

Irwin Graulich writes:

Excellent commentary on Roberts. I never liked him and always thought he was a liberal hiding in a conservative gown. The errors he made during the swearing in ceremony do not surprise me. This is typical of many of those Harvard guys who think they are just too smart to write anything down because their “superior brains” can memorize everything. Roberts should publicly apologize to the country and to Obama.

A Brooklyn College graduate would have simply read the oath of office from a printed piece. But common sense is not “common” among those elite ivy leaguers!!!!

Posted by Lawrence Auster at January 20, 2009 02:23 PM | Send

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