Obama's First Oath Of Office Remembered As Less Than Smooth

At Monday's inauguration, it may be assumed that President Obama is taking the oath of office for the second time. But it will actually be the fourth. Nina Totenberg talks to Robert Siegel.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Well, before we get to hear that speech, whatever's in it, President Obama will take the oath of office. Presumably, the oath taking will go more smoothly than it did last time. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg will be part of our inaugural coverage team. And she joins us now to talk about what happened four years ago. And, Nina, I gather this is a tale of intended screw ups.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Yep. And you know, Robert, I think to understand this we should play the whole oath taking for our listeners beginning with Chief Justice John Roberts.

SIEGEL: Okay.

(SOUNDBITE OF OBAMA'S FIRST OATH TAKING)

JUSTICE JOHN ROBERTS: Are you prepared to take the oath, Senator?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I am.

ROBERTS: I, Barack Hussein Obama...

OBAMA: I, Barack...

ROBERTS: ...solemnly swear.

OBAMA: I, Barack Hussein Obama do solemnly swear...

ROBERTS: ...that I will execute the office of President to the United States faithfully.

OBAMA: ...that I'll execute...

ROBERTS: ...the...faithfully the - office of President of the United States...

OBAMA: ...the office of President of the United States faithfully...

ROBERTS: ...and will to the best of my ability...

OBAMA: ...and will to the best of my ability...

ROBERTS: ...preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States...

OBAMA: ...preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States...

ROBERTS: ...so help you God.

OBAMA: ...so help me God.

ROBERTS: Congratulations, Mr. President.

(APPLAUSE)

SIEGEL: Well, I guess the first 44 times are the toughest. Not very smooth, that oath taking. What happened?

TOTENBERG: Well, it boils down to the modern version of the old adage, there's many a slip between cub and lip. This was not only Barack Obama's first inaugural, it was Chief Justice John Robert's first, too. And so, Roberts looked to the way it had been done by his predecessor and one-time boss, Chief Justice William Rehnquist. Rehnquist, who swore in five presidents, took a methodical approach to the whole business to ensure that he and the president were on the same page, as it were.

He would write out the oath, indicating where he planned to pause for the president to repeat the words, and then have it conveyed through the congressional Sergeant of Arms office to the president's staff. Chief Justice Roberts followed that example and emailed the final draft of the oath as it was to be administered to Cami Morrison, the staffer who had previously handled the oath taking and was detailed to do so again.

SIEGEL: But the proverbial cup never got to the lip?

TOTENBERG: You got it. According to Jeffrey Toobin's book "The Oath," where I got this information, nobody is quite clear as to why Ms. Morrison didn't receive this email or a previous one, or whether she overlooked it, didn't open it or what. Nobody on the president's staff, however, ever saw this oath with the marked pauses.

So with that in mind, let's listen to the oath and unpack what happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF OBAMA'S FIRST OATH TAKING)

ROBERTS: I, Barrack Hussein Obama...

OBAMA: I, Barack...

ROBERTS: ...solemnly swear...

OBAMA: I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear...

SIEGEL: So Robert's plan for the first phrase to be, I, Barack Hussein Obama do solemnly swear, but Obama obviously thought the Chief Justice was going to pause after his name.

TOTENBERG: That's it. And Obama started his part early and then it got worse because, you see, John Roberts is famous for his memory. And he'd memorized the oath, rehearsing it often in chambers, and he did not bring a copy of the oath card with him. Now, even a man as confident a memorizer as the Chief Justice can be thrown when he appears before a crowd of 2 million people and a verbal wrench gets thrown into the works. So the next phrase the Chief Justice is to say, that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, here's what happens.

(SOUNDBITE OF OBAMA'S FIRST OATH TAKING)

ROBERTS: ...that I will execute the office of President to the United States faithfully...

OBAMA: That I'll execute...

ROBERTS: ...the - faithfully the - office of President of the United States...

OBAMA: ...the office of President of the United States faithfully.

TOTENBERG: And so what you hear there is the usually cool Chief Justice getting flustered. He put the word faithfully in the wrong place and said, after that, I will execute the office of President to the United States instead of of the United States. Now, Mr. Obama knows faithfully is in the wrong place and he pauses, leading to a further muddle. Thankfully, the final phrases go fine.

(SOUNDBITE OF OBAMA'S FIRST OATH TAKING)

ROBERTS: ...and will to the best of my ability...

OBAMA: ...and will to the best of my ability...

ROBERTS: ...preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States...

OBAMA: ...preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States...

ROBERTS: ...so help you God.

OBAMA: ...so help me God.

ROBERTS: Congratulations, Mr. President.

(APPLAUSE)

SIEGEL: As a measure of the best of someone's ability there, this was not the end of the story of the oath.

TOTENBERG: No. The blogosphere began opining that Barack Obama was not really president because the oath, which is specified in the Constitution, was not correctly taken. Now, in truth, it turns out that over the course of time the oath has been muddled far worse than it was here. But the new president was about to sign a bunch of important executive orders. And remember, there were people who, throughout the campaign, kept claiming that Barack Obama was not born in the United States and couldn't be president.

So with an abundance of caution, as the White House counselor Gregory Craig put it, they decided to do it again. And on January 22nd, John Roberts, Chief Justice of the United States, stopped by the White House on his way home and administered the oath again correctly.

SIEGEL: So, Nina, is the chief justice going to carry an oath card with him this time for good measure?

TOTENBERG: Well, Robert, he's not saying.

SIEGEL: Okay. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

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