What Happened With Obama's Oath Of Office? When Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts administered the Oath of Office to then President-elect Barack Obama, it didn't go as scripted. It's the only oath specifically dictated in the Constitution, so scholar Jonathan Turley recommends Obama re-do it, and get it right.
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What Happened With Obama's Oath Of Office?

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What Happened With Obama's Oath Of Office?

What Happened With Obama's Oath Of Office?

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This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. A new president, a new agenda and several parts of the new Cabinet; day one of the Obama presidency is a Wednesday, so time for another visit with the Political Junkie.

Former President RONALD REAGAN: There you go again.

Former Vice President WALTER MONDALE: When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that ad, "Where's the Beef?"

Former Senator BARRY GOLDWATER (Republican, Arizona): Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.

Former President RICHARD NIXON: You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore.

Governor SARAH PALIN (Republican, Alaska): Lipstick.

Former President GEORGE W. BUSH: But I'm the decider...

(Soundbite of Howard Dean scream)

CONAN: The fun is over, and the hard work begins every Wednesday when NPR's political editor Ken Rudin joins us to review the political news of the week. There's one new governor, one new senator - another soon, but Minnesota and New York, still on hold, for different reasons. In Springfield, Blagojevich goes to trial on Monday. In Washington, Ted Kennedy leaves the hospital today. Later, the question of the constitutionality of the misread oath. plus conservative media partisans dropped their shields and take up the cudgels. Columnist Jonah Goldberg will join us, but we begin first, as always, with a trivia question. Political Junkie Ken Rudin joins us here in Studio 3A. Hey, Ken.

KEN RUDIN: Hi, Neal. Stark day, our first time we've done the show under a president born in Hawaii.

CONAN: Indeed, it's a big change.

RUDIN: So, it is history in the making. OK. Yesterday, Chief Justice John Roberts administered the oath of office to Barack Obama. The two, they have not known each other that long, apparently, but once a president and the person who swear him in knew each other for 40 years. Who were they?

CONAN: Well, if you think you know the name of the president sworn into office by someone he'd known for 40 years...

RUDIN: Forty years.

CONAN: Give us a call. Our number in Washington, 800-989-8255; email us, talk@npr.org; and you can join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org; just click on Talk of the Nation. And Ken, lots of civility between the out-coming and incoming presidents, bur George W. Bush had to be squirming as he listened to President Obama repudiate his policies and his politics yesterday.

RUDIN: You know, it was actually more stinging and more of a renunciation than I expected. It was clear that one of his first words that President Obama said, that I thank President Bush and thank you for all the help of, you know...

CONAN: In the transition.

RUDIN: In the transition, everything like that, but there was no doubting that in much of the inauguration address was given to pointing out the differences with what the 44th president will be from what the 43rd president wasn't, and that is on language, on an actions, on consulting with others, things like that.

CONAN: And on what he called the false choice between security and ideals.

RUDIN: Exactly that. I mean, obviously that's not a choice - that's a choice that George W. Bush made very clear. Barack Obama says the choice doesn't have to be made between that.

CONAN: And as the president - former president now - George Bush was introduced on stage, a smattering of boos yesterday; a bigger round of boos for Vice President Cheney.

RUDIN: Yeah, you know, you'd like to think that the day of inauguration, partisan politics goes away, but as our NPR correspondents who were out on the Mall and throughout the city, whenever President - when then President George W. Bush- it's kind of odd to say that after eight years...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Yeah. It's like signing your checks '08.

RUDIN: Yeah, exactly. When his picture would show on the JumboTron there were boos wherever they saw them. So, that was, you know, obviously - look, he's been a controversial president. His numbers are very low. There's no question his election in 2000 was controversial. A lot of people feel - and this is not just Democrats talking; there's Republicans, too - that after eight years, it's a new tone and we'll see what happens. You know, we saw President Bush on September 10, 2001 with a 50-percent president and on September 11, he became an 80-percent president. Things could change the opposite way. President Obama's numbers are very high right now.

CONAN: Up in the upper 70s at the moment, so...

RUDIN: Possible chance of showers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Possible chance of showers, indeed. And there were - today at the White House, President Obama announced the changes to lobbying rules. If you leave his administration, want to become a lobbyist, you're going to have to wait 'til he leaves office, and also a freeze on White House salaries anybody making over $100,000.

RUDIN: Right. And regarding the lobbying, no lobbying at all. If you're working for the Obama White House, no lobbying at all at the Obama White House while exactly - while President Barack Obama is in the White House.

CONAN: And now many members of the Obama cabinet have been approved: Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag, Veterans Affair Secretary Eric Shinseki and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, but not the secretary of State.

RUDIN: Right, or the secretary of Treasury. Right now secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, could have - there was a motion yesterday in the Senate to have a unanimous voice vote. John Cornyn, the Republican senator from Texas, said, no, I still have questions regarding the Bill Clinton Foundation, potential conflicts of interest with Hillary Clinton. So, I want to debate on that. So, the Senate was debating that this morning. A lot of support from Hillary Clinton coming from Republican John McCain, said absolutely, I support the Hillary Clinton...

CONAN: And call for Republicans, enough of this partisanship; so if we've got a popular president, give him his secretary, he says.

RUDIN: Exactly. And I suspect that before this show - this program is over, there may very well be a vote, and I suspect an overwhelming vote of support for Hillary Clinton. It's a little different on the Treasury secretary front, and Tim Geithner's still being questioned about his failure to pay taxes when he worked for the International Monetary Fund, and those questions have kept - keep coming up. Again, it should not - it is expected to do derail his nomination, given the severity of the economic news, but there are some embarrassing questions for Geithner.

CONAN: And Eric Holder, another one, the attorney general ,still on hold.

RUDIN: Right, and there's going to be a hearing today. There is suppose to be a vote at 2:30 eastern time today in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

CONAN: Let's get some callers on the line on our trivia question. Again, if you know the identity of the president sworn in by somebody he'd known for 40 years...

RUDIN: A long time.

CONAN: Obviously, not Barack Obama and John Roberts yesterday - more on that a little bit later on the show. But give us a call, 800-989-8255; email us, talk@npr.org. Let's start with Adam, Adam with us from Oklahoma City.

ADAM (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

ADAM: Yeah. Was it Thomas Jefferson?

CONAN: Sworn in by his cousin John Marshal, correct?

ADAM: Yes, correct.


RUDIN: Oh, God. I hate when there are answers that I did not anticipate.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RUDIN: How about the last person?

CONAN: The last person to know - all right. We'll concede. Adam, you get a no-prize.

RUDIN: Oh, man.

CONAN: But it's not the no-prize we're looking for.

RUDIN: You know, there was an answer last week when there was a question about the first - a woman who came closest to be the first African-American...

CONAN: First lady.

RUDIN: First lady. And there was a great question about - a great answer from somebody who was the wife of a vice president in the 1800, never thought it.

CONAN: Never thought of it. You've stumped Ken, so you deserve the no-prize there, Adam.

RUDIN: But that's not the one I'm thinking of.

CONAN: But that's not the one you're thinking of.

ADAM: I'm sorry?

CONAN: That's not the one he's thinking of. His thinking of a more recent president, but you're a winner.

ADAM: All right. I did? OK. Good, great.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much.

ADAM: Thanks very much.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

RUDIN: I'm very upset.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go to Steve, Steve with us from Marlton in New Jersey - is that right?

STEVE (Caller): That's it.

CONAN: Go ahead.

STEVE: I don't know what made me think this and I thought better of it afterwards, but I think - could it be Bobby Kennedy and his brother John?

CONAN: But Robert Kennedy, John Kennedy's attorney general, but did not swear him into office.

RUDIN: Correct. They'd known each other for a long time, Bobby and...

CONAN: Yes, but they had known him all their lives, just about.

STEVE: Thanks.

CONAN: Oh, Bobby's life, anyway. Thanks very much. Here's an email from Marge: Lyndon Johnson and Sarah Hughes, who sworn him in on the plane Air Force One in Dallas, Texas, after the assassination of John Kennedy.

RUDIN: It's terrible. I still picture that photograph of a shocked Jackie Kennedy at the back...

CONAN: With the blood stains on her dress.

RUDIN: It'll always be etched in my mind. Exactly. But no, they did not know each other 40 years, though. She was a federal judge and they knew each other, but not for 40 years.

CONAN: Here's another email, this one from Randy: Richard Nixon and Earl Warren, he says, I think they hated each other in the old California days to boot.

RUDIN: They absolutely hated each other, and I'm sure that Richard Nixon was - when Earl Warren was running for president in 1952, he was California's favorite son. Richard Nixon, who was a junior senator from California, could have backed Earl Warren; instead he backed Eisenhower. That's probably one of the reasons why Nixon got on the ticket. And when Warren swore Nixon in, in 1969, obviously there were bitter feelings between the two of them, but they did not know each other 40 years.

CONAN: And let's get Carl on the line, Carl with us from Bloomfield, Connecticut.

CARL (Caller): Hi. I think it's Cal Coolidge.

CONAN: Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding!

RUDIN: That's correct. The person who swore him, he's known for a long time. It was his father. Calvin Coolidge's father was a notary public. You know, that country in South America, the Nota Republic, yes?

CARL: He woke up in Vermont in the middle of the night.

RUDIN: When President Warren Harding died, exactly right, and this was in 1923 when Harding died. Calvin Coolidge was sworn in by his father, and Coolidge was about 41 - no, no, I'm sorry. He couldn't have been that young, but 44 something like that years old.

CONAN: So, they'd probably known him for 44 years.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RUDIN: Exactly.

CONAN: Indeed. Carl, thanks very much. You win this week's no-prize. So, we're handing out two this week.


CONAN: All right.

CARL: And I just wanted to relate my funniest image from yesterday.

CONAN: Yeah?

CARL: Dick Cheney in a wheelchair was the best Lionel Barrymore we've seen in decades.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: All right, Carl. Thanks very much for the call.


CONAN: Bye-bye. Good news: This time yesterday we were very worried about Senator Edward Kennedy, who collapsed at the post-inaugural luncheon. Apparently, he did suffer a seizure, but has been released from the hospital today; was the result of exhaustion, is what we're told.

RUDIN: Fatigue is what they said, and he's in good spirits, and he's home from the hospital. So, that is very good news. We also reported during the special yesterday that Robert Bird was alleged to have collapsed and taken to the hospital as well.

CONAN: Alleged by you.

RUDIN: Well, it was on TV and everything like that.

CONAN: There were reports..

RUDIN: But that was not the case. So...

CONAN: And he was just distraught over what happened to Senator Kennedy and...

RUDIN: Right.

CONAN: Retreated to his office. Any news on the Senate races in Minnesota and New York, which are held up for different reasons?

RUDIN: Well, there is in New York. It's interesting, and first of all, last week, we finally noted - because Governor David Paterson acknowledged it - that he had interviewed state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo as a potential successor to Hillary Clinton once she is confirmed a secretary of state. Paterson, who can pick anyone he wants - of course, Caroline Kennedy has had a very public walking...

CONAN: Courtship?

RUDIN: Courtship and listening tour, not much of a talking tour, but a listening tour - anyway, Paterson says he will make his announcement by Saturday. So, the next couple of days, we will have a new senator from the state of New York.

CONAN: And we may have one this millennium from Minnesota.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RUDIN: Well, it's a - Norm - Al Franken, the Democratic challenger, who has a 225-vote lead, has gone to the Minnesota State Supreme Court saying that - to dismiss Norm Coleman's request that 12,000 absentee ballots that had been previously rejected be counted again. That's obviously Coleman's only chance for victory. It's not going to happen, but it is likely that we will not have a senator until February at the earliest.

CONAN: And there has been a new senator sworn in to replace Vice President Joe Biden from Delaware.

RUDIN: That's Ed Kaufman, right.

CONAN: And yet, not quite from Delaware yet - not quite from Colorado yet.

RUDIN: Right. Ken Salazar was, as you said, confirmed. The announcement by voice vote unanimously confirmed the secretary interior. He resigned today as senator from Colorado. Michael Bennett, who is a state public education commissioner, will be sworn in, but not - he hasn't been done yet.

CONAN: And finally, Rod Blagojevich goes on to impeachment trial in Springfield, Illinois, on Monday. He has yet to even respond to the summons or even submit a witness list. If anybody plans to call, he may not even be able to protest.

RUDIN: Right. He may be out of office before there's a new senator from Minnesota.

CONAN: We're talking with Ken Rudin, our Political Junkie. Up next, the question of the misread oath yesterday; should President Obama take the oath of office again? Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. NPR political editor Ken Rudin is us to ponder and probe the weekly political news. In a few minutes, we'll take your calls on the role of partisan politics. Everyone deplores the tone of criticism inside the beltway. Do you really expect it will change? And should it? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation by our - on our Web site. That's at npr.org; just click on Talk of the Nation. Shortly after noon yesterday, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts administered the oath of office to the president-elect.

(Soundbite of Inaugural Ceremony, January 20, 2009)

Chief Justice JOHN ROBERTS (U.S. Supreme Court): I, Barack Hussein Obama...

President-elect BARACK OBAMA (Former Democratic Senator, Illinois): I, Barack...

Chief Justice ROBERTS: Do solemnly swear...

President-elect OBAMA: I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear...

Chief Justice ROBERTS: That I will execute the office of president to the United States faithfully...

President-elect OBAMA: That I will execute...

Chief Justice ROBERTS: Faithfully, the pres - office of president of the United States...

President-elect OBAMA: The office of president of the United States faithfully...

Chief Justice ROBERTS: And will to the best of my ability...

President-elect OBAMA: And will to the best of my ability...

Chief Justice ROBERTS: Preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States...

President-elect OBAMA: Preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States...

Chief Justice ROBERTS: So, help you God?

President-elect OBAMA: So, help me God.

Chief Justice ROBERTS: Congratulation, Mr. President.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

CONAN: Well, it turned out the chief justice mixed up a few words, more than a few words, - to the pre - anyway, the Constitution specifies the 35 words that make up the presidential oath. If he does not speak them exactly, is he really president? Do Barack Obama and John Roberts need a do-over? Well, we've asked Constitution law expert Jonathan Turley to join us to sort this out, and nice to have you back on the program, Jonathan.

Professor JONATHAN TURLEY (Constitution Law, The George Washington University Law School): It's great to be back.

CONAN: He's with us here in Studio 3A. It seemed that Obama seemingly knew that the chief justice was off and paused a moment to give him an opportunity to restate it.

Prof. TURLEY: It seemed clear to me that he caught the error. You know, the interesting thing about the word "faithfully" is that it's an anchor word for oaths. You know, people tend to break oaths up, and "faithfully" is one of those words that breaks the oath up. And it was clear that Obama realized that faithfully had come too soon, and he stopped. But unfortunately, it wasn't rectified. He gave the oath in a fashion that is different from that in the Constitution, and the problem with the Constitution is that it has these words in quotes.

CONAN: This is the only office - oath of office for anybody that's specified in the Constitution.

Prof. TURLEY: That's right. And the general view is that that quotation in the Constitution must be read exactly, and you can understand why, because otherwise, presidents could omit a couple of words or transpose clauses, and you end up on what's called the slippery-slope problem, where we have to decide how much of the oath is really necessary. So, historically, the view has been, you've got to get it exactly. And by the way...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. TURLEY: That's why past chief justices have not risked it. They've read it. And I think that in this case, it was a rather precocious moment by our new chief justice, where he tried to do it without reading, and I think this is going to be a lesson for future chief justices.

CONAN: It's a lesson for all radio hosts, too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Don't come into the studio without a script, though we tend to dance on the wire a little bit. But nevertheless, does that mean that they don't have to do it on the Capitol steps, they could just do it in an office somewhere.

Prof. TURLEY: That would have been the wiser thing to do. I mean, no one expected Joe Biden to go running off this morning screaming, it's me, I'm the 44th president.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEN RUDIN: But I thought that he's secretary of state also?

Prof. TURLEY: Yeah. Well, that's something else.

CONAN: That's something else. Exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. TURLEY: But really, on the time like this, the best way to remove the cloud is just do it again. I was surprised when Roberts went up to him at the congressional luncheon, he didn't say, Mr. President, can I have a second of your time? I'd like to read you 35 words. I - that would have been the best time to do it. Now, he wouldn't be the first. There were two other presidents that took the oath twice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, beyond Glover Cleveland, who else?

Prof. TURLEY: Well, first of all, you had Chester Arthur, who was first read in by John - I think it was John Brady, who was justice of New York Supreme Court. He wasn't quite sure if that would take. So, he did it again. And the other one is Calvin Coolidge, who was sworn-in by his father late at night.

CONAN: We were just mentioning that.

Prof. TURLEY: Right, at Plymouth Notch. And then when he - I'm sure didn't want to insult his father, but when he got into the city, he decided, maybe I should do this one again.

CONAN: So, he opted for a federal judge?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. TURLEY: That's right, and so, what we really have here is a cloud, and the funny thing is, Chief Justice John Roberts will be the last to say that the text of the Constitution can be liberally construed.

CONAN: So, well, you described it in the newspaper this morning as the Constitutional equivalent of a wardrobe malfunction.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. TURLEY: It really is. It's a grammatical malfunction, to be sure. You could not have a more embarrassing situation for the chief justice. He has very few mandatory duties, but one of them is to read 35 words without error. I - this is...

CONAN: But he's not - he doesn't have to administer the oath. It could be any federal judge, right?

Prof. TURLEY: That's true. It's just that he's often called upon - in fact, many have not been read in by the chief justice. But when he is called upon doing it, the task is to make it through all 35 words in the right order.

RUDIN: Well, I'm just going to ask that question. Does it have to be - forget about a chief justice or Supreme Court justice; does it have to be a federal judge? We talk about the case with Coolidge with his father. Could Barack Obama just recite those 35 words to anybody and just make it official?

Prof. TURLEY: Well, it has to be an oath, so it has to be a judicial officer. There's been a question whether it has to be federal officer. But a judicial officer would do. He won't be able to do this on his BlackBerry...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. TURLEY: Which I think would be his preference. But certainly there have been plenty of presidents that didn't do this with the chief justice, including, most obviously, George Washington because there was no chief justice. He hadn't appointed them yet.

CONAN: But we kept hearing yesterday - they were running a little bit behind schedule - but we kept hearing that Barack Obama becomes president by law at noon even if he hasn't been formally sworn-in.

Prof. TURLEY: Well, this is one of the great trivia questions of beer night with law professors, and that is, you have Article II Section 1 that states clearly, you must give these words to be sworn-in as president. But then the 20th Amendment in Section 1 says, at 12, the presidency of your predecessor ends and your presidency begins. But the general assumption is that you still must take the oath. Now, does that mean that we are now living in the Biden administration? I would bet against it.

CONAN: We had exactly those points raised in emails from - by Andrea in Oklahoma City and Michael, who sent us something from area code 314, wherever that happens to be, and if Mr. Obama became president at noon, why was an oath needed at all? Because it's in the Constitution.

Prof. TURLEY: It is in the Constitution, and the assumption is you do need the oath. The question is to get a sense of whether the 20th Amendment could be viewed as superseding something in Article 2. But the general view is, you've got to get them both right, and the wiser thing would be for a do-over. Now, it would be incredibly demeaning for Chief Justice Roberts if not only was there a do-over, but they went to some immigration judge to get it right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. TURLEY: I think the assumption is he'd like, if it has to be done, to do it himself.

RUDIN: Judge Reinhold or something like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Do it very quietly as well.

Prof. TURLEY: Do it very quietly would be recommended.

CONAN: I think on "Saturday Night Live."

Prof. TURLEY: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RUDIN: Here's a question, though. Now, prior to 12 o'clock, we administered the oath to the vice president first. So, for a brief shining moment, we did have a President Bush and a Vice President Biden; is that correct?

Prof. TURLEY: Yeah. You could argue that that was the case, although I think that would be a sign of the apocalypse, and so we just brush over that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: The scramble for the football, if the occasion had arisen, would have been awesome.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. TURLEY: Well, most certainly at noon, President Bush became a former president and the crowd clearly was awaiting that.

CONAN: Now, as I understand it, you were hosting a mock swearing-in at your home as this was going on.

Prof. TURLEY: You know, I was really rather shocked that the media didn't cover our inauguration ceremony.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. TURLEY: But we did have an inauguration with 35 children and parents, and we swore the kids in. And I have to say - now, I was playing the role of a chief justice - and I will say that our inauguration went over flawlessly. I - when, in fact, Chief Justice Roberts had his malfunction, one of the children said, that's not right, and my son turned to me and said, does that count? And I said, I'm not sure. But the nice thing is as there's a constitutional law professor that goes with these things to watch the cars crash, we have a new trivia question.

CONAN: A new trivia question. So, I'm sure Ken is going to be heartbroken by that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RUDIN: Of course.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Jonathan.

Prof. TURLEY: My great pleasure.

CONAN: We appreciate it. Jonathan Turley joined us here in Studio 3A. He's a constitutional-law expert professor of public-interest law at George Washington University, and we thank him for his time. Ken, as we continue, there is, of course, we mentioned, Janet Napolitano sworn-in as the new director - secretary of Homeland Security, which means there's a new governor in the state of Arizona.

RUDIN: Right, and a completely different governor. It's a woman, as Janet Napolitano is, Jan Brewer. She is a Republican secretary of state, a strong social conservative, very anti-abortion rights. She inherits a government that is $2 billion in debt. It'd be interesting to see how Jan Brewer deals with that debt. She has cut education funding in the past, you know, has suggested that. As secretary of state, she's voted against that. So, it will be interesting to see what different tasks she does for the state of Arizona than Napolitano did.

CONAN: And we neglected to mention that Tom Daschle has yet to be sworn in as a secretary of Health and Human Services.

RUDIN: And Ray LaHood also is for Transportation, and there'll be hearings today, I believe.

CONAN: As these new majorities take their roles on both sides of Capitol Hill - obviously bigger Democratic majorities this time around on both the Senate side and the House side - how are those - have we seen any evidence of how those majorities are being used?

RUDIN: Well, not yet. I mean, obviously, it's early, and obviously, the Democrats are excited about the fact that they're all on the same page with the president and a Democratic Senate and House. And the last time you had that was the first two years of the Clinton administration. But there's still - you know, there's a lot of talk about the economic stimulus. They would love to have that on Barack Obama's desk by mid-February. Right now, it's $825 billion, and there's questions about that. So, obviously, he's hoping to have a complete different direction as President Bush. Obviously, they're talking about closing Guantanamo and what to do with the 245 detainees; what to do about stem cells, perhaps an executive order on that. And of course, President Barack Obama has pledged to withdraw troops from Iraq in 16 months, which should be completely different than his predecessor.

CONAN: And of course, he is always promised a, well, a transparent administration. Curiously, there was no White House press briefing today.

RUDIN: Yeah. It was scheduled, then there was not one, and I have not seen an explanation why that was the case. But I think that's just one of those constitutional glitch...

CONAN: Glitches - it could have been - an equipment glitch is what we heard, and that in fact, they were going to have one but they didn't know how to run the equipment.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: So, they're going to have to figure it out.

RUDIN: Where is Rose Mary Woods when we need her?

CONAN: Well, we mentioned the hearings going on, the debate going on, in the United States Senate today over the nomination of Hillary Clinton, one of their own, to be secretary of State. Earlier today, Senator John McCain urged his colleagues on the Senate floor to go ahead and vote the confirmation as President Obama's pick to be secretary of State.

(Soundbite of congressional debate, January 21, 2009)

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): I would remind all of my colleagues, we had an election and we also had a remarkable and historic time yesterday as this nation has come together in a way that it has not for some time. I, like all good politicians, pay attention to the president's approval ratings; they're very high. But more importantly, I think the message that the American people are sending us now is they want us to work together and get to work. I think we ought to let Senator Clinton, who is obviously qualified and obviously will serve, to get to work immediately.

CONAN: Of course, the Republican presidential candidate John McCain calling for bipartisanship on the Senate floor when - well, it was just one Republican senator, John Cornyn. who held up the unanimous vote yesterday.

RUDIN: Right. And that doesn't mean - again, it does not imperil her nomination at all, but given the problems with Gaza, given what's, you know, what's going on with the Mideast and all the problems overseas. Republicans as well as Democrats feel that, look, there are questions to be asked about any possible conflict of interest. That's were - that was Cornyn's point. Cornyn is also the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, and that could be part of the politics of it, but there's no question that she will be confirmed and most likely within the hour.

CONAN: And you mentioned the problems in Gaza. The president, we are told, did make calls today to speak with the leaders of the Palestinian Authority, with the prime minister of Israel, with the king of Jordan and with the president of Egypt as well. So, that diplomacy underway, even without a secretary of State.

RUDIN: A busy first day, absolutely.

CONAN: We're talking with Political Junkie Ken Rudin. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And we want to talk about the role of partisan politics in Washington. You just heard that clip of tape from John McCain. Yes, we do have a very popular president; this can change over time. What's the role of partisan politics? Every new president deplores the tone in Washington, D.C. You might remember one president who wanted to be a uniter and not a divider. What is the popular role of partisan politics? Do you expect that there's going to be partisan politics in the new administration? 800-989-8255; email is talk@npr.org, and let's get Barbara on the line, Barbara calling us from Cleveland.

BARBARA (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Barbara.

BARBARA: Hi, how are you?

CONAN: Very well, thank you.

BARBARA: About the partisan - I think it's important that we all work towards solving the problems, but I don't think it's going to happen. I think if there were more Republicans in the Senate right now, it would be easier. But they've got to start getting their brownie points so they can get, you know, shore up their numbers. So, they're going to slowly and subtly make it harder for that to happen.

CONAN: If there were more Republicans in the Senate, it would be easier to have more bipartisanship?

BARBARA: Yes, because right now, they need to start doing little things so that they can get their party back together. So, they don't have - like...

CONAN: Show how relevant - that they are still relevant, and Ken Rudin, a lot of people thought that they would make a stand on the nomination of Eric Holder to be attorney general to point out to the White House, to the new man in the White House, that the Republican minority in the Senate still has power.

RUDIN: Well, they clearly wanted to make a point about his past association with the Bill Clinton pardons of Marc Rick and commutation of sentence for the FALN terrorists.

CONAN: Puerto Rican terrorists.

RUDIN: Puerto Rican terrorists. But also, it'll be very interesting - to talk about tone, a week from today, the Republican National Committee elects its new chair. Now, usually people don't pay attention to this. The current chair is Mike Duncan. He's not a household name, but there is kind of controversy in the election - in the selection of a Republican chair. One of the contestants - contenders for the RNC chair did this satire, this "Barack, the Magic Negro," spoof that was - would just so beyond the pale.

CONAN: Just - he didn't do it; he distributed.

RUDIN: He distributed it, and it was clearly beyond the pale. So, the Republican Party needs to know if it's going to be the loyal opposition, the crabby opposition - but look, clearly, Barack Obama enters with extraordinarily high approval ratings. Part of it is obviously the history of the moment. But I think most of America, given this severity of the problems, people just want him to succeed.

CONAN: Barbara, thanks very much for the call.

BARBARA: You're welcome. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go now to Jeremy. Jeremy's calling us from Dewey's Creek in North Carolina.

JEREMY (Caller): Hey. Just wanted to say, partisan politics will always have a future in America, it's always going to be present in America, so long as we operate within the framework of our political parties. I think we've gotten, as Republicans and Democrats, away from the original ideologies mainly because no one really gives a thought to what is classical Republican or classical Democratic thought in a Greek sense of the word. But the various founding documents of our country were hammered out in a very partisan process. You had the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists at each other's necks. And they were Americans; they were capitalists. They were acting in favor of the American people as far as they could tell. But the process by which our country was established and by which it has refined itself, with the voting rights, with civil rights, those are all political processes, democratic processes. And by those two traits, a democratic system almost presupposes a partisan system of sorting itself out.

CONAN: Ken, very quickly?

RUDIN: But remember, when the two parties dealt with civil rights in the 1960s, Republicans and Democrats still worked together. In this era, both parties seem to really dislike each other, and that's a change from what we've seen in the past.

CONAN: Jeremy, thanks very much for the phone call. We're going to be talking about the role not just of partisan politics but partisan media when we come back. Conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg is going to join us, and he's going to make the argument that it's actually more fun to be in the opposition than it is to be defending a sitting president. We'll see how he rationalizes that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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