Wednesday, January 21, 2009

"This was meant to be a happy occasion!''

The Great Oath of Office debate rages on.
In response to my latest post, several alert readers seemed to take issue with the way I characterized the flubbed Oath of Office administered by Chief Justice Roberts to President Obama.
The general tenor was that it was Roberts who messed up first, which caused Obama to mess up.
Well, I know how my mama would have responded: "Well, if Judge Roberts jumped off the roof, would you jump off, too, Barack?'' I never had a good answer for that. It was right up there with the "well, I'm not everybody else's mama'' response when I wanted to do something all the other kids were doing.
Beyond that, the whole debate reminds me of a scene from one of my very favorite movies, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.’’
You probably remember the scene in question: Lancelot receives a message from a “damsel in distress’’ being held in a nearby castle who is being forced to marry against her will. Of course it turns out that the message is really from an effeminate young prince who really just wants to sing.
Of course, Lancelot doesn’t know that. So he plunges into the castle, hacks to death any number of the wedding party - including the groom - before the king of the castle (who is also the father of the bride) intervenes. Upon learning that Lancelot is an eligible bachelor, one who has at his disposal several castles that do not “burn down, fall over, then sink into the swamp,’’ the king is more charitably inclined toward the murderous impulses of Lancelot.
And this prompts the king to deliver this classic line: “This was meant to be a happy occasion! Let’s not bicker about who killed who!’’
That’s sort of how I feel about Tuesday’s Oath of Office flub.
As I mentioned in the previous blog, the biggest point of error was where the word “faithfully’’ was supposed to reside in the Oath. It was supposed to go, “I will faithfully execute the office of the president of the United States.’’ Instead, after much confusion, the word found a home at the end of the phrase - “I will execute the office of the president of the United States faithfully.’’
But it's really irrelevant where the word goes. Whether I say “I will promptly prepare my tax return’’ or “I will prepare my tax return promptly,’’ it matters little to the IRS. They’re going to audit me anyway!
But there is one point in this debate that I feel is worthy of scrutiny. Like many old documents, the Oath could use a little editing. Back in the old days, the language was often adorned with superfluous words and odd turns of phrases.
And the same is true of the Oath. In particular, the presence of the word “faithfully’’ serves no purpose, as far as I can tell.
Think about it for a moment. If the person vows that he/she “will execute the office of the president, etc., etc.’’ it can be rightly assumed that he/she will execute it faithfully. After all, if you have “unfaithfully’’ executed the office then you haven’t executed the office at all.
To “unfaithfully’’ execute the office of president suggests that you intend to execute the fun or easy parts while procrastinating over the unpleasant parts - say, meeting with Nancy Pelosi on a regular basis.
There is also the matter of the Oath’s pledge to “protect, preserve and defend’’ the Constitution of the United States. This falls under the category of “when any number of words will work, use the best single word.’’ In my view, the oath could be shortened to “preserve the Constitution of the United States’’ and that would cover it nicely.
I also don’t know if it matters much if you “solemnly’’ swear or “happily’’ swear or “grudgingly’’ swear. The point is, you made the promise and your emotional state is your own business.
My edited version would be: “I (name) swear that I will execute the office of the president of the United States and will preserve the Constitution of the United States, so help me God.’’
I know there are some people who woud object to the "so help me God'' part. In my mind, that's one of the best reasons to retain it, just to watch all the atheists reach a state of apoplexy. Simple pleasures are, indeed, the best.
Let me know what you think of my condensed version of the Oath. In my view, the fewer words, the better.
Somehow, I think President Obama and Chief Justice Roberts would agree.
But, please, let's not bicker about who flubbed what.
It was meant to be a happy occasion!


Matthew Self said...

My rewrite:

Judge: What do you plan to do?

President-elect: To execute the office of president of the United States of America.

Judge: Do you swear?

President-elect: Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.

{Judge, Pres.-elect exchange chest bump}

Marilynn said...

You probably read or heard that yesterday Chief Justice Roberts and President Obama did a do-over of the Oath of Office, correctly worded, on the advice of White House counsel and in the presence of a handful of reporters.
Since the wording of the Oath, in quotation marks, is mandated in Article II of the U.S. Constitution this was fitting and proper.

The good that came out of the flub is that it caused us to reflect on the meaning of those words, that pledged commitment, that has endured from our country's founding.