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Chief Justice Roberts gives the oath of office? Really?

January 20, 2009 |  6:28 pm

The Constitution says that a president-elect becomes the president automatically, at the stroke of noon on the appointed day, meaning that Barack Obama was already president when he took the oath of office. I suppose he could have recited the Boy Scout oath, or ''Jabberwocky,'' and he still would have been president.

But the oath is a comforting and important ritual -- even more comforting when it's posed correctly. The flub by Chief Justice John Roberts, who recited it from memory, showed that I guess even the strictest constructionist should always write it down, just in case. Legal scholar Jeffrey Rosen is quoted as saying that Chief Justice William Howard Taft messed it up when he swore in Herbert Hoover -- and as a former president himself, Taft should have known better.

What struck me, though, was the way Roberts ended the oath. The language of the oath, in Article 2, Section 1 of the Constitution, does not include ''so help me God.'' Presidents have added that part themselves ever since FDR. But the Chief Justice, instead of simply stating that phrase, like the rest of the oath, for the president-elect to restate himself, made it into a question -- ``So help you God?'' -- as if he were interrogating Obama about whether he does believe in God.

Maybe that was a nervous outcome of Roberts' earlier flub. But the Q-and-A tone of it rang unhappily on the ear.   

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