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Repeat After Me: The 35 Most Important Words Of Inauguration Day

Inauguration is full of tradition and fanfare, but the oath is the only part that is legally required for a new president to take office.

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President Reagan is sworn in at the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. on Jan. 20, 1981.

President Reagan is sworn in at the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. on Jan. 20, 1981.

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“The Oath.” It sounds like the name of a book, and indeed, there have been many volumes with that name. But none more relevant this week than The Oath specified in the Constitution for the president of the United States when he takes office.

The 35 words in Article II, Section I, of the Constitution read as follows:

“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.”

The presidential oath is the only one spelled out in the Constitution, and is the shortest. Interestingly, not included in the Constitution are the words used at the end by many presidents: “So help me God.”

For much of this country’s history, it was said that George Washington was the first to use those words, but that may be more fiction than fact.

It turns out that the source for that story was a biographer who claimed to have attended the inauguration at age 6 and to have heard Washington say those words. But none of the very detailed contemporaneous accounts of the inauguration mention the first president adding “so help me God,” and the writer who popularized the notion decades later, Washington Irving, was famous for making things up.

Chief Justice John Roberts will administer the oath on Friday, and the president-elect will use his personal, family Bible and the Lincoln Bible. It appears that swearing on a Bible has not been universal.

In 1825, John Quincy Adams took the oath on a law volume containing a copy of the Constitution; Theodore Roosevelt used no Bible in taking his first oath of office in 1901; and some sources report that after President Kennedy was assassinated, a Catholic Missal was used to swear in Lyndon Johnson because no Bible could be found for the quickly arranged ceremony on the plane before it took off from Dallas to return to Washington, D.C.

On that day, Federal Judge Sarah Hughes swore in Johnson. The Constitution does not specify who will do those honors, though by tradition it is the chief justice, with another justice swearing in the vice president. On Friday, Justice Clarence Thomas will swear in Vice President-elect Mike Pence.

The trivia question for the day is: How many presidents were sworn in four times?

The answer: Two.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected and sworn in four times. And President Obama, through error and fluke, was sworn in four times.

The error, in 2008, was the chief justice’s. He had memorized the oath, and in a written copy, marked the places where he would pause, and emailed the marked version to the designated congressional staffer handling these matters. But as Jeffrey Toobin reports in his book, The Oath, the card never made it to Obama’s staff. And at the ceremony things quickly went awry, with Obama interrupting where he thought the first pause would be, whereupon the chief justice, relying on his memory, became flustered and said some of the words in the wrong order.

The ensuing blogosphere furor suggesting that Obama was not president provoked the White House counsel, Gregory Craig, into deciding that it would be the better part of valor to do the whole thing over again. So, two days later, Chief Justice Roberts, on his way home from work, stopped at the White House to do just that.

Obama’s second inaugural oath was also administered twice because Jan. 20 fell on a Sunday, and by tradition when that happens, the new president has been sworn in privately on Sunday, and again for the public ceremony on Monday.

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