Geek Trivia: Swear words of wisdom

Who was the only U.S. President sworn into office by a legal officiant other than a judge -- a distinctly non-traditional but perfectly legal transfer of power under the U.S. Constitution?

On Jan. 20, 2009, Barack Obama will be sworn into office as the 44th President of the United States by virtue of taking the Presidential Oath of Office, which is about the only element of the modern U.S. Presidential inauguration that is required by law. (And not even the entire oath that most Presidents take is constitutionally mandated.) The rest of the multimillion-dollar spectacle that surrounds American Presidential inaugurations is the product of tradition and media necessity, to say nothing of political expediency.

How out of hand has the inauguration process gotten? President-Elect Obama is scheduled to attend no less than 10 inaugural balls to ensure that every necessary constituency, venue, and photo op is given appropriate homage before the actual work of government begins, presumably sometime on Jan. 21. (For the record, Bill Clinton holds the record with 14 inaugural balls for his second term, while George W. Bush had a mere eight for each of his inaugurations.)

But back to the Oath of Office, which is the central event around which all of this hoopla is built. Article II, Section I, Clause 8 of the United States Constitution lays out exactly what it is that the President-Elect must swear (or affirm) in order to take office:

"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) 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 "so help me God" or "this I swear" codicils that most President-Elects are known or suspected to have added? Not required. Use of a Bible? Not required. Repetition of the President-Elect's name during the swearing -- as in "I, George Washington, do solemnly swear?" Not required.

Section I of the 20th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution obliges the President-Elect take the oath on or before noon on the 20th of January following his November election, but the rest of the traditional rituals surrounding the inauguration of a U.S. President -- reading of scripture, performance by a musician and/or poet from the President-Elect's home state, and using the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court as the ceremonial officiant -- are just that: traditions, not law.

In fact, the law doesn't even require a judge to swear in a U.S. President; anyone who can legally attest to an oath or affirmation can certify the transfer of Presidential power -- though only one U.S. President has been sworn in by someone other than a judge.


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