The Chief Justice’s Prepositional Slip
Most of the comments about the Chief Justice’s verbal stumble while administering the Presidential oath focus on the adverb “faithfully.”
Not many pundits talk about the changing of “of” to “to” in the phrase President of the United States.
Here’s the Presidential oath as prescribed by law:
I, (So and So), 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 formula “so help me God” is traditionally added.
Here’s the mixed-up line that that Roberts modeled for the President-elect:
will execute the office of President to the United States faithfully.”
It’s one thing to move the “faithfully.” It’s something else to alter the preposition in the familiar and immutable phrasing of “President of the United States.”
The phrase President of the United States is not open to variation. In what context would we ever say “President to the United States?”
One can speak of “an ambassador to the United States” or “an ambassador of the United States.”
In the first instance, to makes it clear that the ambassador belongs somewhere else. He may be attached to the United States, but it’s as an outsider.
In the second instance, the of makes it clear that the ambassador is carrying on the work of the United States.
So why would Chief Justice Roberts come up with the unprecedented “President to the United States” while delivering the oath of office?
Could it have been an example of parapraxis?
parapraxis [păr’ə-prăk’sĭs]: a verbal mistake that is thought to reveal an unconscious belief, thought, or emotion.”
Parapraxis is more commonly known as “a Freudian slip.”
As senator, Obama objected to the appointment of Roberts to the Supreme Court. It’s not unreasonable to think that Roberts was less than happy to have the task of swearing Obama in as President.
Here’s a possible interpretation of the substitution of “to” for “of.”
Both of and to have myriad applications in English, but in these two phrases, of has the force of joining, while to has the effect of distancing.
Could there have been an unconscious wish to distance Obama from the office?
The preposition switch may not be evidence of parapraxis, but the fact remains that Roberts did mess up the oath. Poor guy! He’s earned himself forever the distinction of being the first justice to to stumble over the 35-word oath in the course of sixty-four years and eleven Presidents.
1. Some commentators put the blame on Obama for jumping in after his name, but
G.H.W. Bush did the same thing and Justice Rehnquist didn’t miss a beat.
2. To be on the safe side, Roberts re-administered the oath in private, the day after the inaugural ceremony.
Two other Presidents have received a double dose of the oath: Chester A. Arthur (1829-1886) and Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933), both Vice-Presidents succeeding a deceased President.
Arthur took the oath in his own home, at midnight, upon receiving word that President Garfield was dead. N.Y. Supreme Court justice John R. Brady administered it, but two days later Arthur swore the oath a second time.
Calvin Coolidge was in Vermont when President Harding died in California. Coolidge’s father, a notary public, administered the oath at 2:47 a.m. Next day Coolidge returned to Washington where he repeated the oath before Justice A. A. Hoehling.
You may enjoy watching this video of Presidents from FDR to G.W. Bush taking the oath. Notice that LBJ, being sworn in while still in shock, said “I do solemnly swear” without inserting his name after the “I.”
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