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January 24, 2009

About That Biden Oath

Much has been made about Chief Justice John Roberts flubbing the inaugural oath of President Obama. The two "fox-trott[ed] all over the oath of office," according to Slate. Conspiracy theorists claim that Roberts was exacting revenge for Obama's vote against him during the Justice's confirmation hearings in the Senate. And an op-ed in the New York Times supposes that Roberts was channeling his inner grammarian.

Biden's botched oath

Having witnessed the slip-up in person—albeit from 1,000 yards away—I would guess that it was just a case of nerves for the first-time inaugurator. Even Supreme Court chief justices can get nervous in front of a global audience, and I'm sure Roberts practiced a few times before the do-over.

But with all the hubbub about Obama's oath—which is apparently just ceremonial, anyway—few people, if any, noticed Joe Biden changing up the words as well. It's subtle but no less important than the "faithfully" flap—in other words, not important at all.

At first, Biden followed Justice John Paul Stevens's lead with the precision and vigor he hopes to bring to the office of vice president .But about three quarters of the way through, Stevens accurately recited the line "and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter." When Biden repeated it, he omitted the word "that." (Stevens did not, however, render part of the oath, "I don't support and defend the constitution of the United States," as Boston.com's Automatically Generated Transcript had it.)

Perhaps Biden, like Roberts, was subconsciously editing the oath as he recited it, eliminating the extraneous preposition. English teachers have waged a jihad against unnecessary "that"s for some time, and will no doubt be glad that they now have a voice in the White House.

The only downside is that there is a possibility that the person who was sworn into the position that would succeed the president might not have been sworn in. It's a good thing that the oath doesn't matter, or we might still have Dr. Stangelove as VP.

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