Obama Isn't the First President to Retake Oath -- or Forgo Bible

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By Garance Franke-Ruta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 23, 2009

President Obama's awkward swearing-in ceremony and subsequent do-over of the oath of office drew a great deal of attention, but the double-dip does not make him unique in American history. Nor is he the first president to take the oath without a Bible, as occurred during his second swearing-in ceremony Wednesday night.

According to records compiled by the Architect of the Capitol and maintained by the Library of Congress, Theodore Roosevelt did not use a Bible at his 1901 swearing-in.

And in 1963, when Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in on Air Force One at Love Field airport in Dallas after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, he used a Roman Catholic missal, a liturgical text.

"I had given this Bible or missal to the judge on Air Force One, which I had taken off the side table in the president's bedroom in Air Force One," Democratic strategist Lawrence F. O'Brien, a Kennedy aide, recalled in an oral history interview with Johnson's presidential library in 1986. It turned out not to be a Bible, though it was "a book with a cross on the cover, leather-bound" and new.

The use of the Bible at presidential swearings-in is a matter of tradition rather than law, according to experts.

"That tradition just was begun by George Washington and has been pursued ever since, but there's nothing in the Constitution that says anything about a Bible," said Laurence Tribe, a constitutional scholar at Harvard Law School and an informal adviser to Obama.

The oath itself, however, is the only oath whose exact terms are specified in the Constitution. But Tribe noted that when it has been misstated and not corrected, nothing happens, as the presidency automatically transfers to the elected successor upon the departure of the previous president from the White House.

Obama is the seventh president to have restated his oath of office. Four -- Rutherford B. Hayes, Woodrow Wilson, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan in 1985 -- restated their oaths publicly because in those years Jan. 20 fell on a Sunday, meaning only private ceremonies were held on those Inauguration Days.

Chester Arthur took the oath for the first time at his home in New York in the wee hours of Sept. 20, 1881, following the death of James Garfield, who had been wounded by an assassin's bullet in July. He restated the oath at the U.S. Capitol two days later.

Calvin Coolidge's repetition of the oath followed a similar course. He took it for the first time at 2:47 a.m. on Aug. 3, 1923, while visiting his native Vermont, after being roused from sleep following the death of Warren Harding. Coolidge had a Bible on a nearby table while taking the oath but did not lay his hand on it, "as it is not the practice in Vermont or Massachusetts to use a Bible in connection with the administration of an oath," he said.

Questions were later raised about the propriety of his being sworn in by his father, a notary public, leading a federal judge to readminister the oath.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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