A question starting to circulate quietly in Washington is whether Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, battling thyroid cancer and missing oral arguments at the high court, will be able to swear in President Bush on Jan. 20.

It's hoped he can. If not, it would be only the ninth time someone other than the chief justice of the United States has sworn in a president -- and most of those occasions arose because the president had died in office. The last time was Nov. 22, 1963, when U.S. District Judge Sarah T. Hughes of Texas administered the oath to Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson on Air Force One in Dallas.

The Constitution specifies what the presidential oath is, but it doesn't say who has to administer it. The president can pick whomever he wants, though tradition since President John Adams is to have the chief justice perform it. (George Washington, first time around, of course, didn't have a chief justice, and the second time picked an associate justice when Chief Justice John Jay was overseas on official business.) There have been some unusual exceptions, however. For example, when Calvin Coolidge took over upon the death of Warren Harding in 1923, Coolidge's dad, a notary public, administered the oath. It was done at his father's house in Vermont.

Chester A. Arthur was sworn in at his home in New York City by a New York state Supreme Court justice after a disgruntled federal job-seeker killed James A. Garfield. Teddy Roosevelt was sworn in by a federal judge in Buffalo, where an anarchist had gunned down William McKinley.

William Cranch is the only non-justice to have sworn in two presidents: John Tyler on the death of William H. Harrison took the oath at Brown's Hotel, Sixth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW; and Millard Fillmore took the oath upon the death of Zachary Taylor.

So if Rehnquist takes a pass, who will Bush pick? Justice John Paul Stevens, a Ford appointee, is next in seniority, but he's the furthest left on the court these days. If Bush picked him, that would redefine the term "reaching out."

Justice Antonin Scalia, a Bush favorite, could be given the honor, kind of a consolation prize since Scalia is about to turn 69 and most likely too old to be chief. Or Bush could choose his other favorite justice, his father's appointee, Clarence Thomas.

On the other hand, Bush could tip his hand by selecting one of those mentioned to succeed Rehnquist to do the honors. On that list there's Richmond federal appeals Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III, 60, a former clerk to Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr.; also on the Richmond court is former chief justice Warren E. Burger clerk -- and more importantly for conservatives, a Scalia clerk when Scalia was on the appeals court here -- J. Michael Luttig, who's only 50; and former Rehnquist clerk and D.C. federal appeals Judge John G. Roberts Jr., who's not quite 50.

But scholars say it's not at all clear that the person who administers the oath has to be a judge, notary or anything else. Administering the oath is largely a "ceremonial function," presidential scholar Charles O. Jones points out, noting that what matters is that the president takes the oath, not who administers it. As long as the oath is administered and there are witnesses, he said, it would probably pass muster.

So perhaps a lawyer, former solicitor general and high court possibility Theodore B. Olsen, 63, whose wife died on Sept. 11, 2001, would come to mind. Or, for that matter, former president George H.W. Bush could administer the oath to his son, in a Coolidge kind of thing. For some pizzazz, maybe Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling could stop by. And, of course, we'd be available in a pinch if Schilling's busy.

Best Not to Speculate

"It has always been my intention that I would serve one term," outgoing Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told reporters Monday.

Really? That's what our colleague Glenn Kessler wrote back in August 2003, and you would have thought the world had come to an end.

Powell immediately denounced the Aug. 4, 2003, article on Radio Sawa, a U.S. government-funded, Arab-language pop music and news station. "It's nonsense," Powell said. "I don't know what they are talking about. I serve at the pleasure of the president. The president and I have not discussed anything other than my continuing to do my job for him, and this is just one of those stories that emerge in Washington that reflects nothing more than gossip, and the gossip leads to a rash of speculation about who might fill a vacancy that does not exist."

Powell and outgoing Deputy Secretary Richard L. Armitage then zipped off to Crawford, Tex., where Bush and Powell did a little stand-up to say it was all baloney.

And the story didn't lead "to a rash of speculation" about a successor. The story gave readers only two choices -- national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, now the secretary of state-designate, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz.

Unprotected Turf

What with the serious Cabinet shuffling going on, one might think the dwindling members might stick around to protect their turf. But Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy G. Thompson is once again off to Africa, specifically Tanzania, for the three-day annual meeting of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and to visit HIV/AIDS programs within Tanzania. He has been there since Sunday and won't be back till Tuesday. Hmmm. . . . Checking with Loop Fans in the famous game parks.