President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden both took oaths on Sunday, in ceremonies that represented, in different ways, a first, a second, and a third. Obama had already been sworn in twice, one way or the other: the first time, in January, 2009, in front of an emotional crowd and Aretha Franklin, Chief Justice John Roberts scrambled the words he had to repeat, and so they did it over at the White House the next day. (Jeffrey Toobin tells that story in his Profile of Roberts
.) The third time went well, though since it was just a quick, small ceremony—legally necessary because President’s first term expired at noon, but the parade and inaugural speech and poem
are Monday, which is also Martin Luther King day—it had more of the character of a dress rehearsal.
Biden was only taking his second Vice-Presidential oath. He asked Justice Sonia Sotomayor
to administer it—the first justice Obama got to pick, the first Hispanic to sit the Supreme Court or swear in a President or Vice-President, and the fourth woman to do so. (As the Times
noted, the first was Sarah Hughes, the Texas judge who swore in Lyndon Johnson on the plane, in Dallas, that would also carry Kennedy’s body home.) Sotomayor told CNN that it was the sort of moment that made her wonder if she was dreaming. In 2009, Biden had asked Justice John Paul Stevens—the Court’s great liberal, now retired—to do the job. If one wants some perspective on what elections mean, one might ask this: which Justice would Paul Ryan have wanted to swear him in, if things had gone the other way? Antonin Scalia?
Sotomayor, at any rate, got all the words right, as did the Vice President, although there was some confusion at Iowa’s inaugural party, Saturday night, when he said
, “I’m proud to be president of the United States, but I’m prouder to be Barack…” He was interrupted by laughter, including his own. Maybe he was thinking about Inauguration Day, 2017, and what could be his first up-graded oath. If he runs in 2016 and wins, he’d be the fourteenth Vice President to be President.
It can be hard to tell, sometimes, when one is seeing a first, or even a last. Franklin Roosevelt was the first and last President to have a third and fourth inaugural, before a Constitutional amendment to limit Presidents to two terms. And many of his contemporaries didn’t fully realized they’d elected the first President with a significant physical disability—who couldn’t walk. One watches videos of him taking his inaugural oaths, with one hand raised to the Bible and the other, bearing all his weight, appearing to rest lightly on the rostrum, with wonder. In the newsreels of his 1945 inaugural, the only one of his four during wartime and the first to be at the White House, not the Capitol, one can see how worn out and drawn he is; one can’t see crutches or a wheelchair—at least not the President’s. One does see wounded soldiers using them to enter the White House grounds as inaugural guests.
Obama took the oath Sunday on a Bible that belonged to LaVaughn Delores Robinson, Michelle Obama’s grandmother. According to Lynn Sweet of theSun-Times
, Michelle’s father gave it to her on Mother’s Day, in 1958; LaVaughn Robinson worked for the Moody Bible Institute, and in 1976 became the first black woman to run its bookstore. Her Bible will go to the National Archives now
. For his fourth swearing-in, Monday, Obama will use two: one that belonged to King; and the one Lincoln (and Obama) used at his first inaugural. But the Robinson family Bible seemed right for Sunday’s little inaugural, which was fast but flawless. Sasha, who appears to be the instinctual politician in the family—the one who told Obama, on election night, to turn around and wave—said “good job, Daddy” when she hugged him afterward. After he replied “I did it,” she added, according to NBC
, “you didn’t mess up.” Sasha walked off last, behind her mother and sister, and looked for a second like she might not mind lingering and saying a few words. She might, before too long.