Friday, January 16, 2009

“So help me God”

Every once in a while a day comes along you never thought you would see. A few come to my mind like James Meredith’s first day of school at Ole Miss, the assassination of President Kennedy, Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy back-to-back-to-back, the first steps of Neil Armstrong on the moon and one September morning two airplanes crashed into the Twin Towers.

These are events, both of joy and woe that we all remember where we were when we heard the news, saw the pictures and felt their impact. They become part of our language, reference points by which other events are judged, and pivot points from which we are collectively never the same.

We come upon one of these common shared moments in history next Tuesday, a moment I never believed I would see in my lifetime. The world’s eyes will share a singular spectacle. A man will place his brown hand on the bible used by Abraham Lincoln and swear to uphold, defend and protect the Constitution as President of the United States of America.

With that, our great American experiment will take another step forward.

The founders devised a nation of laws that could grow and change like a living organism. We are a nation where every day is a new day and each unique and often flawed experiment in democracy is judged and weighed separately to be either woven into our fabric or discarded. They were brilliant in their certainty that they did not know all the answers.

But it was these geniuses of Liberty that stained our nation with its original sin: That despite the decree, all men were in fact not seen as equal. Their shortcomings in many ways come full circle as we inaugurate Barack Obama as our President.

That oath, enshrined in the Constitution and the only sentence in quotes in the entire document, reads:

“I 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."

This is our great pledge. While the parades, balls and parties surrounding the inauguration are exciting, the purpose of the entire day is these 37 words outlined by our founders as the promise a President makes to the people he serves.

The oath President-elect Obama recites is the exact same pledge that George Washington took. In fact, General Washington himself wrote notes on the draft Constitution he was working on in August of 1787. At the archives in Washington, D.C. you can see where Washington crossed out the word “judgment” and wrote the word “ability”.

Washington was concerned that a President would interpret the oath to mean their judgment could supplant the Constitution’s. In one of the small beautiful pieces of history, it was the first President himself whose personal edit guaranteed that the Constitution was supreme.

On Tuesday we will gather as a national community to re-enact one of our nation’s few sacred rites: The passing of the title Head of State and Commander in Chief from one man to another peacefully. With 37 words a new President becomes leader of the free world, the only gun shots fired are salutes in celebration.

It is often retold that after the oath was administered, Washington added the phrase, “So help me God.” Of course, by tradition, each new President recites that same simple prayer. But what happened immediately after at the First Inaugural is perhaps as appropriate.

On the balcony on that April day in 1789, the Supreme Court had yet to be constituted and so the oath of office was administered by Chancellor Robert R. Livingstone, New York's highest ranking judge. Immediately after swearing in President Washington, the Chancellor whispered “It is done.”
And so friends as we approach this momentous day, and the first black President is inaugurated I echo to all those who have worked and struggled and dreamed of this day — “It is done.”