The Briefing 01-20-17

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The history of Inauguration Day, the pageant of democracy, and the peaceful transfer of power

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In final news conference, Obama reflects on his legacy, doesn't promise political silence

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Transcript

The Briefing

January 20, 2017

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Friday, January 20, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

The history of Inauguration Day, the pageant of democracy, and the peaceful transfer of power

Today is Inauguration Day in the United States of America, and today’s ceremonies will mark the 58th inaugural of a President of the United States. Of course, Donald Trump will be counted as the 45th President of the United States, and it’s an historical fact that only 44 men have actually served as president. There have been 58 inaugural ceremonies, because several of those presidents have served two terms and not all of those terms have been started with an official set of inaugural ceremonies like we know them today. But the ceremony goes back to 1789 in the nation’s first elected President, George Washington. As in so many other dimensions of the American presidency, George Washington set the standard and set the pattern for presidential inauguration that would follow.

Washington was not inaugurated on March 4 as called for in the newly ratified Constitution. The reason for that is that Congress had been unable to meet and to officially recognize his election. Instead, Washington was inaugurated on April 30th, 1789, having been elected in terms of the ceremonial act by the United States Congress on April the 6th. And of course, Washington was not inaugurated in Washington DC, which did not yet exist as the nation’s capital city, but rather in New York City, right in front of Federal Hall. In so many different ways the American presidency was actually modeled around George Washington as a singular individual. There was no question given the period of the formation and then the ratification of the Constitution that George Washington would be the first President of the United States.

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But Americans were plowing new ground in terms of the inauguration of an American president. The American presidency itself was an innovation in an age of kings and emperors who inherited those offices and received a divine oath. Washington was a keen student of government and of history and he understood that even democratic self-government would require a certain level of formality and majesty when it came to government, and yet the American President would not act as a monarch. Therefore, the American president was not referred to and is not today as Your Majesty, even though at least some among the founding fathers would’ve preferred that. Instead, the American president is known as Mr. President and the presidency begins with an inaugural ceremony that includes as its most focal point the oath of office, a constitutional text of only 35 words. The taking of that oath by the President of the United States is to be contrasted with the coronation of an hereditary monarch such as the King or Queen of England. At that time, the British monarch is actually anointed with oil in a ceremony that invokes the divine right of kings and queens. The American president is inaugurated with no such claim of divine authority or sanction.

George Washington’s first inauguration in 1789 included a church service, but no official inaugural ceremony since that has included a worship service as an official part of the national ceremonies. By tradition, at 9 o’clock on Inauguration Day, the President-elect and his spouse go to a worship service there in Washington, D.C., identified generally as a National Prayer Service.

The oath of office again is only 35 words, it is found in Article 2, Section 1 of the Constitution of the United States. The official language is this,

“I do solemnly swear 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.”

Interestingly, the text of the Constitution allows the incoming president to substitute the word “swear” with the word “affirm,” but that has happened only one time in the history of the American presidency, that in the inauguration of Franklin Pierce in the year 1853. Even the two presidents most often identified as Quaker, Herbert Hoover and Richard Milhouse Nixon, used the word “swear” rather than the word “affirm” in taking the oath of office.

There have been two major mistakes made in administering the oath of office. They were 80 years apart in the inaugurations of Herbert Hoover in 1929 and the first inauguration of Barack Obama in the year 2009. In both cases the mistakes were first made by the Chief Justice of the United States in administering the oath.

In the case of Hoover in 1929, the Chief Justice of the United States was William Howard Taft, himself a former President of the United States. Taft made a mistake in administering the oath and since it was on radio, it was heard by schoolchildren across the United States for the first time. One of those schoolchildren was an eighth grader in a town known as Walden, New York. The 13-year-old, Helen Terwilliger, heard the Chief Justice make the mistake and then wrote him. The Chief Justice kindly wrote back to the eighth grader admitting having made the mistake, but insisting that the oath was still meeting constitutional muster. He also sought to correct the eighth grader telling her that she had made a mistake about his mistake. But it turned out that the former President and current Chief Justice then in 1929, Chief Justice Taft, was even mistaken about the mistake that he had made. An audio recording of the ceremony discovered many decades later proved that it was the 13-year-old who had been right all along.

The second mistake in the administration of the oath of office was made by the current Chief Justice of the United States, John Roberts, and it was at the inauguration of President Obama for his first term. The Chief Justice who has a famous memory sought to rely upon that memory in administering the oath of office, but that turned out to be a mistake. The Chief Justice and the President-elect had evidently not conspired to agree upon places for pauses in the administration of the oath. When the Chief Justice got to the part about faithfully executing the office of President of the United States, he instead said, “that I will execute the office of President to the United States faithfully.” The newly inaugurated President had no choice but to repeat the words that he had been given by the Chief Justice since he had no current access to the text of the Constitution. This led to the unprecedented development that took place eight years ago when the Chief Justice the United States went to the White House to administer quite privately the oath of office to President Obama so that there would be no subsequent question about the constitutionality of the transfer of power.

Again, until the Constitution was changed in 1933 to allow for the inauguration of the President on January 20, presidents have been inaugurated on March 4th and with the exception of George Washington, that was an unbroken line in terms of official inaugural ceremonies. But it was then believed quite rightly that that period of time between November of one year and March of the next year required too much of a delay in the incoming energies of a new administration. It also created an awkward lame-duck period that was quite longer than was necessary. Thus, the change to January 20. But this also led to the unusual development of the fact that Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his first term actually had a few weeks short. It really didn’t matter, since he was not only the President at the time of the transition, but he was also the President-elect.

Today there on the West front of the capital, Donald J. Trump will become the 44th individual, the 44th man to take the oath of office, and yet he will be listed as the 45th President of the United States. The reason for that is quite simple. Grover Cleveland is recognized historically as both the 20th and the 22nd President of the United States, not because he was two men, but because he served two nonconsecutive terms representing two different administrations. Five presidents of the United States were never inaugurated. They were not inaugurated for the simple reason that they took office upon the death or resignation of the incumbent president, and they were never elected in their own right. Those presidents were John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester Arthur, and Gerald R. Ford.

In terms of our understanding as Christians reflecting upon the meaning of the inauguration and the worldview issues at stake, we need to keep very much in mind that the central issue is the symbolism of the peaceful transfer of power in an experiment of self-government known as a form of democracy, a constitutional Republic. This peaceful transfer of power is not to be taken lightly. Historically, it is the aberration rather than the norm. We should celebrate the fact that our constitutional system of government has provided for a peaceful transfer of power, even when that transfers between presidents who represent starkly different worldviews and ideologies, and even very different political parties, sometimes in direct conflict.

The first time that happened in American history was in 1801, when Thomas Jefferson was elected President of the United States, defeating the incumbent second President of the United States, John Adams. By necessity, because it deals with issues of such significance and ideological power, politics is a combat sport, and sometimes this has led to some very awkward transitions in terms of etiquette—for example, the transition between Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the transition going all the way back between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and of course more recently, the transfer of power between the 41st president of the United States and the 42nd; the 41st being George H.W. Bush and the 42nd Bill Clinton. Clinton had defeated Bush for the presidency in 1992. We can say that Americans have gotten even better at this over time in terms of the etiquette; John Adams did not attend quite notably the inauguration of Thomas Jefferson. But Herbert Hoover did attend the inauguration of FDR, and George H.W. Bush did attend the inauguration of President Bill Clinton. Expected to be quite visible and present at the ceremonies today will be the 39th President of the United States, Jimmy Carter and Mrs. Carter, also the 43rd President of the United States, George W. Bush and Mrs. Bush, and the 42nd President of the United States, Bill Clinton and Mrs. Clinton. That’s an especially poignant issue because Hillary Clinton was of course the candidate that Donald Trump defeated in the 2016 presidential election.

But she will not be on the dais today as a former Secretary of State of the United States or as a former member of the United States Senate. Rather, she will be there as the First Lady to the 42nd President of the United States, Bill Clinton, and it is a part of our nation’s majestic democratic heritage that she will be in attendance seated so prominently at the inauguration of the President-elect. The ceremony in general is intended to demonstrate that majesty of government, the trustworthy nature of the transfer of power, and also it is to represent a people’s moment, it is considered a victory for democracy and thus for the voters, the citizens of the United States of America. Among other reasons, this is why the ceremony was moved from the East front of the Capitol to the West front for the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan in 1981. This was to put the ceremony before the entire expanse of the larger city of Washington through the Mall with all of its monuments and also the White House, and it was also to allow a wider vista and a greater participation by citizens in the ceremony.

Since 1981, unless precluded by weather, the event has been on that West front of the steps of the United States Capitol. Some listeners listening carefully may have noted that in those 35 words of the United States Constitution in terms of the oath of office, there are no final words “so help me God.” American tradition has suggested that it was the first President George Washington in 1789 who offered those first words, “so help me God.” There’s actually no contemporaneous evidence that he did, but it is very much clear that in the 20th century, presidents began to use that terminology so regularly that it is now considered, though not in the text of the Constitution, to be official language, so much so that recent Chief Justices have added the words “so help me, God” to the end of the constitutional language. From a Christian worldview perspective, we have to recognize that this can come down to nothing more than ceremonial religion, civil religion as it’s known. But it is also important to recognize that it is an oath that is publicly understood by Americans to be given in the full view of God. There is no divine anointing with oil, but there is a divine witness to the ceremony.

Finally, in terms of the inauguration, we should all be paying very close attention today to the president’s inaugural address. That’s not called for in the Constitution, but again we go back to George Washington, who in 1789 at the first inaugural did give an address. Washington’s first inaugural address remains amongst the most memorable and significant in American presidential history, but his second inaugural address, four years later, is mostly remembered for the fact that it was very short, still the shortest inaugural address of any inaugurated president coming in at just 135 words. The longest inaugural address on the other hand was 8,495 words, both the most voluminous and the longest address in American presidential history. It was given again in 1841 by William Henry Harrison. He spoke for a full two hours and, of course, he exposed himself to the weather, as well as his crowd; but William Henry Harrison caught a very dangerous case of pneumonia that day and later died within just a matter of weeks, having gotten ill largely by giving such a long inaugural address. Thomas V. DiBacco, who is a professor emeritus of history at the American University, seems to get it exactly right when he tells us,

“There seems to be an inverse correlation between the length of the inaugural and the quality of the presidency.”

In final news conference, Obama reflects on his legacy, doesn't promise political silence

Next we shift to something that took place on Wednesday, and that was the last official press conference of President Barack Obama. It was clocked at exactly 59 minutes as reporters noted. It’s also notable that the outgoing president chose to give such a major press conference so late in his presidency, just about 48 hours before the new president would take the oath of office. That, if not unprecedented, is at least unusual, but so was the declaration by President Obama that he would not remain silent if he felt that political realities would call him to speak to contemporary political discussions.

Now in contrast, just consider the fact that almost all former presidents have not only left the political arena after their election, but most of them have also left Washington. The last president before President Obama to decide to remain in Washington after the term in office was President Woodrow Wilson. That was not considered a very successful transition, nor is it likely to increase the chances of the successful transition in this case.

Yesterday’s front page of the New York Times included an article by Michael D. Shear and Peter Baker in which the reporters wrote,

“When President Obama arrived in office eight years ago, the departing President George W. Bush essentially withdrew from public life, declaring that his successor ‘deserves my silence.’”

The reporters then said,

“It was an approach that Mr. Obama greatly appreciated but does not intend to follow.”

They continued,

“At the final news conference of his presidency, Mr. Obama made clear on Wednesday that he finds some ideas advanced by President-elect Donald J. Trump so alarming that he laid out markers that would draw him back into the fray.”

He said,

“There’s a difference between that normal functioning of politics and certain issues or certain moments where I think our core values may be at stake.”

Now this is a very rare announcement indeed in the form of a threat by a man who will soon be the former President of the United States. President Obama on Wednesday basically announced putting the nation and the newly inaugurated President on notice that he will reenter the political fray if he believes that essential values, what he called “our core values,” might be at stake. The President also made clear some issues in which he has taken particular pride. Gregory Korte, reporting for USA Today yesterday wrote,

“Obama said he’s particularly proud of the ‘transformation’ on gay rights during his presidency, which saw monumental Supreme Court decisions on gays in the military and same-sex marriage. Obama said his role was mostly to deliver ‘a good block downfield to help the movement advance.’”

He went on to say that,

“Gay and lesbian activists deserve most of the credit, and singled out talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres, to whom he awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year.

“Somebody that kind and likable, projecting into living rooms around the country — that changed attitudes… And that’s just one example of what was happening in countless communities around the country.”

There’s no small amount of irony in all of that, because when President Obama was elected back in 2008 and inaugurated for that matter in 2009 for his first term, he was an avowed opponent of the legalization of same-sex marriage. All that changed in what he himself described as his evolution on the issue. That evolution on the question of LGBT rights and in particular the issue of same-sex marriage came to full circle in 2012 when President Obama ran for reelection and championed the cause of legalizing same-sex marriage. What had changed between 2008 and 2012 was what he gauged to be the nation’s mood on the issue. That was made clear by his own former political director David Axelrod. But it is also clear that long before he ran for president when he was an Illinois State Senator, he had then indicated support for the legalization of same-sex marriage, making him for it before he was against it, before he was for it again.

But the most significant comment along these lines made by the President yesterday is where he defined his own role in the issue as giving “a good block downfield to help the movement advance.”

That points to the fact that the Obama years were not really marked by any important LGBT legislation, rather by two different dimensions. The first was the President and his legal team setting the stage for the legalization of same-sex marriage by action, not of Congress and a law signed by the President, but by action of the United States Supreme Court in what has rightly been called a further example of the judicial usurpation of politics. But secondly, President Obama used the power of the regulatory state and also the mechanisms of executive orders in order to support not only same-sex marriage, but many other dimensions of the LGBT revolution.

Finally, we note one other dimension, which has become a part of the customs of American presidential transitions. This has to do with what’s described as five frenzied hours inside the White House when the transition is made not only from one president, but from one first family to another. This is the five hours between the time that the President and the President-elect get into a car and start the motorcade to the capital for the ceremonies and the time when about five hours later the President and the First Lady, the new President, arrive back at the White House after the inaugural parade. In those five hours, the staff at the White House has to pull off a monumental transition.

When the President leaves his office for the last time, both the Oval Office and the living areas of the White House on the inauguration day of his successor, he leaves the house just as he has known it for his term of office. And when the new President walks in, it is as if the house has been transformed: new furniture and furnishings and decorations, even new family pictures and frames on the furniture and the President and first family’s clothing securely folded in drawers. This in itself is interesting, but it’s also very significant, significant because every new President of the United States is invested with full authority and the full responsibilities of office the moment he takes the oath of office and certainly the moment that he first walks in the White House as president.

It also reminds not only the outgoing and the incoming president of the transience of time in the White House, it reminds us all as American citizens of the fact that we are not looking to a monarch, but rather to a constitutional head of state and head of government.

And finally on this Inauguration Day, Christians should be particularly prayerful here in the United States, praying for our new President, for him to be given wisdom and divine guidance and praying, as we have been taught to sing, “God shed his grace on thee,” thinking of this nation we are so thankful to call our own. May God truly bless America and may he bless America through Donald J. Trump, the 45th President of the United States.

Dr. Mohler recording The Briefing