Inauguration still serves a purpose

By Jim Lee

On Thursday, President Bush will take the oath of office for the second time. To most of us, a second term inauguration is about as exciting as an instant replay at a chess tournament. After all, we won’t get a new president. We may get some entertainment value in seeing him try to make a speech, but what’s the big deal over more of the same?
“Lame duck” seems to apply to the occasion as much as it does to the second term itself because all we get is another corny parade, and maybe some mildly interesting protests from some of the folks who resent the invasion of a sovereign nation without a declaration of war or aggressive act by the other country — or maybe other frivolous demonstrations from those misguided enough to assume they have the right to assemble peaceably and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Some enthusiasm may emerge from a procession of the latest fashion in humvees — perhaps equipped with protective armor since the parade won’t go through Iraq — but it still isn’t a new president.
So why does our government do all this? Why call it a peaceful transfer of power if the same guy stays in office? Why go to all this trouble and expense to observe this joyous yet solemn ritual every four years, whether a new person takes office or not?
Since 1933, our Constitution has stipulated the end of the presidential four-year term of office at noon on Jan. 20. (Before 1933, the term ended on March 4.) We have to do a second oath of office, but why should that mean another big celebration? Why call it an inauguration when it’s more like a continuation than a beginning?
The centerpiece event, in the constitutional and legal sense anyway, is the administering of the oath of office. This short oath, just 35 words, has far more importance than many of us assume. It is a binding statement that expires in four years in order to make certain whoever is elected will be legally entitled to step into the position to which he or she has been elected. The previous holder of the office is no longer in power when the next person takes the oath. We have no president during any gap of time between oaths, even if it is the start of the president’s second term.
The Constitution says when the term of office expires, not when the next one begins. If something delays President Bush from taking the oath, he won’t be president during that time. So, in a sense, we do have a transition of power when a president is re-elected.
It is the transfer of one term to the next, regardless of who won the election. It is also a reminder to the office holder of the temporary nature of the office and a solemn reminder of legal responsibility and the conditions of constitutionally limited authority. The Constitution makes our president promise to us: “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” (Article II, Section 8, United States Constitution).
Because religious beliefs prevent some from using the term “swear,” the new president may instead say “affirm.” Using either word constitutes an oath, every bit as binding as taking an oath in court. Violating this oath can be committing perjury, an impeachable offense in the category of a “high crime or misdemeanor.”
When we look at it this way, the “lame duck” inauguration may be a big deal after all. So enjoy the news coverage of our great country’s next peaceful transfer of power.

Jim Lee is news director for KENW-FM radio. He also is an English instructor. He can be contacted at 359-2204. His e-mail:
dr_james_lee@hotmail.com