New light from Toobin on the oath flub story

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A new book by Jeffrey Toobin, The Oath: The Obama White House and the Supreme Court, is published today. It opens with a prologue telling the story of the Obama inaugural oath flub, first told on Language Log in Ben Zimmer's piece "Adverbial placement in the oath flub" and the follow-up a day later in "Rectifying the oath flub." Toobin reveals two bits of information that I was not aware of. First, a complete script of the oath, showing exactly where the breaks would come so that Obama would know when to do his repetitions, was sent to Obama's staff as a PDF but never reached the president or anyone close to him, so when Chief Justice Roberts stood facing him to administer the oath, there was a script that Obama had not seen, but neither of the two men knew that. Second, although Roberts had worked over that script, he chose to rely on his famously prodigious memory: he waved away the card that was offered to him with the script on it, and the chance to do a rehearsal: "That's OK, I know the oath," he said. And thus it was that when two men met to perform their extraordinarily important ritual, they were both without scripts and had never rehearsed together. The rest is history.

This is all connected with a very odd coincidence in my class at Brown on the grammar of English today. I happened to tell the class the story of the oath flub, apropos of a hypothesis about what made Roberts push the adverb faithfully to the end. What happened was that Obama threw Roberts off by starting to say "I, Barack Hussein Obama," before Roberts had reached "do solemnly swear" in his first line. Roberts then fumbled the ball: "…that I will execute the office of president to the United States…," he said (wrong!), and then hesitated, and went on: "faithfully the office of president of the United States" (still wrong!). Obama, trying to follow him, said "that I will execute the office of president of the United States faithfully." The hypothesis, firmly advanced by Steven Pinker in The New York Times, was that the prohibition on adverbs breaking up verb sequences, endorsed in The Texas Law Review Manual on Style, had encouraged Roberts to make the adverb-postponing slip he made.

And though I didn't realize it, one of the students listening to me was Jeffrey Toobin's son Adam, who had a copy of his dad's new book. Later in my office he showed it to me. I had known nothing about it. Who'd've thought? We were both amazed that this happened on the publication day.

But I guess millions of coincidences are happening all around us all the time; it's just that most of them are never recognized, whereas this one was.


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