A super-abundance of caution
According to a report on the BBC website, Chief Justice Roberts' oath-fluffing was "little-noticed at the time". I assume they mean that their commentators chose not to mention it - for if something hasn't been officially announced by the BBC then clearly it didn't happen or doesn't exist. Similarly, the sight of Dick Cheney in a wheelchair was "litttle-noticed". I was waiting to hear the reason for his unexpected evocation of Dr Strangelove - but the commentary passed it over in silence. It was about then that I switched over to Sky.
Outside of Beebland, where reality is what they deem it to be, the whole world noticed - though a surprisingly large number of people didn't seem to notice that it was the Chief Justice who messed things up. First, he spoke over the president who was repeating the phrase "I Barack Hussein Obama"; then he (famously) omitted the word "faithfully"; then he (from what I can make out) actually said "the office of president to the United States". Was it nerves or sabotage? Who knows. But in the age of YouTube the clip will haunt Roberts to the grave.
And so, out of a "super-abundance of caution" - a phrase apparently coined by Akhil Reed Amar, professor of constitutional law at Yale, but today being credited to White House counsel Greg Craig - Barack Obama has re-taken the oath. Super-cautious or not, the precedents are quite clear. On the two previous occasions where the oath didn't come out right - Calvin Coolidge in 1923 and Chester Arthur in 1881 - it had to be re-taken. No cheering crowds this time; no Lincoln Bible, either. No Bible of any sort, as it happens - we're told that there was "none to hand". Interesting that Barack Obama couldn't find a Bible at short notice; no doubt he was still unpacking - but I doubt George W Bush would have had the same problem.
Most presidents choose to be sworn in on a Bible that has some personal or sentimental meaning for them. Perhaps Obama, who I've long suspected isn't particularly (or at all) religious, doesn't have such a Bible. Abraham Lincoln's own religious views are a subject of some controversy - while he often used languaged drenched in Biblical imagery, he does not seem to have been an orthodox believer. He seems to have looked to Christianity mainly for its moral messages and social implications rather than for his own personal salvation, and once said that he was "not at all concerned" whether God was on his side. He was probably some sort of Deist.
Given his pleasing and unexpected nod towards "non-believers" the other day - an unprecedented inclusion of atheists and agnostics in a society where some politicians openly cast doubt on the patriotism of non-theists - and his own religiously complex and contested upbringing, it's quite possible that Obama's God isn't strictly orthodox either. In any case, he now joins Theodore Roosevelt (who had Calvinist objections) and John Quincy Adams (who preferred to take his oath on a copy of the Constitution) in the short list of presidents who were not sworn on a Bible. Perhaps that accidental precedent will prove more telling than the rather laboured attempts to draw parallels with Lincoln.