By Jim Bendat

Three Classic Stories From Presidential Inaugurations

January 18, 2013 12:00 am Category: Memo Pad 5 Comments A+ / A-
Three Classic Stories From Presidential Inaugurations

As President Barack Obama prepares to begin his second term, The National Memo takes a look back at stories from past presidential inaugurations. The following vignettes are excerpted from Jim Bendat’s new book, Democracy’s Big Day: The Inauguration of Our President 1789-2013. You can order the book here

Let’s Hear it for the Girl

On March 1, 1929, three days before the upcoming inauguration, Chief Justice William Howard Taft wrote the following note to President-elect Herbert Hoover:

I have thought it would be wise to put into written form the details of the ceremony of taking the oath, so that, subject to your approval, you and I shall know what we are to do.

The ceremony will begin behind the stand where the oath is to be taken, you with your back to the Senate, and I with my back to the House. Without any preliminaries, I am to say:

“You, Herbert Hoover, do solemnly swear that you will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of your ability preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

You will then answer “I do.”

Sure enough, three days later, as millions of Americans listened to a live radio broadcast of the ceremony, Taft recited the oath and Hoover said just those two words. Those listeners included an eighth-grade history class in Walden, New York. One of the students in that class was 13-year-old Helen Terwilliger. Helen had memorized the oath, and she was amazed to hear the chief justice conclude, “preserve, maintain, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Although no one else had noticed such an error, Helen was certain Taft had mistakenly substituted the word “maintain” for the word “protect.”

She was so sure, in fact, that she wrote a polite letter to the chief justice in Washington to tell him so.

Taft then wrote back to Helen, “You are quite right that the words of the oath mentioned in the Constitution are ‘preserve, protect and defend,’ but my memory is not always accurate and one sometimes becomes a little uncertain.… It certainly did not prevent the validity of the oath.”

But the 71-year-old Taft also advised Helen, “You are mistaken in your report of what I did say. What I said was ‘preserve, maintain and protect.’ What I should have said was ‘preserve, protect and defend,’ and you may attribute the variation to the defect of an old man’s memory.”

Even after the young critic received this letter from Taft, she stood her ground. She insisted that her version of the chief justice’s mistake reflected what had really taken place in Washington. To settle the issue, the Fox Film Corporation, Pathe News, and Paramount News all checked their inauguration sound films. On March 14, these three organizations unanimously declared that Helen had correctly quoted Taft’s words. Not only had Taft misstated the oath; he had also been mistaken in his recollection of the particulars of his original error. Or, as the New York World reflected on Helen’s accuracy: “She, not the Chief Justice, was right about the way in which the Chief Justice was wrong.”

Upon learning the error of his ways, Chief Justice Taft later laughed and said, “I think you’ll have to get along with what I’ve already said. After all, I don’t think it’s important.”

When Americans went to movie theaters that week, they got to see and hear the sound newsreel of the ceremony. Then, absolutely everyone knew the truth: little Helen Terwilliger had been right all along.

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  • latebloomingrandma

    Were there no crazies back then, protesting the legitmacy of the Hoover Presidency since the Chief Justice flubbed the oath?

    • http://www.facebook.com/fern.woodfork Fern Woodfork

      Yes They Were There They Just Didn’t Have The Power That They Have NOW!!! Joe McCarthy Was One Of The CRAZIES!!!

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/P3NXX7AD64NWRRT65INAEULVEU Don

    i THINK WE SHOULD ALL STOP SPENDING MONEY ON THESE INAUGURATIONS AND MAKE IT A SIMPLE THING WITHOUT BUILDING TEMPORARY STRUCTURES AND HAVING GALA BALLS ALL OVER THE PLACE.

    • dtgraham

      I sure agree Don. While I think the first inauguration for a new incoming President is overdone, I can reluctantly overlook that. OK, it’s a new guy…..get it out of your system. Party down. What I can’t understand is doing it all over again if that President wins a second term. It’s the same person for gawd’s sake. Why should she/he even have to take another oath of office let alone another inaugural gala that would make the Queen of England blush?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_NPJRH4Y3AVX4JE4N3KCIIXCBQQ Newborn

    Bunch of losers. That’s all there to it.

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