Preserve, Protect and Defend
January 1, 2008
The Presidential oath of office, in its entirety:
"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."
That's it. That's the President's job. Of all the promises a President has made by inauguration day, this is the only one that counts.
It's all about the Constitution. The President of the United States is the Defender in Chief of our Constitution. And the Constitution is all we have. It's what makes us America. Lots of other things describe America, and a few other precious documents laid the foundation for our Constitution, but only the Constitution has—and is—the force of all our law. All else that we are—or we believe we are—only matters as it is measured against the standard of that single charter.
I also took that oath—not the first clause of course, but the second—the part with the meat in it. I don't know when. No one made me do it, or even asked me to. No one administered the oath—I took it on my own. It didn't happen at one specific time and place. There was no ceremony, and it wasn't a rote ritual, like my daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in elementary school. It was a decision of depth and weight. It came over time.
My registration to vote was the first outwardly discernible action that attested to my oath. I was twenty-one years old then—because the Twenty-Sixth Amendment wasn't yet a part of the Constitution. My oath has been affirmed at every general election since then. (I've missed at least one municipal election in the past forty years, but never a state or federal election.) And it is affirmed every time I read the news, or engage in political discussion with others, or write a letter to my Congressperson or a newspaper. I believe that I live that oath.
I know why I took it. A few teachers, but more importantly my father, inspired it in me. I was taught by them that the Constitution is our most vital institutional artifact—that it is the soul of our nation—that it is essential and sacred. My father demonstrated his belief in the document and its principles every day of his life. He voted; he relentlessly campaigned for every one he knew to vote; he taught me that I must vote. But it was about more than voting for Dad. He knew the Constitution. He held every act of government up against it for inspection. When it was violated, he railed against that abuse. He held his government accountable to it. And he taught me to do the same.
So, at sometime in my youth—probably well before my twenty-first birthday, I made a personal commitment to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, to the best of my ability. I have kept that commitment more faithfully than any other. That's why I write this stuff. It's my Dad in me—it's what he would have done.
Which brings me back to my opening paragraphs. This is the first day of 2008, and in this year we will elect a new President. For the first time in forty years, neither the sitting President nor the Vice President will be a candidate. Our nation is at a turning point—a divide of our political purpose and will. We face the most severe constitutional issues of my lifetime. We face grave decisions about whether and how we will continue to be the America that was created by our Constitution. This may be the most critical election in our national history. Eight years from today, we may well be a fundamentally different state and nation than we are today.
It is well for us to soberly contemplate this moment, in the light of the document that has made us what we are. I call on you to join me in re-reading our Constitution—including its twenty-six amendments—and to measure us against that standard. How are we doing? How have we done during the past eight years? How have we done during our adult lifetimes.
And what do we require of the person who will take the Presidential oath on January 20, 2009? Do we have the courage to demand that she or he uphold that oath at least as well as you and I uphold it?