Chief Justice John Roberts never had a chance. His brain vapor locked. His mouth stood ready for its assignment, and the assignment arrived like a corrupted JPEG file, scrolling jibberish symbols across his monitor like hieroglyphics on an Egyptian tablet.
President-elect Barak Obama did well to hang in there. He didn't mug for the camera. His gaze and expression remained fixed. The very picture of regal decorum. But, somewhere inside of himself, he had to wonder, "Am I about to become a bishop? A Free Mason? President of the National Rifle Association? The Secretary of State? Is the Chief Justice having a bad reaction to Ambien?"
Roberts interrupted Obama in the first exchange, because he forgot to pause. In the second exchange, Roberts traded the preposition "of" for "to." May not sound like a big deal to you, but, if you're a public speaker, and ESPECIALLY if you are a ceremonial presider, this effects a jarring shift of energy. Then the pièce de résistance: Roberts completely changed the word order of the second exchange, which he then corrected in mid-ceremony!
It was mere seconds away from becoming a Monty Python routine. I was left thinking that, had the Oath of Office contained three or four more sentences, they might have had to dart Roberts, drop a net, and carry him off the platform.
I'll have to review the video, but I'm reasonably certain that Barak Obama was sworn in as (to? through? at? over? of?) the 44th President of the United States.
You think I'm being mean? Oh, you just don't know. It's happened to me. Vapor lock. It's the dread of every professional public speaker. It's the single reason public speaking is the #1 Social Phobia.
Vapor lock, I call it. The screen goes blank. The audience waits for you to go on, only to realize that you, too, are waiting for you to go on. Then, because nothing's coming, you decide to "help." You assume the expression of a Chatty Cathy Doll, open your mouth and begin inserting words. It's a bit like dribbling gasoline into the carburator of an ol' Volkswagen Beetle on a cold morning. Sometimes this little trick turns the engine over. Sometimes it blows up in your face.
In my days as a priest, respect for vapor lock is the reason why I NEVER presided at a wedding without The Book of Common Prayer in my hand. Yep, after 450 or so weddings, I had the rite memorized. But, why take the chance? These people are going to get married ONE time. No way do they deserve to forever have me on their wedding video, staring, frozen, dazed, blathering on because I have no idea what comes next. It's like, just because you CAN land an AirBus on the Hudson River without any casualties, well, it doesn't mean you should.
No; you should see the expression on my face as I type. I'm not being mean. I'm not even complaining.
I thought it was dear.
Chief Justice Roberts never had a chance. Too many people staring at him. The live audience. The Nation. Every nation. The world. The 65-year-old black man watching television in his suburban Philadelphia living room while he remembers running -- sometimes successfully, sometimes not -- from hoses and dogs and billy clubs. The long-retired police officer watching in a Philadelphia bar while he remembers wielding that hose, wrangling that dog, and swinging that club.
A cloud of saints was watching, too.
The word "saint" here does not mean extra good holy person. When Christians use the word in the lower case, they refer to people who have lived and died in their faith. I use the word "saint" here to refer to another kind of "faithful." People who might or might not have been motivated by a religion, but who nonetheless shared the same vision of right. Of justice. I speak of the saints like the Quakers, whose voice from the beginning denounced slavery as immoral. I speak of the saints of the Underground Railroad. Of Dred Scott. Of my grandmother who, in the early '60s, insisted on driving Veta, our black nanny and housekeeper, home in the front seat of our car.
That same grandmother slapped me when, at age 6, I mimicked my father's use of "darkie ingenuity" to describe an NFL football blunder. Just slapped me.
I speak of the English slave trader John Newton, famous for his conversion to Christianity and ensuing composition "Amazing Grace." Yet, it would be nearly FOUR DECADES before Newton would publicly oppose slavery. Saved a wretch indeed.
My dear friend Jeffery moved to Tennessee. I went to see him. He took me to see the "slave walls." Concrete retaining walls defining and containing the front lawns of middle-class homes in this hilly geography. Slaves built them. You can see the outline of fingers and hands in the dried, hardened concrete. I leaned towards the wall, placing my own hands and fingers into the outlines. I closed my eyes. In my imagination it was easy to hear the grunts of exertion, the chatter of work, to smell the sweat. It was not so easy to imagine what went through their minds.
The people who built those walls were watching the Chief Justice, too.
Oh, I have nothing but a good-natured smile, pat on the back, and an ocean of compassion for Chief Justice John Roberts. Just giving him guy-crap, the way my guy-friends would have immediately called my cell to give ME crap had it been me garbling that ceremony. And then until my dying day. Guy-crap. My guy-friends would remind me on my HOSPICE bed. That's how I know they love me.
The '60s. Not 50 years ago. A blip in time, really. I remember the Green Bay Packers, The Beatles, ... and the Civil Rights Movement. Do you understand when I say I am sickened by those days yet simultaneously cherish them? Revere them?
Today is a really, really good day.
Today I passed a better world along to my children.