Factual error in Obama’s inaugural address

Well, Obama was president for all of maybe seven minutes* before he made his first mistake, a factual error.  It came in the second paragraph of his inaugural address:

Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents.

Of course, we do need to remain faithful to the ideals of our forbearers and to our founding documents; and of course the oath of office has been taken amidst many circumstances.  However, it has not been taken by 44 Americans, despite the fact that Obama is the 44th president.

This man's defeat in the 1888 presidential election screwed up Obama's inaugural address

This man's defeat in the 1888 presidential election screwed up Obama's inaugural address

This is because, including Obama, only 43 people have held the office.  Why?  Because Grover Cleveland was both the 22nd and the 24th President of the United States, having served two non-consecutive terms—the only person, thus far, to do so.  C’mon, Barack, don’t be hatin’ on one of your predecessors.

The fact that Cleveland takes up two ordinals has some other consequences.  For instance, there will be two $1 coins minted for him in the Presidential Dollar Coin program (presumably with somewhat different designs, unless the mint just wants to be cheap).

Incidentally, Cleveland was a good president, according to the assessments of most historians.  He issued 414 vetoes, more than all other presidents up to that point combined and more than any other two-term president (Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who served just over three terms, vetoed 635 bills); only two bills were passed over Cleveland’s veto.  Over 200 of those vetoed bills concerned Civil War pensions for individual people, many of whom never even served in the military (one would have given a government pension at taxpayer expense to a man who fell off his horse on his way to enlist and so never served).

One further anecdote concerning Grover Cleveland may be informative.  In 1902 there was a serious strike of coal miners who wanted better working conditions.  But this was a serious threat to the country, which used coal in most of its industry and to heat many private homes in the winter.  President Theodore Roosevelt put together a commission to get the facts of the situation and wrote the following to his predecessor on 11 October of that year:

In all the country there is no man whose name would add such weight to this enquiry as would yours.  I earnestly beg you to say that you will accept.  I am well aware of the great strain I put upon you by making such a request.  I would not make it if I did not feel that the calamity now impending over our people may have consequences which without exaggeration are to be called terrible.

Cleveland replied “You rightly appreciate my reluctance to assume any public service. … [However,] I feel so deeply the gravity of the situation, and I so fully sympathize with you in your efforts to remedy present sad conditions, that I believe it is my duty to undertake the service.”

Cleveland’s only substantial savings were invested in the anthracite industry, and due to possible conflicts of interest, he had to sell those assets, which he did at the then-deflated prices.  However, Roosevelt never subsequently called upon him to serve on the planned commission.  It was an unfair way to treat a good man—much moreso than simply forgetting that he’d served two non-consecutive terms.

* Note that, under the Constitution, Obama took office at noon, even though he didn’t take the oath until about 12:05.  Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution just says that “Before he enter on the execution of his office, he shall take the following oath or affirmation…” [emphasis added]; he still holds the office prior to that point, according to legal scholars.

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2 comments so far

  1. Margie on

    Jacob, I loved this blog. While reading in the quietness of my lunch break in my cube…I broke out laughing. You should bring this to Obama’s attention. Miss you.

  2. Tim on

    Nice post. I don’t recall if Grover Cleveland gave his name to Cleveland, Ohio, but I have heard that the city originally was named Cleaveland or was named after a Cleaveland. Something you may want to look into.

    I started a blog in this new year, dedicated to philosophy, which you can check out at the above link.


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