"So help me God."
The words are as familiar to the American ear as "O, say can you see," having been spoken at the conclusion of the swearings-in of nearly every U.S. president since Franklin D. Roosevelt.
But where did that phrase come from? It is not required by the Constitution, nor does it entirely align with our nation's separation of church and state. And yet there they are -- four words that throughout America's life have provided a personal, almost comforting coda to the otherwise daunting oath of office.
While historians debate who first uttered the phrase, the most popular theory is that George Washington tossed it in at the end of his first inaugural, sort of like an ad-lib. I like that. It reaffirms to me that, their high office notwithstanding, Presidents are people, too. It also reminds me that even an event as formal as a presidential inaugural can produce that unexpected, unpredictable moment.
And that's the way it's always been with the inaugurations. Who knew, for example, that at just 700 words, Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address ("With malice toward none, with charity for all"), would not only top his first -- which was five times as long -- but also be revered as one of the greatest speeches in American history?
Who would have thought that John Kennedy's noble entreaty to a nation -- to "ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country" -- would become instantly enshrined as an American motto less than three years later, when the young president was cut down by an assassin's bullet?
Who could have predicted that Jimmy Carter, elected to the highest office in our land primarily because of his small-town decency, would perfectly -- and surprisingly -- capture that very quality at his inaugural by declining to travel the customary parade-route in a motorcade, and instead make the trip by foot? The reason: he wanted to be that much closer to the citizens who had elected him.
Even our current president had an encounter with the unforeseen during his 2009 inaugural. When Chief Justice John Roberts began to administer the oath of office to Barack Obama, he opted to do so from memory, inadvertently botching the phrasing and sending the proceedings into a brief if awkward word-tangle between the two men. But then President Obama, living up to his reputation as a galvanizing orator (not to mention someone who remains cool under fire), launched into the same kind of inspiring address that had catapulted him to the national stage just four years earlier.
"As the world grows smaller," he said to a nation attuned to his every word, "our common humanity shall reveal itself."
Will this year's inaugural festivities provide an equally inspiring -- or possibly surprising -- moment? We'll have to wait and see. In the meantime, here's a look back at some of those more memorable days in American history, when an ordinary citizen became an extraordinary leader.
Happy Inauguration Day, America. No matter where you reside on the political divide, this is a time to celebrate the glory and success of our democracy. I think we should do that together -- so help me God!