The Nation’s bicentennial in 1976 was a year-long extravaganza of celebrations that included patriotic music and fireworks, tall ships sailing on the wind into New York and Boston Harbors, red white and blue painted fire plugs, and other assorted hoopla.
The bicentennial of the United States Constitution in 1987, on the other hand, was rather subdued in comparison. It received considerably less press.
As important as our Constitution is, it generally has not been in the forefront of public consciousness, and for the past half-century or so, the first thing that would come to mind upon mention would be the Bill of Rights; that is, the first ten amendments.
Recently, however, various events have brought the Constitution more notice. The meaning and interpretation of it is a subject of much discussion, argument, and even heated rhetoric. There are those who treat the Constitution almost as holy writ; the scripture of a secular religion, and a bulwark of freedom. Others look upon our founding document as a roadblock to enlightened governance, or a means of stifling the will of the majority. Still others believe it is outdated and ill-fitted for modern society.
Regardless of the various points of view, it appears certain that most of us do not know much of what is in the Constitution, how it works, and the issues and tensions created there. Now, however, there is an interesting and entertaining television series that might help to change that situation and bring the Constitution home to many more of us.
Peter Sagal, who hosts, with the help of his sidekick Carl Kasell, the oddly informative “Wait, wait… Don’t tell me” weekly news quiz program on National Public Radio, narrates an equally entertaining four-part series “Constitution USA” now in progress on public television.
Sagal rides a motorcycle, appropriately decorated in red white and blue with patriotic design themes, across the country and talks with scholars, lawyers, ordinary people, and even a squad of motorcyclists who are all Marines no longer on active duty (acknowledging there really isn’t any such thing as an ex-Marine).
The two episodes have already aired, and I watched both. The first focused on the concept of federalism; that is, the separation of powers and functions between the national government and the states, and why that is important. The second focused on several of the liberties protected by provisions in the Bill of Rights. Topics include freedom of speech, even when grossly offensive; freedom from religion, even when clearly against the wishes of a local community; taking of private property for public use, but only for just compensation.
NPR and PBS have a reputation for having a left-of-center slant, so I had some trepidation that would be the case with this program series. I was pleasantly surprised. Sagal is scrupulously balanced in his presentation, at least in the first two episodes. I have no reason to believe he will not be the same in the last two. He presents the Constitution and all sides of the issues raised in its application. His characteristic humor and enthusiasm works to inform and emphasize salient points. The show doesn’t take sides.
Well, maybe it does somewhat. A recurring spokesmen in the series is Yale law professor Akhil Amar, an enthusiastic Constitutionalist who is convinced that the founding document is one of, if not the greatest, accomplishments in the history of mankind. I tend to agree, and hope that more of us would learn what it is all about. Here is an opportunity. If you missed the first two episodes, I’m sure they will be available for download or You-Tube viewing; and look for DVDs to be out later.