In Me the People (Random House, 2012) Kevin Bleyer—Emmy Award-winning writer for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart—has turned his formidable wit and unquestionable insight to the most significant literary event of the twenty-first, twentieth, nineteenth, and latter part of the eighteenth centuries: a complete rewrite of the United States Constitution. You’re welcome, America. In this excerpt from the book’s introduction, Bleyer explains how U.S. citizens have failed to see the flaws in this crucial document … or read it, for that matter.
We have made a terrible mistake.
And by we, I mean you. You have made a terrible mistake. As a citizen of the United States of America, you have put your faith in a four-page document written by farmers, scrawled on animal skin, disseminated more than two centuries ago, conceived in desperation in the aftermath of war, composed in the language of the country it was intended to spurn, and, not for nothing, scribbled by hand with the quill of a goose.
And because you have made a terrible mistake, and because—lamentably—you and I together count as we, “we” have made a terrible mistake.
We the People.
But really, I blame you.
When Alexander Hamilton said, “The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right,” he wasn’t talking about himself. He wasn’t talking about we. And certainly not me.
He was talking about you.
You the persons.
You have been told, promised, and guaranteed—and since you seldom judge or determine right, you have foolishly chosen to believe—that the United States Constitution is your great protector, as flawless in its foresight as it is eloquent in its expression, equal parts holy water, force field, security blanket, instruction manual, and swiss army knife—delivering a more perfect union, establishing justice, insuring domestic tranquility, providing for the common defence, promoting the general welfare, and securing the Blessings of Liberty.
The Killer App of governance.
But ask yourself, if the Constitution is such an astonishing document, such a landmark piece of literature, why no Pulitzer? Why no Nobel Prize? If this supposed “American masterpiece” is so darn revolutionary, why was it never declared one of the “Ten Best Reads” of 1787? And did you even notice that “defence” is misspelled? How embarrassing. For all the Constitution’s vaunted glories, it hasn’t even been spell- checked. This is our Founding Document? (Quick, someone put that in a display case. It belongs in a muzeum.)
It is emblazoned on signs at political rallies, where it is as often quoted as it is misquoted. It is cited on the floor of Congress, by lawmakers who only defend the parts they like. It has been fetishized and refashioned as the pristine blueprint of a bygone era, a better era, an era we should long to return to, or at least mimic as closely as possible. In October 2010, The Wall Street Journal reported not just a growing obsession with the Constitution, but a spike in the sales of powdered wigs. On a particularly historic election night in 2009, no less than Speaker of the House John Boehner insisted that all the American people want is “a government that honors the Constitution” and, when he held up his pocket-sized version at a Tea Party rally in his home state, said: “I’m going to stand here with the Founding Fathers, who wrote in the preamble, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’” It was a pitch-perfect recitation, and the assembled crowd ate it up. Never mind that it was not the preamble to the Constitution or anything else. It was the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence.
John Boehner needn’t be ashamed. In his ignorance, he is truly a representative of the people. According to a 1987 study, eight out of ten Americans believed, as he did that day, that the phrase “all men are created equal” is in the Constitution. Almost nine in ten swore that “of the people, by the people, for the people” is in the Constitution, too, even though it is of the Gettysburg Address, by President Abraham Lincoln, and for-crying-out-loud-didn’t-anyone-ever-teach-them-that? Most egregious: Nearly half thought that “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” was written by James Madison, not Karl Marx. (Although they couldn’t have fingered constitutional author Madison in a lineup of the Framers and would no doubt have guessed Karl Marx was Groucho’s brother.)
Same as it ever was. Way back in 1847, only sixty years after the Constitution was adopted, the governor of New York, Silas Wright, was already grumbling, appropriately, that “no one familiar with the affairs of our government, can have failed to notice how large a proportion of our statesmen appear never to have read the Constitution of the United States with a careful reference to its precise language and exact provisions, but rather, as occasion presents, seem to exercise their ingenuity . . . to stretch both to the line of what they, at the moment, consider expedient.” Which is a fancy way of saying what Senator Robert Byrd echoed in 2005: “People revere the Constitution yet know so little about it—and that goes for some of my fellow senators.” For two centuries, we have been expected to abide by it, live by it, swear by it—some of us, officially—yet we have no idea what it says.
So is it any wonder, I ask you, that President George W. Bush once called it, and I quote, a goddamned piece of paper?
Not to me.
Because unlike you, I googled that quote just now. Apparently it is “apocryphal”—which I also googled, and learned is another way of saying “not true.” Never happened. Bogus. Evidently, a few years ago a left-wing muckraker spread the rumor that when one of the president’s aides advised him not to renew the PATRIOT Act—on account of it being unconstitutional—the president said, “Stop throwing the Constitution in my face. It’s just a goddamned piece of paper!”
Oh sure, there is some truthiness to it—but it is, nonetheless, a lie. The forty-third president of the United States never said that the Constitution he swore an oath to uphold “to the best of his ability, through rain, or sleet, or gloom of night” (note to self: google “presidential oath of office”) was just “a goddamned piece of paper.” After all, it couldn’t possibly be a goddamned piece of paper—not when our third president had already, and long ago, declared it “a mere thing of wax.” Thomas Jefferson, not long after the Constitution was in force, lamented aloud that the justices of the Supreme Court had already usurped the right of “exclusively explaining the Constitution” and therefore could, as the nation’s first judicial activists, “twist and shape [it] into any form they please,” like so much revolutionary Play-Doh. By calling dibs on the first constitutional metaphor, Jefferson has beaten Bush to the punch by two hundred years. It is no goddamned piece of paper, Mr. President; it is a mere thing of wax.
Fine. But even if the Constitution isn’t a goddamned piece of paper, could the case be made that President Bush treated it like one? Sure it could. Most presidents do. That President Bush, and other presidents, have regarded the Constitution as a goddamned piece of paper is impossible to deny. The moment they take their hands off the inaugural Bible, having publicly sworn undying fealty to the Constitution, they secretly resent its existence.
For a head of state, the Constitution is a pain in the ass. It limits their powers and dampens their ambitions. There is an entire section—Article II—devoted to restricting what the president can, and dictating what the president must, do with his day. (Imagine if there were an entire section in our country’s founding document insisting that you “shall receive Ambassadors” at your home.) It’s no surprise that presidents try to cut constitutional corners, and it’s no wonder that American history is riddled with egregious examples. Minor infractions, such as:
• The Alien and Sedition acts of 1798—courtesy of President Adams
• The suspension of habeas corpus—compliments of President Lincoln
• The Palmer Raids and the suppression of free speech after World War I—thoughtful gifts from President Wilson
• The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II—a considerate contribution care of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt
• Trumped-up trials for treason during McCarthyism—bons mots from Presidents Truman and Eisenhower
• The wiretapping of dissenters during Vietnam—delicious truffles served up by Presidents Johnson and Nixon
So when President Bush ultimately decided to renew the possibly unconstitutional PATRIOT Act, it may have been, historically speaking, the most presidential thing he ever did. He turned a goddamned piece of paper into a mere thing of wax.
As he often said, September 11th changed everything.
From the book Me the People by Kevin Bleyer. Copyright © 2012 by Kevin Bleyer. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.