Constitution USA with Peter Sagal

I was never one of the thousands of school kids that visit Washington D.C. every spring.  My school didn’t participate in this annual ritual.  My first visit to our nation’s capitol was with my family while visiting friends in near-by Annapolis.  My Dad, a student of history, was focused on getting to the Smithsonian’s American museum.  My sister and I spent most of our time in the First Ladies Inaugural ballgown exhibit and checking out the Hope Diamond.   Year’s later I found myself once again in Washington D.C. as part of a work assignment.  It was on this visit that I got my first glimpse of the Constitution, wonderfully preserved in the National Archives.

Beginning Tuesday, May 7  NPR’s Peter Sagal takes a trip around America to talk to the folks about the Constitution in his four-part series CONSTITUTION USA.   The following interview with Sagal, about the series, is from Politico’s Patrick Gavan.

“Most people know Peter Sagal as the host of the popular NPR program “Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me,” but now he’s trying his hand at television. ‘How could I keep this face away from the viewers of America?’ he joked with POLITICO.  And it’s the kind of television show that politicos will eat up: CONSTITUTION USA WITH PETER SAGAL  follows him as he takes a motorcycle trip around the country to learn more about the ‘Constitution as it’s lived today.’  ‘I went to Northern California to talk to marijuana growers and cannabis activists and same-sex couples who want to get married. I went to Tyler, Texas, to talk to immigrants who were part of the case that established the right of education for immigrants. … We talked to people who were basically living the Constitution whether they wanted to or not, as opposed to the usual array of pundits or activists who have opinions about it.’  What he learned, among other things, is that most Americans don’t know their Constitution terribly well.

‘We rode my motorcycle up and down a parade route in Evanston, Il., on the Fourth of July and we said, “What does the Constitution mean to you?” And we stuck cameras and microphones in people’s faces and they all came back with “Oh, it means freedom! It means life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness!” And, that’s not in the Constitution. And there are some people who, because of ‘Schoolhouse Rock,’ could sing the preamble but most people don’t really understand what the Constitution says, specifically, and they don’t understand what it doesn’t say.’

Sagal said most Americans he talked to thought the Constitution ‘guarantees them whatever it is they feel most strongly about,’ and that’s not always the case.  ‘What they don’t understand is that most of the Constitution really doesn’t talk about rights and liberties. That’s the Bill of Rights, it’s important. Most of the Constitution doesn’t settle arguments. It gives us a forum through a very carefully designed form of government to have arguments without killing each other, which was, in the late 18th century, a pretty new thing in human experience.’

Sagal says he’s steering clear of the debate over whether the Constitution is a “dead” or “living” document because then ‘you’re getting into a liberal vs. conservative argument, it’s usually seen that way, and I want to stay away from that because there are a lot of different arguments to be made about interpretation.’ But, he says, ‘you cannot argue that the meaning of the Constitution has not changed profoundly since its writing and not just through the amendment process.’  What makes the Constitution a successful document, says Sagal, is less the document itself than the people’s willingness to believe in it. (He says, ‘You could say it’s worked, with an asterisk.’)

‘The Constitution is only as alive as we collectively have decided it is today,’ he said. ‘I’ve been calling it the Tinkerbell of national charters because Tinkerbell only lives if you clap, right? Or if you say, ‘I do believe in fairies, I do!’ It’s like this: ‘I do believe in civics, I do!’ And everybody believes in it, and we move on. And it’s an amazing phenomenon.”

CONSTITUTION USA WITH PETER SAGAL begins Tuesday, May 7 at 9pm on WOSU TV with an encore presentation Wednesday, May 8 at 9pm on WOSU PLUS.