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Celebrating the Constitution.

CELEBRATING The CONSTITUTION

The fireworks and tap shoesfrom the Statue of Liberty centennial fete have barely had a chance to cool, and it is once again time to celebrate. This time the center of attention is the U.S. Constitution, four handwritten pages that form the basis of U.S. democracy and the oldest living document of its kind.

September 17, 1987, marks theConstitution's 200th birthday. Celebration organizers say the festivities will be dazzling but dignified, electric yet educational. But decorum in the face of reminiscence is often a tall order for a country that--let's face it--throws a great party.

There won't be any Elvis lookalikesthis time, but short of that, all bets are off. Parades and pageants, marching bands, sporting events, fireworks, balls, and concerts are all on the bill--along with more speeches than the members of the Constitutional Convention, themselves no slouches when it came to oratory, could have given in a month of fort-nights.

Philadelphia, where the 55 delegatesto the convention met in the sweltering heat of the summer of 1787, will be the hub of the national celebration. The city's own bicentennial commission has been at work many months planning events for their celebration, "We the People 200," to be topped off by "the largest parade ever mounted in the U.S.A." Congress has been invited to convene in special session in Philadelphia for the first time since the capital was moved to the District of Columbia in 1800.

A 23-member Commission on theBicentennial of the United States Constitution is directing the national celebration under the stewardship of former Chief Justice Warren Burger (who turns 80 the day of the bicentennial). Burger retired from the high court in part to head the project, which he calls a national "history and civics lesson." He and other members want it to be a "cerebration," too, so essay contests, exhibits, poetry readings, films, lectures, and theater programs will play a major role in the festivities. One of the most notable of the education plans is the endowment of a James Madison fellowship to be awarded to teachers for study of the Constitution.

Despite a constant emphasis oneducation, critics say some of the commission's other activities and proposals detract from the dignity of the Constitution and its importance. Last October, Burger and other commission members participated in a media extravaganza, sponsored by Walt Disney World, that combined the theme park's 15th anniversary and the Constitution's 200th.

Burger was also criticized for proposingthat millions of miniature copies of the Constitution be sold at supermarket check-out counters, along-side the tabloids and tablets. But according to a commission spokesman, the purpose of the idea was to get the document into as many hands as possible. Distribution has included hotel rooms, private industry conferences, and federal agencies. Another commission plan will have schoolchildren across the country recite the Pledge of Allegiance together September 16.

Burger says that, despite criticism,he is satisfied the main focus of the celebration will be education, not hoopla. He says essay contests and similar programs "are all very dignified and appropriate methods of telling the story. Our function is to tell the story of how we got the Constitution and how difficult it was to get."

Rep. Lindy Boggs, one of the commissioners,says, "There is a misconception of what the celebration is all about. Having hoopla is very historic, because when the Constitution was finally ratified, there were great parades and candlelight songfests and celebrations of all sorts." The Louisiana Democrat says that planned activities will promote "a more thorough understanding not only of the rights and privileges, but of the responsibilities that each citizen has under the Constitution."

Lynne V. Cheney, a commissionmember and chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, agrees with Boggs: "I'm sure that if the Founding Fathers had had fireworks as good as we have today, they would have used them."

Like the U.S. Bicentennial and theStatue of Liberty celebrations, the anniversary of the Constitution has drawn participation pledges from corporations, civic and trade associations, colleges and universities, religious groups, ethnic organizations, federal agencies, and the American Bar Association. The Postal Service will issue 21 commemorative stamps.

But what about the rest of theworld? Not to worry: representatives of about 140 countries have been invited to participate in the celebration. And for those who can't make it, the U.S. Information Agency plans to make the Constitution available in several languages, "especially in developing nations that might want to include some of the concepts of our Constitution in their own," the commission says.

Materials sent to state agencies,schools, and other institutions brim with ideas on how best to mark the anniversary. One suggestion is to have local politicians reenact the signing. Another is to make the day a state holiday, or perhaps create a living memorial, such as a grove of trees or a park. Another suggestion is to name a street after the Constitution. A booklet distributed by the commission suggests Freedom Lane, Madison Place, or First Amendment Avenue.

It could probably include ControversyCourt. Far from being a historical relic, the Constitution is one of the most talked-about documents ever written in any language. Practically before the ink was dry on the parchment, judicial activists and strick constructionists squared off in the courts over the constitutionality of a wide range of rulings. They have continued ever since.

Most recently, when Attorney GeneralEdwin Meese III told an audience at Tulane University that rulings of the Supreme Court were not "the supreme law of the land," he raised the ire of many constitutional scholars who said the high court is indeed the supreme interpreter of what is constitutional and what is not.

And all the activity surrounding thebicentennial is sure to amplify the voices of liberals and conservatives, all of whom find support for their viewpoints and causes either in the text or somewhere between those beautifully hand-scripted lines. Privacy, for example, is not mentioned in the Constitution, but the Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable search and seizure. And which forms of communication are protected by the First Amendment? How should power and responsibilities be apportioned to the federal government and the states?

Burger says he welcomes the increaseddebate. In fact, that's the point of the celebration. "There have been conflicts and disagreements over the Constitution and its meaning ever since it was first adopted," he says. "But this is an open society, and people should be free to debate it and discuss it as long as they do it in a civilized way." He adds, "The more it is debated and discussed, the better there will be an understanding."

Boggs says, "A lively discussion ofthe Constitution is good under any circumstances."

Good thing, too, because themake-up of the bicentennial committee itself practically ensures the lively tradition that the original conferees started 200 years ago. Probably nowhere could one find a more philosophically diverse group than the one planning the celebration. Liberals and conservatives, activists and strict constructionists--all are assured their interests will be represented.

Working side by side on the planningare one of the Senate's most liberal members. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, and one of the country's most conservative voices, Phyllis Schlafly, founder of the Eagle Forum. The committee includes other members of Congress and leaders in business, the humanities, higher education, law, and local government.

Do their divergent views clash inthe course of planning the bicentennial?

"They get along very well," Boggssays. "Members are very practical in their approach. They have a good reputation for moving the meetings along." And keeping the proceedings lively? "That's right."
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Title Annotation:includes related article on national archives
Author:Deigh, Robb
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:May 1, 1987
Words:1269
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