ALMOST BEFORE WE could get over the last one, another bicentennial -- complete with inspirational speeches, colorful reenactments, PBS series and, yes, special issues of magazines -- is upon us. If the first one 11 years ago seemed simple in concept -- who couldn't grasp the idea of the nation's birthday? -- this one is not so easy. Two hundred years after the Declaration of Independence, we celebrated our freedom. Two hundred years after the ratification of the Constitution, we are celebrating the way we are governed.

A seemingly benign exercise, but get past the obligatory rhetoric, and fierce passions emerge. The debate that began at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia two centuries ago has ebbed and flowed but never abated. How should our government work? What are its obligations? Where can it be improved? Those questions are as appropriate today as they were then. It is in that spirit of self-examination that this special issue is presented.

In the following pages, five writers consider the Constitution from their special vantages. Garry Wills looks at the consolidation of power in the presidency from the perspective of a scholar who has studied Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan as well as the Founding Fathers. Roger Wilkins, a writer, lawyer and civil rights movement veteran, looks back at his youth and remembers the Constitution as a symbol of naive hope for black Americans. Rose Elizabeth Bird, whose defeat last fall for a new term as chief justice of California was seen in part as a backlash against the fact that she is a woman, writes that the nation must redress the fact that women were not and are still not given the same rights as men by the Constitution. There are many such problems facing the nation, writes Frank H. Easterbrook, a federal judge appointed by President Reagan, but he cautions that the Constitution does not empower the judiciary to solve them. Undeterred, Charlie Haas, a California humorist, presents his own constitutional amendments aimed at dealing with some troublesome social issues -- like restaurants that play Vivaldi.

Accompanying these essays is commentary of a different kind: Nine of the nation's foremost political cartoonists offer their own views of the Constitution -- 200 years young and still able to take a joke.