When Anwar Sadat was shot, one of the TV networks rushed in a friend of mine to be its Middle East expert. Asked who would take over Egypt, he said Vice President Hosni Mubarak. The network interviewer, blessed with a deep research staff, objected: "Doesn't Article 84 of the Egyptian constitution stipulate that power should first be transferred to the speaker of the parliament?" My friend rolled his eyes. "Only in America," he said to me later. "Where else would you hear such a question?"
Americans so revere their constitution that they find it hard to believe that, although all but six countries in the world have written constitutions, there are not many more than six that read them, let alone worship them as do Americans. The idea, for example, that anyone in Egypt would consult a piece of paper rather than the army to find out who succeeds a dying leader would strike most people in the Middle East as bizarre.
Yet it strikes Americans as not only the normal, but the rational way to do things. It is one of the paradoxes of constitutionalism that it sets out to order government in a spirit of utmost rationality, yet adherence to it requires a reverence that is quasi-religious. The 1931 edition of the "Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences," wryly explains "Constitutionalism" as "the name given to the trust which men repose in the power of words engrossed on parchment to keep a government in order."
Few trust more in the power of parchment than Americans. The Constitution claims its authority from "We the people." But, points out historian Edmund Morgan, the 55 men at the Constitutional Convention were not popularly elected, the ratifying state conventions were chosen by no more than one in five Americans, and the whole lot of them are long dead anyway. Why, in a democracy, should their will supersede the will of citizens living today? Why should a majority living 200 years later not be able to pass laws that change the composition of the Senate (the one provision which the Constitution declares to be unamendable) or, say, compel someone to bear witness against himself?
Because the tacit agreement not to do so is the glue that holds us together. And because the system works. And if, to work, constitutionalism requires a universal belief in the fable of a law-giving "we the people" -- "a fiction about which we actual people willingly suspend our disbelief," observes Morgan -- so be it.
Constitutionalism means disciplining oneself according to the (often imputed) wishes of a long-dead assembly, albeit an assembly of demigods. That is not just an exercise in mysticism. It is an exercise in conservatism. After all, the chief function of any constitution is to set out political playing rules that severely constrain what "the people," acting through constitutional government, may do. And none constrains better than the American Constitution. Macaulay called it "all sail and no anchor." A more wrongheaded assessment is hard to image. In fact, the American Constitution is all anchor, a drag on democracy and meant to be so. The Bill of Rights restrains government from invading the realm of individual liberty. And the body of the Constitution is designed to restrain government from doing most everything else.
The checks and balances that were meant to diffuse power have succeeded to an extraordinary degree. The only times in this age that a president could act decisively were when he enjoyed immense personal popularity and a landslide electoral victory. Such was the case with FDR, LBJ and Reagan in his first term. One exception to that rule is the dazzlingly creative early Truman years. At the time, however, the United States was blessed not only with brilliant and farsighted executive leadership, but with a remarkable spirit of creative bipartisanship in Congress. A country that has to rely on the simultaneous existence of a Truman, an Acheson, a Marshall and a Vandenberg guarantees that its periods of active and creative politics will be exceedingly rare.
Now, with the collapse of the parties and the rise of a newly powerful and newly critical fourth branch of government led by television, the political system is more fragmented than ever. But such are the chains of American constitutionalism with its genius for fracturing power that there is little to be done. Half-measures, like Gramm-Rudman or the Budget Act of 1974, which try to rationalize future congressional action, don't work. (When the future arrives, Congress simply changes the law.) And full measures -- constitutional revision -- are rightly eschewed as too dangerous. The Constitution is too delicate an instrument, its mystical appeal too valuable in holding a country together, to risk major constitutional reform.
What to do? A few pecks at the parchment, perhaps. The line-item veto, for example. Despite the fact that Reagan has run the idea into the ground by futilely proposing it every other Wednesday, it remains a way of strengthening the executive and providing discipline for what is, after all, government's major job, producing a budget. Also: severe restrictions on campaign financing. They would reduce the deadly centrifugal pull that is exerted on the political system by free-lance politicians, each with his own treasury, agenda and image machine.
And prayer. Perhaps one offered (not on school grounds) to Jefferson's nondenominational Creator, asking that this Constitution, which has preserved our liberties for 200 years by fashioning the world's most remarkable engine for political deadlock, not so paralyze us that we the people don't make it to the tricentennial.