Gather round, fellow citizens. The question before the house, and before the fireworks start, is: Aside from longevity, what should we be celebrating?
For instance, what do you suppose those old-looking young Americans would think about the country they created 211 years ago this Fourth of July or the constitutional system of government they adopted 200 years ago this September?
They were an unlikely bunch of rebels, seeming so stiff and formal and proper in pictures that survive them. If they materialized now, they would appear unbelievably old-fashioned to 20th century eyes. Yet there was nothing outmoded about their thinking or limited about their vision. As current events make dramatically clear, they were remarkably farsighted in anticipating the kinds of problems present-day Americans confront and in fashioning means to deal with them, if we choose to use them.
Two contemporary questions of great magnitude are illustrative: the Iran-contra hearings and the advise-and-consent process about to begin on a president's nominee to the Supreme Court.
Each goes to the heart of the constitutional system, and each presents a special challenge for the nation's elected officials and citizens. Together, they pose the central question addressed by the Founding Fathers two centuries ago, the one they knew would always be with us. It is about power: how best to exercise it, how best to check it.
The founders understood two things from bitter experience as colonial serfs and from what history had taught about rulers and regimes. First, those who wielded great power would inevitably abuse it. Second, safeguards were needed to counter and correct such abuses when they occurred. Without these, freedom of mind, spirit and action could not flourish. Their elaborate system of checks and balances was constructed with those facts in mind.
There's no doubt that those first citizens of the United States of America would instantly grasp the significance of the congressional hearings into executive abuses of power exemplified in the Iran-contra affair.
A recurring refrain about the hearings, echoed recently by the president and accepted by some in the news media and country, is that they are boring and insignificant -- soporific, in one writer's view -- a waste of time and taxpayers' money. Nothing could be less true. Far from finished, they have documented what will likely stand as one of the most sweeping attempts in American history by the executive branch to employ extralegal secret means, hidden from public scrutiny and beyond any political debate or accountability, to achieve ends that the policy-makers were unwilling to submit to the democratic process for decision.
With this has come a sordid tale of official deceit, falsification and destruction of documents, concocted cover stories, plotting by high officials on how to mask their actions, backdated legal findings that subsequently disappeared after being drafted for submission to the president, deliberate misleading of Congress and the American people and a pervasive attitude that the policy-makers were above the law.
The scope of these actions is virtually unprecedented. Had such presidential failure to "take care that the laws be faithfully executed" become known at a different time in Ronald Reagan's term, the ultimate constitutional check on presidential power -- impeachment -- might well have been employed.
Instead, operating for every citizen to see is the remedy foreseen 200 years ago -- Congress or the courts can act to redress the altered balance of power.
The founders would have been gratified to see that process at work. They would also be reassured to know that their evenhandedness in balancing power permits even a weakened president like Reagan the opportunity to try to influence American life for decades through judicial appointment, which is what the forthcoming Supreme Court nomination deliberations will be about.
That these two events, each of critical importance for present and future, could occur almost simultaneously without undue stress to the nation is a testament to how effectively the system formed so long ago by those practical, tough-minded, independent young Americans continues to function. It is as modern as it needs to be.
That, fellow citizen, provides reason enough to celebrate.