Gather 'round, fellow citizens, and let's see what our revolutionary ancestors have wrought.
Switch the television dial, as I do while writing on this bicentennial observance day of the adoption of the Constitution, and the first scene is from Capitol Hill.
There, perhaps the most important judicial confirmation hearing in decades proceeds. It provides an extraordinary demonstration of the continuing, and essential, tension between two of the three branches of government, judicial and legislative. In the background, but actually at the center, stands the executive branch; this is the ultimate power of a president, the chance to influence future debates on major public and private issues long after his term by choosing a justice whose views reflect his.
Great, troubling questions abound in this proceeding. The ideological labels so easily applied to characterize the judicial nominee seem meaningless. He is said to be conservative, yet his views sound at times radical. Then he shifts positions, making it all the more unclear what to expect from him philosophically. Is he mainstream, a closet this or that, or what? Who and what is a liberal today, who and what a conservative? New definitions are needed, but none seems forthcoming.
The outcome of this confirmation process is equally uncertain. The ultimate judgment appears likely to affect Americans for years. At stake are some of the great but unresolved "rights" taken for granted but always up for reinterpretation -- the right to dissent and protest, to publish and criticize, to be wrong, to privacy, to be free from officious power of the state, to be left alone, to be different. The hearings attract one of the day's smallest national television audiences.
Switch again, and there is a familiar sight -- a parade. Bands, balloons, flags, trumpets, drums, majorettes.
The scene is Philadelphia, where the first constitutional debates were held and the document adopted. A TV network sportscaster is interviewing the secretary of defense. Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Jay & Co. would be astonished, unbelieving. Americans today wouldn't give it a thought. Why should they? In the mass culture of America, everyone is on a first-name basis -- if you're on TV, that is. If you're not, see how easily you'll get in the front door.
Now, the defense secretary watches uniformed military units on parade and floats depicting military prowess. He remarks that only the federal government can provide for the national defense, not the states, not any other entity. The old/young guys of 200 years ago in their powdered wigs and breeches and formal manners would understand that one. They wouldn't understand the next scene at all, though.
There, marching briskly in step, are young corporate executives, men and women, carrying leather briefcases and dressed in sober corporate gray garb, the women in their skirts, suit coats, white blouses and black ties as somber as the men. Yuppies on parade? The successful American present? The American future? Who knows what message their procession is supposed to convey? Do they?
The president is coming soon, but he's a familiar sight. Although only 39 of them, all men, have occupied the White House in the last 200 years, there have been seven in the last generation. Soon there will be an eighth. They come and go with a rapidity that would undoubtedly be surprising to those early "Framers," as Americans like to call them. On the other hand, perhaps not: Jefferson, for one, believed in the right of the people to make sudden, drastic changes in their leadership, even by overthrow, if necessary. He'd probably be too radical for today's America, probably all those early ones would be.
Switch again to other scenes: droning debates, telecast live, from Congress; dreadful, synthetic game shows; the electronic preacher, a study in sincere unctuousness, makes his pitch for God and mammon; the latest market report from Wall Street; the daytime variety program, four miniskirted young women demonstrating to four stiff young men the latest dance step, upon your toes, back and forth.
Then the glory of it all becomes apparent: If you don't like what you see, just switch it off. No one can tell you to watch or not to. That's reason enough for a national celebration.