Kevin Bleyer is an Emmy Award-winning writer for "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and co-author of Earth: The Book, as well as a contributor to President Obama's speeches (probably the jokes).
In his new book, Me The People, he takes on the daunting task of rewriting the Constitution of the United States of America, a "two centuries-old document written by drunk farmers, scrawled on animal skin, conceived in desperation in the aftermath of war, composed in the language of the country it was intended to spurn, and, not for nothing, scribbled in handwriting with the quill of a goose."
We have made a terrible mistake.
And by we, I mean you. You have made a terrible mistake. As a citizen of the United States of America, you have put your faith in a four-page document written by farmers, scrawled on animal skin, disseminated more than two centuries ago, conceived in desperation in the aftermath of war, composed in the language of the country it was intended to spurn, and, not for nothing, scribbled by hand with the quill of a goose.
And because you have made a terrible mistake, and because—lamentably—you and I together count as we, "we" have made a terrible mistake.
We the People.
But really, I blame you.
When Alexander Hamilton said, "The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right," he wasn't talking about himself. He wasn't talking about we. And certainly not me.
He was talking about you.
You the persons.
You have been told, promised, and guaranteed— and since you seldom judge or determine right, you have foolishly chosen to believe— that the Constitution is your great protector, as flawless in its foresight as it is eloquent in its expression, equal parts holy water, force fi eld, security blanket, instruction manual, and swiss army knife— delivering a more perfect union, establishing justice, insuring domestic tranquility, providing for the common defence, promoting the general welfare, and securing the Blessings of Liberty.
The Killer App of governance.
But ask yourself, if the Constitution is such an astonishing document, such a landmark piece of literature, why no Pulitzer? Why no Nobel Prize? If this supposed "American masterpiece" is so darn revolutionary, why was it never declared one of the "Ten Best Reads" of 1787? And did you even notice that "defence" is misspelled? How embarrassing. For all the Constitution's vaunted glories, it hasn't even been spell- checked. This is our Founding Document? (Quick, someone put that in a display case. It belongs in a muzeum.)
It is emblazoned on signs at political rallies, where it is as often quoted as it is misquoted. It is cited on the floor of Congress, by lawmakers who only defend the parts they like. It has been fetishized and refashioned as the pristine blueprint of a bygone era, a better era, an era we should long to return to, or at least mimic as closely as possible. In October 2010, The Wall Street Journal reported not just a growing obsession with the Constitution, but a spike in the sales of powdered wigs. On a particularly historic election night in 2009, no less than Speaker of the House John Boehner insisted that all the American people want is "a government that honors the Constitution" and, when he held up his pocket- sized version at a Tea Party rally in his home state, said: "I'm going to stand here with the Founding Fathers, who wrote in the preamble, 'We hold these truths to be self- evident, that all men are created equal.'" It was a pitch- perfect recitation, and the assembled crowd ate it up. Never mind that it was not the preamble to the Constitution or anything else. It was the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence.
John Boehner needn't be ashamed. In his ignorance, he is truly a representative of the people. According to a 1987 study, eight out of ten Americans believed, as he did that day, that the phrase "all men are created equal" is in the Constitution. Almost nine in ten swore that "of the people, by the people, for the people" is in the Constitution, too, even though it is of the Gettysburg Address, by President Abraham Lincoln, and for- crying- out-loud-didn't- anyone- ever- teach- them- that? Most egregious: Nearly half thought that "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need" was written by James Madison, not Karl Marx. (Although they couldn't have fingered constitutional author Madison in a lineup of the Framers and would no doubt have guessed Karl Marx was Groucho's brother.)
Same as it ever was. Way back in 1847, only sixty years after the Constitution was adopted, the governor of New York, Silas Wright, was already grumbling, appropriately, that "no one familiar with the affairs of our government, can have failed to notice how large a proportion of our statesmen appear never to have read the Constitution of the United States with a careful reference to its precise language and exact provisions, but rather, as occasion presents, seem to exercise their ingenuity . . . to stretch both to the line of what they, at the moment, consider expedient." Which is a fancy way of saying what Senator Robert Byrd echoed in 2005: "People revere the Constitution yet know so little about it— and that goes for some of my fellow senators." For two centuries, we have been expected to abide by it, live by it, swear by it— some of us, officially— yet we have no idea what it says.
So is it any wonder, I ask you, that President George W. Bush once called it, and I quote, a goddamned piece of paper?
Not to me.
Because unlike you, I googled that quote just now. Apparently it is "apocryphal"— which I also googled, and learned is another way of saying "not true." Never happened. Bogus. Evidently, a few years ago a left- wing muckraker spread the rumor that when one of the president's aides advised him not to renew the PATRIOT Act— on account of it being unconstitutional— the president said, "Stop throwing the Constitution in my face. It's just a goddamned piece of paper!"
Oh sure, there is some truthiness to it— but it is, nonetheless, a lie. The forty- third president of the United States never said that the Constitution he swore an oath to uphold "to the best of his ability, through rain, or sleet, or gloom of night" (note to self: google "presidential oath of office") was just "a goddamned piece of paper." After all, it couldn't possibly be a goddamned piece of paper— not when our third president had already, and long ago, declared it "a mere thing of wax." Thomas Jefferson, not long after the Constitution was in force, lamented aloud that the justices of the Supreme Court had already usurped the right of "exclusively explaining the Constitution" and therefore could, as the nation's first judicial activists, "twist and shape [it] into any form they please," like so much revolutionary Play- Doh. By calling dibs on the first constitutional metaphor, Jefferson has beaten Bush to the punch by two hundred years. It is no goddamned piece of paper, Mr. President; it is a mere thing of wax.
Fine. But even if the Constitution isn't a goddamned piece of paper, could the case be made that President Bush treated it like one? Sure it could. Most presidents do. That President Bush, and other presidents, have regarded the Constitution as a goddamned piece of paper is impossible to deny. The moment they take their hands off the inaugural Bible, having publicly sworn undying fealty to the Constitution, they secretly resent its existence.
For a head of state, the Constitution is a pain in the ass. It limits their powers and dampens their ambitions. There is an entire section— Article II— devoted to restricting what the president can, and dictating what the president must, do with his day. (Imagine if there were an entire section in our country's founding document insisting that you "shall receive Ambassadors" at your home.) It's no surprise that presidents try to cut constitutional corners, and it's no wonder that American history is riddled with egregious examples. Minor infractions, such as:
The Alien and Sedition acts of 1798— courtesy of President Adams
The suspension of habeas corpus— compliments of President Lincoln
The Palmer Raids and the suppression of free speech after World War I— thoughtful gifts from President Wilson
The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II— a considerate contribution care of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Trumped- up trials for treason during McCarthyism— bons mots from Presidents Truman and Eisenhower
The wiretapping of dissenters during Vietnam— delicious truffles served up by Presidents Johnson and Nixon
So when President Bush ultimately decided to renew the possibly unconstitutional PATRIOT Act, it may have been, historically speaking, the most presidential thing he ever did. He turned a goddamned piece of paper into a mere thing of wax.
As he often said, September 11th changed everything.
From the Book, ME THE PEOPLE by Kevin Bleyer. Copyright © 2012 by Kevin Bleyer. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.
Washington's Teeth Weren't Wooden
Contrary to popular belief, the country's first president had dentures made of gold, ivory, lead, and animal teeth.
Adams Used To Skip School
As a young boy, John Adams would often skip school, choosing instead to spend his time hunting and fishing.
Thomas Jefferson Founded The University Of Virginia
Jefferson founded the university in 1819 on land that once belonged to eventual President James Monroe. Jefferson is the only president to have ever founded an institution of higher learning.
Madison Was Princeton's First Grad Student
After finishing his undergraduate degree in 2 years, James Madison stayed at the university for an additional year, making him the Ivy League institution's first graduate student.
The Capital Of Liberia Was Named After Monroe
Because of his prominent support for the colonization of Liberia, the country decided to name their capital city, Monrovia, after James Monroe.
John Quincy Adams Regularly Skinny-Dipped In The Potomac
Adams was known for his early morning dips in D.C.'s main waterway, always in the nude.
Andrew Jackson Taught His Parrot To Curse
The parrot had to be removed from President Jackson's funeral because it wouldn't stop swearing.
Martin Van Buren Popularized The Phrase "OK"
Supposedly, President Van Buren popularized one of the most commonly used phrases to date: "OK", or "Okay". Van Buren was from Kinderhook, NY which was also called "Old Kinderhook". His support groups came to be known as "O.K. Clubs" and the term OK came to mean "all right".
William Henry Harrison Had A Pet Goat
During his brief tenure as President, Harrison had a pet billy goat with him at the White House.
John Tyler Was An Awesome Violinist
During his presidency, Tyler often played violin at parties to entertain guests at the White House, and he actually aspired to be a concert violinist.
James Polk Promised Not To Seek A Second Term If Elected
Polk, probably aware that many other politicians desired to run for the office, made an explicit campaign promise that if he was elected president, he would leave after 4 years, a promise that he kept.
Taylor Had A Really Cool Nickname
Zachary Taylor's nickname was "Old Rough And Ready", which he acquired from admiring soldiers while he was fighting in the Seminole War.
Fillmore Fought Pirates
When he was still working as a fisherman, Fillmore and his crew were captured by pirates. After working on the ship for several months, Fillmore and several others on board revolted against the pirates, recaptured the ship, and brought it to Boston harbor, where the pirates were hanged.
Franklin Pierce Didn't Swear His Oath Of Office
He instead affirmed it, placing his hand on a law book rather than the Bible.
Buchanan Was A Bachelor
James Buchanan was the only president to never marry, instead remaining a bachelor his entire life.
Lincoln Was A Great Wrestler
When Abe Lincoln moved to New Salem, Illinois in 1831, he ran into a local bully named Jack Armstrong. Armstrong challenged Lincoln to a wrestling match outside of Denton Offutt's store, where Lincoln was a clerk, and townspeople gathered to watch and wager on it. Lincoln won.
Andrew Johnson Was Drunk During His Inauguration
He reportedly put back a significant amount of whiskey beforehand and was noticeably drunk during his speech.
Ulysses S. Grant Got A Speeding Ticket On A Horse
The 18th President Of The United States was given a $20 speeding ticket for riding his horse too fast down a Washington street.
Hayes Banned Alcohol From The White House
During his presidency, Rutherford B. Hayes banned alcohol from the White House, allegedly for political reasons as he tried to gain support from anti-alcohol Prohibitionists.
James A. Garfield Was Ambidextrous
Not only was he the first president to be both righty and lefty, but it was said he could write a sentence in Latin with one hand and write it in Greek with the other hand.
Chester A. Arthur Was A Sharp Dresser, Night Owl
Not only was Chester A. Arthur a very sharp dresser (he owned over 80 pairs of pants) but he often took late night strolls around D.C. with friends, not returning home until 3 or 4 in the morning.
Grover Cleveland Was Legal Guardian To The Girl He Later Married
When Grover Cleveland's law partner Oscar Folsom died, Cleveland became the girl's legal guardian. Frances Folsom was 11 years old at the time. Oddly enough, ten years later, they got married at the White House. She remains the youngest First Lady in the history of the United States, having been just 21 when they married.
Harrison Was Afraid Of Electricty
Benjamin Harrison was the sitting president when electricity was first installed in the White House. However, he was scared of being electrocuted and refused to touch the light switches.
Grover Cleveland Had An Artificial Jaw
Since Cleveland is the only president to ever serve two non-consecutive terms, he warrants two slides. While he was president, doctors discovered that Cleveland had a cancerous lesion in his mouth, and they had to remove most of his upper-left jaw as a result. A prosthodontist then installed an artificial jaw made of vulcanized rubber. Cleveland kept the surgery a secret, fearing public concerns over his health, and the entire operation took place on his friend's yacht.
McKinley Was Tech-Savvy
William McKinley was the first presidential candidate to campaign using the telephone.
Theodore Roosevelt Had Really Bad Asthma
In his early childhood, Teddy Roosevelt suffered from very severe asthma. Because there were no inhalers or special treatments for asthma at the time, he was often sick as a young boy. However, he began to regularly exercise in order to combat the illness and, aside from the occasional asthma attack, he eventually overcame it.
Taft Swore In Later Presidents
After leaving office, William Taft became the only ex-president to serve as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, effectively becoming the only person to serve as the head of two branches of government. In doing so, he swore in both Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover to the presidency. (On an unrelated note, he also lost 150 pounds after leaving office.)
Woodrow Wilson Had A Ph.D.
To date, he's the only president to hold a doctorate degree, making him the highest educated president in the history of the United States. He was awarded the degree in Political Science and History from Johns Hopkins University. He also passed the Georgia Bar Exam despite not finishing law school.
Warren Harding Lost The White House China In A Poker Game
Harding really like to gamble, although it seems he wasn't very good at it. In one poker game, he bet the White House china collection and lost it all in one hand.
Calvin Coolidge Had A Really Weird Morning Ritual
Calvin Coolidge had a morning ritual in which someone rubbed Vaseline on his head while he ate breakfast in bed.
Hoover Spoke Chinese
Herbert Hoover moved his family to China before becoming President, and he and his wife learned to speak Mandarin Chinese fluently. They would speak the language around the White House to prevent others from understanding them.
FDR Has A Movie Credit
Late one night at a dinner party, President Franklin Roosevelt regaled guests with a premise for a mystery novel. Magazine editor Fulton Oursler was in in attendance, and he hired some mystery writers to flesh out the premise to a novel, which was then adapted into a movie, "The President's Mystery." FDR received a "story by" credit.
Truman Was A Failed Haberdasher
Before becoming the President of the United States of America, Harry Truman owned a haberdashery business (a men's outfitter), which went bankrupt in 1921.
Eisenhower Almost Had His Leg Amputated
As a freshman in high school, Dwight Eisenhower injured his knee, and the wound caused an infection that doctors feared could kill him. They recommend the leg be amputated, but Eisenhower loved playing sports so much that he refused the operation, and he somehow made a miraculous recovery.
JFK Had A Shoddy Harvard Application
John F. Kennedy's <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/01/15/jfks-harvard-application-_n_809524.html" target="_hplink">application to study at Harvard</a> was fairly unimpressive by today's standards. Not only that, but his own father, a Harvard alum, gave him a pretty underwhelming recommendation, saying that young Jack was "careless and lacks application."
LBJ Was Very Comfortable In The Bathroom
President Johnson was famous among White House staffers for having no shame about asking people to follow him into the bathroom to continue conversations as he relieved himself.
Nixon Was A Card Shark
While in the Navy, Richard Nixon noticed that his friends were winning money in poker games. Always the opportunist, Nixon had the best poker player in his unit teach him how to play the game. Within only a few months, Nixon had won around $6,000 in poker games, which he used to fund his first congressional campaign.
Gerald And Betty Ford Were Fashion Models
In the 1940's Gerald Ford did a bit of modeling and even posed on the cover of "Cosmopolitan". His wife Betty was also a dancer and fashion model, who signed with the John Robert Powers modeling firm to finance her dance education.
Carter Was A Peanut Farmer
When he was younger, Jimmy Carter took over and ran his family's peanut farm. As a tribute to his past, he had a giant peanut-shaped balloon in his inaugural parade.
Ronald Reagan Did Stand-Up
In 1954, Ronald Reagan's acting career was going so badly that he took a gig as a Las Vegas stand-up comic for a few weeks.
George H.W. Bush Was A Really Good Athlete
In high school, Bush was the captain of both the varsity baseball and soccer teams, and he played as a forward on the school's basketball team.
Bill Clinton Is A Two-Time Grammy Winner
Clinton took home the 2004 Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album For Children along with Mikhail Gorbachev and Sophia Loren for their narration on the Russian National Symphony's "Wolf Tracks and Peter and the Wolf". Then in 2005, he won the Best Spoken Word Grammy for the audiobook of "My Life". His wife, Hillary Clinton, also won a Best Spoken Word Grammy for the audiobook of 1997's "It Takes A Village".
George W. Bush Was A Cheerleader In High School
As a high school student, in addition to playing baseball, George W. Bush was the school's head cheerleader. He would often organize exuberant pep talks and skits during weekly assemblies.
Barack Obama Is A Comic Book Nerd
President Obama collects "Spiderman" and "Conan The Barbarian" comic books, and has even read every "Harry Potter" book.