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'Wait Wait' host Peter Sagal makes the Constitution interesting in new PBS series

As host of NPR's popular program Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me, Peter Sagal is an expert at making the spinach of a news quiz taste like the dessert of a sidesplitting comedy show.

So it makes sense that, when PBS decided to make a documentary series about the U.S. Constitution, they turned to a guy who has made America laugh about governmental horrors diverse as the sequester and the ambitions of Donald Trump.

Tonight, viewers get their first taste of Constitution USA with Peter Sagal, which features the self-proclaimed "bad ass nerd" roaming the country in a motorcycle emblazoned with red,white and blue stripes -- "We the People" from the Constitution's preamble emblazoned on the gas tank -- talking with experts on America's most important document while decked out like a member of the Village People.

The show airs at 9 tonight on WEDU-Ch. 3 ans PBS stations nationwide. Area residents can also catch the theater showing of Saturday's Wait, Wait episode tonight at the Regal Park Place Cinemas and Cinebistro in Hyde Park at 7:30 p.m. Here's an edited transcript of our interview:

Deggans: So, no offense, but are you the most qualified guy to host this show?

Sagal: Look, dude, if I refuse to do jobs because I wasn't qualified to do them, I'd be nowhere. That’s been the basis of my career is people calling up and saying, ‘Hey, are you ready to host a radio show?’ ‘Yes!’ I say. Do I have any experience in radio? ‘No!’ Am I qualified in any way? ‘No!’ But I’ll try it. "

What don't people primarily understand about the Constitution?
Most people think that the Constitution guarantees them whatever it is they most value, right? So if you're a Second Amendment guy, you're gonna say, it guarantees me my right to bear arms. If you're a First Amendment guy, it guarantees you the right to speak. And for the most part, it doesn't. The Constitution itself, prior to any amendments, doesn't even have the word 'freedom' in it. Its primary purpose was to create a structure by which we decide how to govern ourselves.

So the Constitution doesn't settle all arguments?
(That's) almost like a religious view of the Constitution: 'We just need to follow this document and we'll know what to do.' And it doesn't work that way. It creates a framework to have an argument, not to settle it. Everybody thinks that American governance is easy 'cause we just have this Constitution that tells us what government can and can't do. And it's not easy at all. What we have is a document that allows us to create a … difficult democracy. I mean, you know, the Constitution doesn’t say anything, for example, about what the Supreme Court should do, hardly a word. It says there’ll be a Supreme Court, they’ll settle disputes between states, period. And that’s it. And everything else, this whole constitutional history in which the Supreme Court created these rights or limited these other rights or whatever is entirely an invention of our democracy and how we have chosen to govern ourselves.

You’re right that we have brought an almost religious reverence to this document; but it’s like having a Bible which can always be updated.
“One of the more fun interviews we did was, I interviewed my brother, who’s a rabbi, ‘cause I was interested in like, you know, he’s got this book of law, right? The Torah, the Bible, that he has to translate and make workable for a modern population of Americans that have very little in common with the circumstances under which that book of law was written. Well, what does that sound like, right? I mean, it sounds … that’s basically our task under the Constitution, you know. He, as a religious person, has to, you know, decipher messages or laws from another time to our time so, in the same way, you know, we have to figure out what does “cruel and unusual” mean? Does it matter what it meant in the 19th  … the late 18th century? Has it changed? Should it change?

Does that explain why we can't just slap a little democracy on any country and have them work as well as we do?
“I mean, the Soviet Union had a bill of rights, had a great bill of rights that would have guaranteed all kinds of wonderful things to its people, and it was an utter joke, you know? I mean, you can’t even call it a joke ‘cause jokes are required to be funny. It was ridiculous, it was stupid, it was meaningless, and so the question is how come our Constitution and our Bill of Rights has worked more or less and other countries can’t seem to manage it? It’s not, you know, national origin. It’s not national culture. It’s not a particular religious view. It’s kind of a civic religion that everybody in this country believes in, deeply. And you don’t come here and succeed unless you adhere to that civic belief that, you know, the Constitution rules, it’s this rule of law, government of laws, not of men, and those decisions get made every day by people small and large, you know?

To say that in a more cynical way, have we just accepted that this system keeps a country that works well enough for most of us going?
I made this joke, and some sort of right-wing sites got mad. But I said, 'The Constitution is like Tinker Bell. It only exists as long as we all believe in it.' And they all got mad: 'What d'ya mean it's like Tinker Bell? ... It protects us from the mob.' And I wanna say to 'em, what are you gonna do when the mob comes? Are you gonna wave your little copy of the Constitution at them? You’re gonna call the police and the police are gonna come and defend you because the police believe in the Constitution, you know? And that’s how it works. We’re all sort of participants in it, and the day we decide not to be, it disappears. It becomes as useless as the Soviet constitution.”

What was your most interesting day on this project?
“One weird day we went to two incredibly different events that really struck me. In the evening we went to a tea party rally in Wisconsin and these people loved America, but they loved America as they imagine it once was and maybe should be. They hate America as it actually is. They hate its current leadership, they hate what they believe to be the people who are in charge, the people who are favored but, man, they love … you know, this idea of America and the Constitution. They all had copies of the Constitution. They love the Constitution, and they feel … we … they feel that we’ve left it but nonetheless they love it. The next day we went to a naturalization ceremony in Chicago. Very different looking crowd, as you can imagine. People from 40 different countries. And these people also love America, and they love the Constitution, which they know a lot about. They love America as it is, you know. Two insanely different crowds, two people with amazingly different perspectives on what this country is and where it’s going. And they both (a) love the Constitution and they both play Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA at the end of their party.

Which means Lee Greenwood is really cleaning up.
He is. He’s doing really well. When you go to a naturalization ceremony, you will see a message from President Obama welcoming our new citizens and a video of Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA. I don’t know how you feel about that song, but if you go to a naturalization ceremony and sit through it with those … right in the middle of all those people becoming citizens, when they start playing that song at the end, you will stand up and sing along, waving your flag, and you will be like, ‘Yes! We’re proud to be an American.’ It was a great time.

Why has the Constitution endured for so long?
“I think they did two things, and these are not original ideas to me. The first thing they did is they made it short. It’s the shortest written constitution in effect today, and it’s also the longest lived, you know. It’s been in effect for more time than any other. And I think those things are not unrelated. I think the fact that it’s so brief, even with amendments, basically allowed future generations to do what they, or rather I should say we felt necessary in our time.

The other thing that was really important that the founders did. They let us vote on it. Akhil Amar Reed pointed out that that was unprecedented, that so many people, even under the restrictions on who could vote in the late 18th century, had ever had a chance to vote on their own form of governance. An entire continent’s worth of people, not a council of nobles meeting with King John, not, you know, the electors of Hanover, not, you know, the senators of Rome were all aristocrats, whatever. Are we gonna govern ourselves this way? Enough people said yes, we’re gonna do it. And that was astonishing ‘cause the government began with a level of democratic legitimacy that had never been achieved before. And it was a huge risk.

[Last modified: Tuesday, May 7, 2013 12:24pm]


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