Saturday, January 20, 2018
TV and Media

Wait, wait Peter Sagal will tell you about the Constitution

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 about the U.S. Constitution, they turned to a guy who has made America laugh about governmental horrors such as the sequester and the ambitions of Donald Trump.

Tuesday, viewers get their first taste of Constitution USA with Peter Sagal, which features the self-proclaimed "bad a-- nerd" roaming the country in a motorcycle with "We the People" from the Constitution's preamble emblazoned on the gas tank.

Here's an edited transcript of our interview:

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

Look, dude, if I refuse to do jobs because I wasn't qualified to do them, I'd be nowhere."

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.

Does that explain why we can't just slap democracy on any country and have them work as well as we do?

How come in our country we have obeyed more or less the dictates and limits of our Constitution and other countries can't seem to manage it? 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.

Have we just accepted that this system keeps a country which 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? You're gonna call the police and the police are gonna come and defend you because the police believe in the Constitution. We're all sort of participants in it, and the day we decide not to be, it disappears."

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