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Symphonic Marvel

December 07, 1986

"Swathed in pride, but obscured by indifference." That, simply, has been the lot of the U.S. Constitution in American life, Cornell Prof. Michael Kammen argues in a newly published book on the federal charter. His words also symbolize the difficulty of staging a national celebration to mark the 200th anniversary of the Constitution.

The bicentennial got a flurry of publicity earlier this year when Warren E. Burger announced his retirement as chief justice to devote his time to staging the celebration as chairman of the constitutional bicentennial commission. Burger expressed the desire for "a history and civics lesson for all of us."

Burger recognized, however, that the bicentennial had not exactly generated a national frenzy. "We're waiting for the spark," he said in September. "We haven't found it yet." Burger should not yet despair. His predecessors in 1887 and 1937 faced the same problems.

Americans never have had difficulty celebrating the Declaration of Independence on July Fourth each year. The hoopla and fireworks mark a specific event and date. But the Constitution was more of a concept than an event. One of the problems with celebrating the Constitution is when to celebrate, and for how long.

The commemoration will begin next May 25 to mark the convening of the Philadelphia convention, but the major event properly will be on Sept. 17, the 200th anniversary of the signing of the completed Constitution. Additional anniversaries will occur: ratification by the states in 1788 and the composition of the new government and the inaugural of George Washington as the first president in 1789. That still leaves the adoption of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, in December, 1791.

The country may be exhausted from recent nationalistic binges, including the bicentennial of American Independence in 1976, the commercialized centennial of the Statue of Liberty this year and even the 1984 Olympic Games. Just as well, perhaps. Drafting the Constitution was an intellectual exercise of governmental philosophy and theory, of political science and legal experiment. Some bicentennial promoters yearn for a flamboyant stroke to attract broad public interest. Fine, up to a point. But Burger is correct in desiring a thoughtful, reflective, educational celebration.

After all, the Constitution is not a dusty relic of nostalgia or the exalted symbol of patriotic fanfare. Americans today deal with it constantly in myriad ways, from the convening of each day's session of Congress to a police officer's reading of Miranda rights to an arrested drug dealer. The Declaration of Independence may be drums and pipes. The Constitution is a symphonic marvel that constantly is attuned to everyday American life.

We best honor the Constitution, perhaps, by recognizing the trust that George Washington and the other framers placed in future generations of Americans--in us--to guard and use this instrument of government well. No less than the sacred fire of liberty was at stake, Washington said. It still is.

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