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Selling the Constitution

September 01, 1987

The lead on your story about plans for California's celebration of the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution was right on the mark: "The California Bicentennial Commission . . . has a problem."

The problem, though, is not the need for a zoo "for the debut of their mascot: Bison tennial Ben, a Walt Disney-designed caricature that combines the features of a buffalo and a patriot, Ben Franklin."

The problem is the commission's perception that any such aberration has any part in this celebration. The problem is that a commission set up to further understanding of the Constitution seems to have little understanding of the Constitution.

Consider what Paul has to say: "We're using the same people who sell soap to sell understanding of the Constitution. We're trying to make the Constitution user-friendly. . . ." What is a "user-friendly" Constitution? What do men in space suits have to do with a wondrous paper signed in the autumn of 1787? How does the trivialization of Benjamin Franklin foster understanding of the Constitution?

Inherent in the commission's approach to the selling of the Constitution is the conviction that the Constitution cannot stand on its own, but must be propped up with glitzy promotion and cheap contrivance.

Well, then, let us not stop with Bison tennial Ben. Let's give the old boy some company, something to do honor to the first 10 amendments to the Constitution. How about a hard-riding, gun-toting Buffalo Bill of Rights? And let's take George Washington out of those drab knee breeches and put him in something the kids will go for: blue tights with a big "SG" emblazoned across his chest. Is it the father of our country? Is it that general from Valley Forge? Is it our first President? No. It's--Super George.

But we are not selling soap here. The Constitution is not one-quarter cleansing cream. And it was not brought into being by "39 sweaty old men." Thirty-nine men signed it, but 55 delegates came from 12 states (Rhode Island stayed home), and one of the things the California kids might be told is that most of those men who sweated in the Philadelphia heat were not old.

As Catherine Drinker Bowen points out in her splendid book, "Miracle at Philadelphia," "It was a young gathering . . . Benjamin Franklin's 81 years raised the average considerably, but it never went beyond 43 . . . James Madison of Virginia, known today as 'father of the Constitution,' was only 36."

This 200th anniversary of the signing of one of the world's most remarkable documents should not be the occasion for demeaning that document or the men whose brilliance produced it. Let's have the bands and the parades and the balloons. But forget the cutesy mascot and the irrelevant space suits.



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