Viewers of PBS’ new series Constitution USA join Peter Sagal, host of Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! on his motorcycle tour of the United States and its constitution. Episode one gave viewers a brief summary of the constitution’s role and the role that each branch of government plays in our system of checks and balances. With the help of political figures and legal scholars, Sagal highlighted two important themes in the series’ introductory episode.
First, that the constitution is by no means a complete and exhaustive political document; rather, it leaves plenty of room for interpretation, debate and additions (which we know as amendments).
Second, Sagal highlighted the fact that presidents in particular, though bound to the constitution, often choose not to play by its rules, or bend and reinvent rules to suit their needs. Sagal spent the latter half of the episode tracing the first example of this executive overreach (the Watergate scandal), to a more contemporary one (the Patriot Act).
The ardent defense of our constitution (which so many political figures employ in trite political rhetoric) actually invokes the question of whether or not the four page document should evolve from generation to generation or be preserved in its original state. The Founding Fathers were the first to debate this question – while James Madison believed the constitution should remain unchanged, Thomas Jefferson argued, “The earth belongs to the living,” and that therefore each new generation should be free to alter the constitution to suit its needs.