It Makes America Work

September 16, 1994|By LINDA R. MONK

Alexandria, Virginia. -- Tomorrow is Constitution Day, but you'd hardly know it. There will be no parades, no firework, no speeches -- not even any department-store sales. When just about every occasion in American life has an accompanying Hallmark card, what happened to the Constitution?

The Fourth of July is our biggest national holiday. Local orators read the Declaration of Independence aloud in town squares across the country, and tots ride their bunting-bedecked tricycles in the streets. Even Flag Day has parades and speeches sponsored by veterans' groups. Why hasn't the Constitution captured Americans' patriotic pride?

After all, the Constitution is what makes America work as a nation. The Declaration of Independence got the ball rolling, but its words would have rung hollow if the United States had not survived as a country able to govern itself. And that almost happened. The Articles of Confederation, the first national charter, created a government so weak that the states lacked any centrifugal force to hold them together. Only when the Constitution was ratified in 1788 did the American nation truly begin, however imperfectly.

And yet it is not the Constitution, but the flag, that has emerged as Americans' most precious patriotic symbol. Too many Americans forget that the pledge of allegiance is not just to the flag, but to ''the republic for which it stands.'' The nature of that republic, as embodied in the Constitution, is what makes the flag worth saluting.

Nothing about our flag's particular configuration of stars and stripes is necessarily inspiring. Rather, we honor the flag because we believe it stands for a nation based on freedom, hard-won with the life's blood of generations of Americans at home and abroad. Similarly, what makes us recoil at the Nazi flag is not the swastika alone -- a sacred symbol in ancient Tibet -- but what the swastika represented in World War II Germany: genocide and tyranny. The American veterans who fought that evil regime 50 years ago deservedly take pride in their sacrifice.

But I worry that some veterans -- along with other Americans -- have forgotten that it is the Constitution, not the flag, that they fought for. In Virginia, veterans are playing a significant role in Oliver North's campaign for the U.S. Senate this fall. The race has taken on a national cast because of Mr. North's notoriety from the Iran-contra affair and his ability to raise 90 percent of his $8.4 million war chest from out of state.

That so many veterans have chosen Oliver North as a standard-bearer shows just how perilous popular support for the Constitution really is. Mr. North made contempt of the Constitution a national pastime, although he tried to veil it as contempt of Congress. In nationally televised hearings, he eagerly admitted to Congress that he had lied in previous testimony about Iran-contra. His subsequent conviction for that crime was overturned on appeal, thanks to the protections of the Constitution's Fifth Amendment -- one of those ''legal technicalities'' that so many conservatives criticize.

In lying to Congress, North demonstrated flagrant disrespect for the legislative branch of the United States government, to which he now seeks to be elected. One role of that branch, as established by the Constitution, is to check the powers of the presidency -- to save our democracy from the dangers of autocracy. To keep any one person from being above the law.

But Mr. North tried to use his status as a Vietnam veteran to portray his actions as patriotic, not criminal. This charade did not impress Republican Sen. Warren Rudman, himself a Korean War veteran, who remarked after Mr. North's testimony that he had ''no respect for people who wrap themselves in the flag while spitting on the Constitution.''

Oliver North defiled the service of our nation's veterans. He took an oath -- as do all military personnel and federal employees -- to ''defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.'' By subverting Congress, he became an enemy of the Constitution.

Yet he emerged as a folk hero, because too many citizens did not distinguish between complaining about Congress (every American's most cherished right since the founding of the republic) and contempt of Congress, which makes constitutional democracy impossible. Have Americans so much self-contempt that we gladly cheer on those who defy the constitutional role of the legislators we ourselves elected?

To borrow Senator Rudman's phrase, those who wrap themselves in the flag while spitting on the Constitution are the greatest threat to Americans' liberty. That's an important point to remember on Constitution Day -- and every day. It's easy to salute the flag; it's much harder to uphold the Constitution.

Perhaps in some not too distant future, these words will be as familiar as the pledge of allegiance: ''We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.''

Linda R. Monk is the author of ''The Bill of Rights: A User's Guide.''

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