On September 17, 1787, thirty-nine brave men gathered in Philadelphia and signed our Constitution into being. The National Constitution Center in Philadelphia is holding a number of events to celebrate the 222nd birthday of this historic document. With its ingenious invention of three co-equal branches, our Constitution brought the concept of checks and balances into play in an attempt to keep government within the bounds intended and to protect the rights of all citizens.
Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) who, at 91, has been alive for nearly half the time the Constitution has existed, played a central role in establishing September 17 as Constitution Day. Here he is in 2004, just after the bill creating the day was enacted, reciting the Preamble to the Constitution:
But how long can this historic document last? The Presidency of George W. Bush created grave danger for it. With the ascendancy of the concept of the unitary executive, Bush’s presidency is viewed by many as a time when the Executive Branch arrogated much more power into itself than is prescribed by the Constitution. While trying to obtain extension of the Patriot Act, which stripped many Constitutional protections in the wake of 9/11, Bush was even famously reported to have said, "Stop throwing the Constitution in my face! It’s just a goddamned piece of paper!"
With the election of Barack Obama in 2008, many felt that a Constitutional scholar would be the perfect person to bring about the change needed in restoring balance to the branches of government and bringing back rights which had been lost. Sadly, these changes simply have not occurred. Just this week, we have learned that Obama now wants to extend some of the worst features of the Patriot Act.
Similarly, Obama has taken further steps along the path of establishing what Glenn Greenwald would term a "culture of impunity" within the United States. What began with Nancy Pelosi in 2006 taking impeachment "off the table" despite ample evidence of widespread criminal activity in the Bush Administration has now been expanded by Obama into a desire not to "criminalize policy differences" to the extent that those who crafted our country’s descent into torture likely will not be prosecuted. Those at the highest levels of our government no longer face the threat of impeachment or criminal prosecution for crimes committed while in office, creating a class of people immune from the laws that apply to others.
This sad state of affairs puts me in mind of the lyrics of The Who’s great classic, Won’t Get Fooled Again:
Smile and grin at the change all around, indeed. Happy Constitution Day.