GEORGE KENNEDY: Constitution Day should not be forgotten

Friday, September 21, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

Once again, we've let Constitution Day slip past without much celebration.

You know, Constitution Day — the national holiday that doesn't get us a day off work. The one without a traditional meal, without a parade, without fireworks.

After all, what is there to get excited about? It's only the anniversary of the date that our national Constitution, the radical document that forms the basis of our government, was signed in Philadelphia. That was on Sept. 17, 1787.

We celebrate July 4 as the nation's birthday, but Sept. 17 may be even more significant. When the Declaration of Independence was adopted in 1776, we were a long way from being independent, let alone an actual republic.

It took a war whose outcome was in doubt until the very end, a failed experiment with the Articles of Confederation, and four months of argument through a brutal Pennsylvania summer to get from declaring to constructing a solid foundation for the country we know and love.

Amid our shameful neglect, we shouldn't quibble that the ever-vigilant League of Women Voters staged its commemorative program a day late. I didn't count heads, but I'm pretty sure fewer of us gathered in the County Commission chamber Tuesday night than the 39 patriots who signed the Constitution.

Jeff Milyo and Marvin Overby, both Middlebush professors at MU, answered in various ways the question posed by the League: "Who Own$ the Election?"

The implication of the question, I thought, was that we've outsourced our politics to the big-bucks contributors, the super PACs and the shadowy underwriters of those supposedly "independent" committees that buy the ads the candidates don't have to approve.

Both experts challenged what Professor Overby called the "common belief" that too much money is damaging political campaigns. In fact, they agreed, money is only one factor in politics, and not the most important factor at that. To take just one example, Todd Akin was outspent by both candidates he beat in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate.

The courts, Professor Milyo told us, have consistently ruled that, "as a matter of law," those outside players are not a corrupting influence. So the infamous "Citizens United" case shouldn't be seen as an aberration.

In regulating campaigns, Professor Overby said, the First Amendment, with its protection of speech and association, complicates efforts to limit spending.

Professor Milyo noted that our deeply held values of liberty and equality come into conflict on this issue, as on others.

As I listened, I thought about the book I've just finished reading. It's called "Founding Rivals," by Chris DeRose. It recounts the friendship and rivalry between two future presidents, James Madison and James Monroe. The subtitle is "The Bill of Rights and the Election That Saved a Nation."

Madison, of course, is popularly known as "the father of the Constitution" by virtue of having proposed the outline of structure and function that was eventually shaped into the document. Monroe, who would succeed him as president, was an Anti-Federalist who opposed the Constitution as creating too powerful a national government and as failing to protect individual rights.

Madison was against a bill of rights before he was for it. He was forced to become its advocate when he ran against Monroe for the first Congress under his Constitution. Madison won by 336 votes.

As with the Constitution itself, Madison's draft became the heart of the Bill of Rights. (The only one of the amendments Madison proposed that was never ratified called for one representative for each 30,000 inhabitants. Had it been approved, the House of Representatives today would have more than 10,000 members rather than 435. Let's not even try to imagine that election.)

Today, Professor Milyo reminded his listeners, Americans have a cynical view of politicians, but there's no evidence that campaign finance laws affect those attitudes. Besides, we’ve been pretty cynical about our rulers for most of these two centuries.

"It is far too facile" to say that money in politics leads to either cynicism or corruption, Professor Overby agreed.

I suspect that Madison and Monroe would have agreed with Professor Milyo's concluding comment: "Ultimately, you have to be an optimist to live in a free society."

Fall is finally here, and I'm feeling just a little optimistic these days. How about you?

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.

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