Shelf Life

‘Daily Show’ writer overhauls the U.S. constitution

Kai Ryssdal May 29, 2012
Shelf Life

‘Daily Show’ writer overhauls the U.S. constitution

Kai Ryssdal May 29, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: There are, plus or minus, 4,500 words in the U.S. Constitution. Not all that lengthy a document. But still, how many of us have actually read it?

Kevin Bleyer has. And he’s got some edits he’d like to suggest. Bleyer writes for “The Daily Show.” His new book about the Constitution is called “Me The People.” Welcome to the program.

Kevin Bleyer: My pleasure, happy to be here.

Ryssdal: All right, why man? Why write this book? Isn’t the Constitution good enough?

Bleyer: It’s a perfectly fair question. But I don’t have to tell you and your listeners, of course, that Thomas Jefferson himself prescribed that I rewrite the Constitution. In that, he actually suggested that every constitution naturally expires after 19 years. So by his math, this should have been rewritten 11 times by now. So actually, I feel bad that I’m just getting to it. I’ve been slacking for over 200 years.

Ryssdal: It struck me as I was flipping through this thing, and especially that bit about you and the rotunda of the National Archives, waiting to see this document — this thing’s now a tourist attraction, right? I mean, nobody reads it; nobody can tell you how many sections there are; all of that stuff.

Bleyer: That’s precisely right. I, in fact, yes, did in my vast research for this book — or as I might elect to call it, my “me-search” — I did in fact go read the Constitution. Now, anyone can say they read the Constitution, although one in four actually remember ever having done so. And for that matter, even our representatives — John Boehner famously said that his favorite part of the Constitution was “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

Ryssdal: That’s so funny — that’s not in the Constitution.

Bleyer: Exactly, it’s in the Declaration of Independence. And again, I cast no aspersions — I am no better than this. I’m certain that if you asked me before I started this project, ‘How does the Constitution begin?’ I would have said it’s the best of constitutions, it was the worst of constitutions.

Ryssdal: I went and got myself a more modern version of the Constitution before I came in here; I did the whole HTML thing on the web, and I did a little search. And if you do that with the Constitution on the words “taxes” and “commerce,” you get three mentions of taxes and two mentions of commerce — and yet here we have the foundation of the American economy.

Bleyer: There are a lot of things that the Constitution does not mention by name: slavery, democracy, Facebook — can you imagine that? They forgot to mention Facebook, and that seems pivotal to our existence these days.

Ryssdal: They ought to put that in there, man, come on.

Bleyer: Well I was about to say, considering how it’s doing, perhaps they were wise to overlook it. But you’re right: Taxes, they don’t actually address it too much. Alexander Hamilton, of course, tried to step in after the Constitution was written and did his best to make sure — as you know, we have a national bank and what have you. And I don’t propose in my new Constitution that we go back to bartering chickens. So don’t even worry about that.

Ryssdal: See, that’s the thing: This is as much a history book that you’ve written as it is a rewriting of the Constitution.

Bleyer: I was just so thoroughly amused, specifically about the goings-on at the Constitutional convention, that I couldn’t help but make it a history book. Because people do not know just how rollicking those four months were in 1787. They were so sick of each other by the end of that summer that they just wanted to get something written. They weren’t even that thrilled with it. Washington and Franklin famously said ‘I wish it were more perfect.’

Ryssdal: As you point out — what do you expect from a bunch of guys who had beer for breakfast?

Bleyer: They were drinking beer for breakfast, un-air-conditioned — powdered wigs, remember. There was rioting going on outside. And it was the summer — speaking of bad weather. They were miserable. A couple of them occasionally would show up drunk and give a six-hour speech — true story. But they also have the understanding that we are just efforting at getting better at this.

Ryssdal: Kevin Bleyer, his book is called “Me the People.” It’s about the Constitution, give it a read. Kevin, thanks a lot.

Bleyer: My pleasure.

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