Thursday, July 29, 2004
Senator Byrd's Constitution.
The one event of the Convention I took time away from work to attend was Tuesday's joint appearance of Senator Ted Kennedy, General Wesley Clark, and Senator Robert Byrd at the First Parish in Cambridge. Byrd, of course, was speaking about his new book, Losing America: Confronting a Reckless and Arrogant Presidency, and the audience — which had completely filled the large church at least 45 minutes before the event began — was highly predisposed to agree with everything any of the three speakers said. We whooped it up, all right.
The most striking thing about the event, aside from the real-time recognition that Byrd is extraordinarily old, was the palpable sense of his veneration for the Constitution. At one point, he held up his new book and said, "I wrote this book to save this book" — and he pulled a small pamplet-sized copy of the Constitution out of his pocket and held it up in the air unsteadily, a look of intense feeling on his face. It was clearly, for him, not simply an idea or a set of rules; the Constitution was something to revere.
When I went to college, I took my own little bicentennial pamphlet copy of the Constitution along. (I'm an Eagle Scout, after all. And back when I was a ninth-grader I drafted a constitution for my brand-new junior high school which the principal found a bit too student-empowering, I'm afraid, but I took to constitution-writing with gusto.) So I completely understand venerating the Constitution. All the way through divinity school, I kept that little booklet and a pamphlet copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights out on a shelf with other things I valued — the only texts on a little dresser-top shrine. (I think I picked up the Declaration pamphlet at an R.E.M. concert in 1990! Bless those earnest rockers.) But even though I read both documents, they were a bit totemic for me, symbols of my heartfelt patriotism and commitment to constitutional liberalism and human rights.
Byrd's veneration, however, is many fathoms deeper. I could certainly feel myself swept up in the tide of admiration in the room, but at the very end of the Q&A portion of the event, when he waved the little worn Constitution a second time, I found myself choking up. By golly, I am a sentimental liberal.
When someone asked him what will protect us from tyranny, Byrd said, "The separation of powers is the guarantor of the people's liberties." (You'll have to imagine the peculiar intensity of his voice.) Amen to that. And that's the whole key to his unprecedented rage at President Bush and a docile Congress: He believes that America's leading politicians — especially in the Senate — are abandoning the separation of powers and abdicating their decisions to political consultants in the West Wing.
"Our Founders struggled mightily to escape the yoke of one King George," he said in the afternoon's reddest-meat line. "I say, Enough is enough! We cannot sit silently by and witness the dimming of freedom's flame."
I was there mostly because I had supported Gen. Clark in the Democratic primaries. I continue to believe that Clark represented a confluence of values, ideas, and aptitudes that the country sorely needs. He translated liberalism, you might say, back into American. (The most eloquent advocates of this refreshed liberalism so far have been Barack Obama and John Edwards.) I had heard Clark speak in person twice during the primaries, and it was interesting watching him not as a candidate with a prepared speech but as a citizen praising someone he himself admired.
Clark contrasted the role that soldiers take in a democracy — pledging to honor their country by loyally supporting the commander-in-chief — with the role that citizens must take in a democracy: "Those of us not in uniform are responsible for the commander-in-chief," he said.
Watching WGBH Tuesday night, I saw video of the event — and there I was, too, sitting up front! — but I can't find the video on-line. When it finally does show up, I'll add a link.
Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 29 July 2004 at 5:45 PM