“The Daily Show” is a news show for people who don’t watch news shows.
Similarly, “Me the People,” by Daily Show writer Kevin Bleyer, is a book on the U.S. Constitution for people unlikely to read books about the U.S. Constitution. With some reservations, I’d even recommend “Me the People” to someone who was planning to read only one book about the Constitution.
Some big reservations, actually, which have to do with Bleyer’s rhetorical and artistic choices. His constitutional law and history jokes might sound funny delivered by Daily Show host Jon Stewart, but Bleyer’s sense of necessary self-deprecation fails him in spots and the humor sometimes comes off as annoyingly self congratulatory.
He starts out by telling his reader he intends to rewrite the Constitution in order to improve upon our founding document. OK, that’s no more than taking Founding Father Thomas Jefferson at his word. The third president, who was in Paris having a good time while Madison and the rest were wrestling with the national charter, believed that the Constitution should automatically expire at the end of 19 years. So by Bleyer’s reckoning, we are already 11 rewrites behind.
Yes, I get that he isn’t serious about rewriting the Constitution, especially when he recasts the preamble in rhyme. But there are times I get the sense he really believes he would be up to such a task and the satire gives way to heavy-handed snarkiness.
At the beginning of the book, Bleyer tells the story of the colonists who stashed their beloved Liberty Bell in manure in order to hide it from the British. The moral, he says, is that sometimes you have to crap on something you love in order to save it. I suspect that’s what he set out to do to, and for, the U.S. Constitution.
But Bleyer’s “rewrites” of constitutional law are the least humorous – or educational – parts of his book. Far better are his depictions of colonial history and constitutional controversies.
The readers learns, for example, of James Madison’s gloomy dullness, the amorous adventures of Gouverneur Morris and just how close the Constitutional Convention came to never finishing the job. All are true, and it’s a lucky stroke – some say the hand of God – that we have any sort of constitution at all to show for the efforts of the framers who met in Philadelphia in the spring and summer of 1787.
In this regard, Bleyer’s book performs a valuable historical service, pulling aside the comforting myths of American history and giving us instead a more unvarnished look at the real work that went into making the Constitution.
Along the way, readers on either side of current historical and constitutional controversies will find reasons to smile in “Me the People.” And hopefully they will recognize some of their own foibles.
Bleyer quotes New York Gov. Silas Wright who all the way back in 1847 wrote “no one familiar with the affairs of our government, can have failed to notice how large a proportion of our statesmen appear never to have read the Constitution of the United States with a careful reference to its precise language and exact provisions, but rather, as occasion presents, seem to exercise their ingenuity … to stretch both to the line of what they, at the moment, consider expedient.”
Those who think of the Constitution as some sort of infallible, divinely inspired writ would benefit the most from reading Bleyer’s book. Perhaps the key to taking the Constitution seriously is learning to laugh a little at one’s own ponderous opinions of its merits and weaknesses.
But for all its mockery, “Me the People” seems to take itself a bit too seriously in places. And it’s hard to tell where the flippant humor ends and the real constitutional history begins.
With all the meanders into modern life and self-references in this rewritten Constitution, the reader is never really sure what to take seriously. Which is a shame, really, because under the snarky comments, there are plenty of serious insights into the fundamental difficulty faced by the framers – to forge a compromise document without compromising the principles that have made our democracy great.
I think they succeeded, but you wouldn’t know it reading much of Bleyer’s book, which, I think, needs more of a rewrite than does our Constitution.
Marc Charisse is editor of The Evening Sun. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @esmcharisse