America’s Collision Course With The Debt Ceiling
As the nation counts down to default, Diane talks to longtime Congress watcher Norm Ornstein about the debt limit negotiations, what's at stake and whether he sees a way forward.
In a letter to James Madison in 1789, Thomas Jefferson said the U.S. Constitution should naturally expire after 19 years because “the earth belongs always to the living generation.” By Jefferson’s standard, the Constitution should have been rewritten 11 times by now. Kevin Bleyer took it upon himself to update our founding document for the 21st century. A writer for “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” Bleyer noted that “for two centuries, we have been expected to abide by it, live by it, swear by it … yet we have no idea what it says.” He joins Diane to discuss how he used history and humor to bring attention to long-standing constitutional debates.
Author portraits courtesy of “Me the People: One Man’s Selfless Quest to Rewrite the Constitution of the United States of America” by Kevin Bleyer. All rights reserved.
Excerpt from “Me the People: One Man’s Selfless Quest to Rewrite the Constitution of the United States of America” by Kevin Bleyer. Copyright 2012 by Kevin Bleyer. Reprinted here by permission of Random House. All rights reserved.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart rewrote the rules of political satire. One of the show's writers decided to write the very rules of our democracy. Emmy-award winner Kevin Bleyer has written a book titled "Me the People: One Man's Selfless Quest to Rewrite the Constitution of the United States of America." Kevin Bleyer joins me in the studio.
MS. DIANE REHMI look forward to hearing your questions, comments. Join us throughout the hour on 800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com. Join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning to you, Kevin. It's good to have you here.
MR. KEVIN BLEYEROh, my pleasure to be here. Happy to answer the call.
REHMThank you. You've taken what a lot of people would regard as a very humorous approach to a very serious subject. How come?
BLEYERWell, it would be perhaps too convenient, but not all together incorrect to say, well, I looked around and I saw everyone else rewriting the Constitution, so why not me? My turn, right.
BLEYERAnd you said earlier, Thomas Jefferson himself insisted that every constitution naturally expires after 19 years. So by his math, as you said, it should have been rewritten 11 times by now. I feel bad I'm just getting to it now. I've been slacking for over two centuries.
REHMYou've done really a lot of serious research on this.
BLEYERWell, as I like to call it, me search.
BLEYERBut yes, in fact, I did. Oh, I did. I tried to go to great lengths, you know, pay every price, bear every burden, save every receipt, as I say. I did as much as go all the way to Greece. If the founding fathers weren't going to do it, then I'll do it to restart our preamble and go back to the birthplace of democracy and see what I might learn.
REHMBut one of the things I learned was this guy Rexford Guy Tugwell, tell us about him.
BLEYERWhat a fabulous character. I also was delighted to learn about him. I was not familiar, although he is a -- he's a luminary in American history. A bit of an eccentric as well. He was in FDR's brain trust and was considered to be tight with FDR. After working in the administration and then actually being on part of the planning commission in New York under Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, he got some grand aspirations. Grand aspirations that I, of course, would support, and those aspirations being he decided that he was actually going to do the serious version of my book.
BLEYERThat is to say he spent the last 30 years of his life, and this is a true story, rewriting the Constitution, and hoping that it would be adopted by the people and embraced by his nation, and actually become the new founding charter of America. Now, granted, his solutions are -- I was going to say no more or no less absurd than mine are. That's for people to decide, but he did. He spent 30 years doing it, and I actually say in the book early on, I have to admire him. Even though he was considered a bit of an eccentric, because he tried and failed to do what I had at the time only failed yet to try.
REHMBut, I mean, what...
BLEYERSo in fact, I took him and ran with it.
REHMGive me a sense of the kinds of changes he was making.
BLEYERHe wanted to do things like eliminate the Senate entirely. He wanted to change the term of presidential offices to I believe eight or nine years. Things that actually people...
BLEYEROne term. One term.
BLEYERThings that people have proposed, you know, real, you know, today's scholars. People who know what they're talking about, for good reasons have suggested the things that he suggested. The difference being that he was actually hoping that as a one-man band he could rewrite it, and see if it would be adopted until his death in '79.
REHMAnd how did people react to him?
BLEYERThey -- like I said, they -- there's a quote, someone call him a bit of a nutball. I ran with that, and ran far with it. But like I said, he's trying to be a visionary at a time when he felt like the country needed to be visionary. Now, there was enough kind of oddness about him that he was actually appointed governor of Puerto Rico, and then when he finally finished his term Puerto Rico, the Puerto Ricans decided that from then on the governorship would be an elected position.
BLEYERIn other words, they thought, we'll pick our own governor, thank you very much. So he did have his eccentricities as I say, but nonetheless, I have to admire him.
REHMKevin Bleyer is with me. His new book is titled "Me the People: One Man's Selfless Quest to Rewrite the Constitution of the United States of America." Do join us 800-433-8850. You know, the Constitution itself in George Washington's view was not a perfect document.
BLEYERAnd not just George Washington, but of course, yes, the man at the front of the room, the man who is presiding over the Constitutional Convention, George Washington said he wished that it had been made more perfect. Benjamin Franklin said of the Constitution the day that they signed that he stomached it only with all his faults, and he asked the people in the assembled room to question their own infallibility, if they think it could be better, and maybe then vote on the document.
BLEYERAcross the board, they were not sure that what they had would stand the test of time. They hoped it would, but even James Madison, as they say, the father of the Constitution, the man who was in charge, the man who made a lot of the big decisions -- many of the other decisions he had hoped for actually failed and didn't go into the Constitution. But he, the man who you would think would have, let's call it, a pride of authorship, in his later life was surprised that there hadn't been more amendments already made later on.
REHMWell, and that's the question considering that George Washington said amend it every 19 years. Why do you think it's been amended so few times in all these hundreds of years?
BLEYERIt turns out it's rather difficult to amend the Constitution. Yes, there have been only 17 amendments in the last 200 years, and actually none in this millennium. That is to say there were -- there was a handful in the 20th century and a handful more in the 19th century, but of course, a lot of those were right after the Civil War when it can be safely assumed we had some housekeeping to do. But it is not -- there have been a lot of recommendations for amendments.
BLEYERCertainly state legislatures have tried to get some things done, but the batting average is very, very low for the amount of recommendations for amendments versus the amendments that get ratified. They didn't mean it to be that way. Like I said, James Madison himself thought it would be -- there would be more amendments at that time, but I think you have essentially now a pretty divided populace that's gonna be hard for you to get the requisite two-thirds and then three-fourths of the states and state legislatures to get behind anything that actually makes anything more than as a couple of scholars have said, things that tinker at the margins, which is what the more recent amendments do.
REHMSo here you are writing for Jon Stewart and the president of the United States among other.
BLEYEROn occasion, on occasion.
REHMAmong others. Why would you take on and set yourself up to be ridiculed for taking on the Constitution?
BLEYERRight. Well, Diane, I don't want to spoil the ending too much here, but I will tell you that the butler didn't do it here. That is to say, when you read the book, and I hope people do, you will see that in fact it only takes me one rewritten preamble, seven rewritten articles, 27 rewritten amendments to realize, oh, wait a minute. No. We in fact have a great document. So yes, I would suggest that opening myself up to ridicule, I mean, only to provoke, not to be controversial, because I think that you'll see throughout that my glee about the Constitution is evidenced by my interest.
BLEYERAnd so I think that, you know, I suppose I do open myself up to ridicule, but that's because I’m fairly ridiculous.
REHMBut is there, in fact, one sentence, one phrase that you would like to either add, alter, or throw out in the Constitution?
BLEYERThat's a very good question, and I think it's -- I can settle down for a moment and be somewhat serious. There are things that, of course, I, as an American, would look and think this is not what the founders intended, and I think they'd be a little aghast.
BLEYERA simple answer. The pretty ridiculous gerrymandering that has been going on in districts. We know that they, you know, they presumed that our country was going to grow. They didn't know that it was going to be hacked up in such tiny odd little pieces for each district, and we've gotten to that point now where, unfortunately because politicians and gerrymander their own districts, you have that dynamic which is that instead of voters choosing their politicians, politicians are choosing their voters.
BLEYERI do tell a little story about Elbridge Gerry, of course, who is the gentleman that gerrymandering is named after. I actually -- I should have known that, but I didn't know that, that gerrymandering is a bit of a hybrid term that involves Gerry and salamander, which is pretty amusing, because at the time Elbridge Gerry actually designed for a political ally, a district that looks so much like a salamander in the actual, you now, the map, that it was known as gerrymandering from then on. But yes, I do think that's something we can address. And there are other as well, yeah.
REHMSo if you're listening and wondering who's here, it's Kevin Bleyer, and he's written a new book. It's actually been endorsed by Jon Stewart who says, I would rather read a Constitution written by Kevin Bleyer than by the sharpest minds in the country. And if you'd like to join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Join us on Facebook or Twitter. You've actually proposed a headline for the morning after the signing of the Constitution in 1776. What is that?
BLEYERI said the headline would be Constitution Compromised with few exclamation points. Embarrassed delegates return home in disguise in defeat. I merely am suggesting that yes, we know the Constitution as the great compromise because these men in this room had to make compromises, and we call it the great compromise because it is to be admired. What I of course have the benefit of in rewriting this unilaterally by myself is that I have to make no such compromises, and I can in fact make, as I say, unilateral, bold, brash, perhaps indefensible solutions for our structure of government.
REHMKevin Bleyer. His new book "Me the People." And we'll take a short break. When we come back, we'll take your calls, your email, stay with us.
REHMI think there are an awful lot of people who might join Kevin Bleyer in his selfless quest to rewrite the Constitution of the United States of America. He has taken a stab at it in his new book titled, "Me The People." He also happens to be a writer for Jon Stewart's comedy show. And if you'd like to join us, 800-433-8850. You know, there are a lot of people out there who have ideas about how to rewrite the Constitution, and indeed Mitt Romney is one.
MR. MITT ROMNEYI was thinking with one of these business owners who owns a couple of restaurants in town. And he said, you know, I'd like to change the Constitution. I'm not sure I can do it, he said, but I'd like to have a provision in the Constitution that in addition to the age of the president and the citizenship of the president and the birthplace of the president being set by the Constitution, I'd like it also to say that the president has to have spent at least three years working in business before he can become president of the United States.
REHMWhat do you think of that, Kevin Bleyer?
BLEYERI can't tell you how encouraging I found that and inspirational actually, because here's a president suggesting that, oh, we might do a wholesale rewriting of the Constitution with something like that. But I'll take it at its face value. He's suggesting that perhaps every president should be constitutionally required to have three years of business experience. And from my perspective, I think that's kind of a genius move on his part because he's really suggesting that we might reduce the number of people eligible to be president until it only describes him.
BLEYERThat's a pretty -- it's kind of a mad genius move. But I also am amused by it because it is the kind of somewhat, I think, absurd suggestion that you might find in my absurd rewrite of my book rewriting the Constitution absurdly. My point is, it's a little strange to hear that. But nonetheless, encouraging.
REHMTell me what problems the framers had with designing an executive branch?
BLEYERSure. Well, as you know, the original constitution was not the Constitution, it was the Articles of Confederation. And that was determined to be a little bit too weak. It was more of a legal friendship than anything else, so they wanted to empower the national government. And in doing that they also wanted to have a separation of powers to make sure that it's kept in check. One of those is the executive branch.
BLEYERThey actually did not address it quickly. They were scared to address it as has been described. They did it in fits and starts. They were actually rather uncomfortable with the notion of discussing this because they weren't sure how powerful or, for that matter, unilateral or unitary, excuse me, of an executive they wanted. And they debated back and forth ideas about how many presidents there would be, what the president would be called.
BLEYERJohn Adams had some rather ridiculous ideas about calling him something like the glorious highfalutin something, something of something.
BLEYEROh, indeed. He wanted to -- because I think he saw in the front, not the rearview mirror but through the windshield that he might have that position at some point. I make the argument that what do we know about the presidency now. We know that we want a president who is a bit of reluctant savior. Let's just say we want a president who found a calling, did not, you know, did not become a two-year-old and announced to the world I want to be president because we want them to be reluctant saviors. George Washington was one of these. John Adams on this occasion was not.
REHMThings have certainly changed since then.
BLEYERYes, indeed. And now what we also know we want about the president, we want the president to be a bit of an average Joe. We want to feel like, as we've been told, he or she as someone we can have a beer with, hang out with, will talk to us on our own terms. You know, certainly, you know, yeah, average Joe, reluctant savior. And we also would argue that it doesn't -- you don't need -- unlike what Mitt Romney was suggesting, you don't necessarily need a huge resume to be an effective president.
BLEYERPresident Lincoln actually had a lot of failures before he became president. And he was a great president. There are others who had large resumes that --and I'll leave those to remain nameless -- that are deemed to be less effective. So, if we know that we want them to be a reluctant savior, we know them -- we want them to be an average Joe and we know that a resume doesn't necessarily mean a great presidency, I make the rather -- I'll say the word again -- absurd suggestion that the only way we know they'll be reluctant just like us and maybe unqualified is we should choose the president randomly.
BLEYEROnly from among the subset of people that don't have an interest in the gig. That way we know they'll represent the American people.
REHMI gather that for research on the judicial branch. You actually talked to Justice Antonin Scalia. Tell me about that.
BLEYERWell, Diane, obviously I though who on the face of the planet, let alone in the country, would really be most amenable to a page one rewrite of the Constitution? And certainly, I think we can all agree, that that would have to be the man who has devoted his entire career to protecting every clause within in. So, it was a natural fit that he would want to meet with me. I was, as you can imagine, shocked that he agreed to.
BLEYERIt was a delightful time, very charming guy, as everyone who meets him knows. And I was encouraged, enthused, relieved that he was so game, was eager to talk with me about the Constitution, understood what I was doing and my overall goal was to bring people's attention back to the actual document and see what the source code actually says, even though he knew I was going to be making some ridiculous suggestions, but we did.
BLEYERWe had a great conversation at the National Gallery over lunch. And like I said, I was, to some degree, quite relieved that he was willing to meet and relieved that he got, you know, for lack of a better word, the joke. But then I turned my attentions to Article 3, which of course is his bread and butter. And you're right, the judiciary. And I began to tell him what I and what some others might suggest is a concern about the judicial branch and that is to say lifetime tenure.
BLEYERAnd the moment I reached into it -- and granted there are a dozen great reasons for lifetime tenure, there's three or four that aren't. But when I began to tell him that, he picked up a fork, pointed it at me and said, don't you dare change lifetime tenure. And then with a big grin on his face said, but if you do, at least grandfather me in because I like my job.
REHMOh, I love it.
BLEYERBut, yeah, we talked about it and in depth too, because what we don't know, what we forget is that the Article 3 says judges shall serve during good behavior. It does not actually say lifetime tenure. Now early on there were a bunch of reasons for presuming that that meant -- good behavior meant lifetime tenure. But in practice that doesn't always work so well. You do have judges who stay on the bench longer than I think some people might suggest they should.
BLEYERAnd I thought, here's an originalist, Justice Scalia, who might appreciate the originalist, the actual genuine article, the actual language, the original language of the Constitution which says good behavior not lifetime tenure. And he responded to it, but then he found his way to trump me. And I'll leave it to the reader to learn how.
REHMBut didn't he later mentioned you in some speech he was making?
BLEYERI'll be honest, I don't know that he did. I'm shock if he did. I would love to hear it. That's news to me, Diane, I have to say.
REHMOkay. All right.
BLEYERI did see him...
REHMI thought he...
BLEYER...again and he toasted me because I finished the book, which is very sweet of him. That is to say, I ran into him in a fundraiser. It was a fundraiser for a gallery, an art gallery that we have a mutual, well, a genius portrait artist named Nelson Shanks. And he did me the honor of saying congratulations on finishing the book. I actually got the table's attention and said, you know, kudos to Kevin for finishing the book when I came and finish the books I'm working on. So it was very sweet of him to say that indeed. Indeed.
REHMThere you are, Kevin Bleyer. The book is called, "Me The People: One Man's Selfless Quest to Rewrite the Constitution of the United States of America."
BLEYERAnd the keyword there of course is selfless.
BLEYERI do on behalf of the country.
REHMAnd of course you've got all these selfless justices with lifetime tenure.
REHMAll right, we're going to open the phones and see what our callers have to say, 800-433-8850. First to Enrique in San Antonio, TX. Good morning.
ENRIQUEGood morning. I have a quick comment.
ENRIQUEI was wondering if I could rewrite the Constitution, the thing I would take out would be the Electoral College. I don't think that's appropriate for our day and time.
REHMWhat do you think, Kevin?
BLEYERWell, I do think you're think that it is somewhat silly. It doesn't intuitive sense as to how we may elect our presidents and it has, of course, as many people know, resulted essentially in a couple of presidents that were elected without getting majority of the vote. I do think it would be difficult to change. There are a number of organizations that have very sincere ideas about how to redesign it, whether it'd be, you know, I think including divide up the country into quadrants and do it that was as opposed to an Electoral College.
BLEYERYou are not alone, Caller, in thinking that it is a bit of a perversion of the electoral system that that's how we actually elect our officials.
REHMAnd the book that Kevin Bleyer has written contains lots of portraits. Portraits of famous men like Samuel Adams and...
BLEYERAnd me side by side with him, right?
BLEYERLudicrous, isn't it?
BLEYERI determined, Diane, that if I was going to be doing something as modest as rewriting the Constitution of the United States, I had to do what James Madison I presume did the moment he finished writing the Constitution which was commemorate it, celebrate it. So, I yes indeed reached out to a few portrait artists, well one portrait artist, a gentleman as I mentioned before named Nelson Shanks who is the gentleman who introduced me to Justice Scalia, as a matter of fact.
BLEYERBut I did. I sat for a portrait which actually -- and I won't want to spoil it too much, turned into about nine portraits, thanks to Craig List and a few willing student artists. But I'm proud of each and every one of them. They look ridiculous in my apartment, which is what I was hoping for. And that's where they will stay. I don't think they will find their way to the National Portrait Gallery anytime soon. But maybe I'll be mistaken when this thing gets ratified.
REHMLet's go to Raleigh, NC. Good morning, Dana, you're on the air.
DANAThank you very much for having me on your show.
DANAYou perform a great service. I wanted to know whether the writer thought - wonder how the writer would feel about the founding fathers about the marriage amendment and amendment that would basically restrict a lot of couples that want to get married as same-sex couples.
BLEYERRight I do mention that a bit in the fourth article about how states are supposed to get along and that's what the attention is that if you can get married in one state, does that mean that the state nearby or across the country should also recognize your marriage. I make the claim that the problem is that -- I mean, the comic claim -- the problem is that we have to admit at this day and age that states aren't equal.
BLEYERThat we can probably rank them at this point and, you know, Texas should do what New York says that kind of thing. It's a ludicrous suggestion, but I do think that you'll find at some point that the Founders didn't weigh in on, say, gay marriage or other things like that because they didn't think to do so. Whether or not we can look back to their words and try to determine what they might have implied or what they might have thought about something like that is a difficult thing to do.
BLEYERAnd that of course is where the division is between the originalists view and the living constitutional view. And I guess I will argue to speak somewhat broadly about it is that I personally think it's kind of -- it's a little bit of a leap to -- it's just as much of a leap for, say, us to go back and try to think what the Founding Fathers really intended for things like this as it is for them to be able to see 225 years into the future and know what kind of concerns they would have.
BLEYERSo, I don't think we're going to get a direct answer as far as whether or not, say, the marriage amendment is something that Thomas Jefferson or George Washington would have applauded. It's just too hard to know it.
REHMKevin Bleyer, and in addition to writing for "The Daily Show," he's also written jokes for President Obama. He's been a busy man writing his new book titled, "Me The People." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." What's it like to write jokes for President Obama?
BLEYERWell, as you can imagine, it's a special thrill. I'm happy to do it when they ask me for one or two.
REHMHow did you get that gig the first time?
BLEYERGood question. Well, the truth of the matter is, I was -- it's because "The Daily Show" and every other show on television was on strike back four years ago. I decided I would take advantage of it and make sure that it wasn't wasted time if I'm unemployed for a bit, why not do something that I didn't think I was going to have the time to do, which is to go on the campaign trail. And I actually went to Iowa and I went to New Hampshire.
BLEYERAnd I just walked around with a bunch of friends who were also there that I ran into, various journalists and what have you, and to my good fortune I met a couple of people in the campaign who knew of me as, I guess, a jokester. And when the time came that they needed a few I guess ringer jokes, I don't know what you want to call them. I said, oh, sure, I'll give it a shot. And then I've been honored to be asked to do it a few more times.
REHMWhat were you like as a young kid? Were you...
BLEYERYou mean, what accounts for this?
REHMWhat were you like in the classroom, for example?
BLEYERThis is not going to satisfy you, I don't think. I was not the comic. I was not the class clown. I was the studious guy who did it some bit of performing, I suppose. But I was never -- I never thought of myself as someone who could fashion a punch line, not until, I'll be honest with you, Diane, I actually wanted to be a real journalist before I was a fake journalist. So, after college, I actually worked for, oh, yes, public radio in London for summer, a little more an a summer for David Brancaccio.
BLEYERAnd then when I moved out to L.A., I looked around for work and it looked like they needed a writer's assistant on "Politically Incorrect" and I was happy to apply for the position. I got it. And then while you're there you start flexing that muscle. Can I write some jokes? I'll give it a shot. And I did. And so I was there on "Politically Incorrect" for six and a half years until it was, well, cancelled for being politically incorrect, I suppose.
BLEYERBut nonetheless, yeah, after 9/11 there were a few impertinent things, I guess, being said about our -- that ABC thought we're a little over the line and others I suppose. But, yeah, so I don't know about my childhood, but I do know that I wanted to be a real journalist before I became a fake journalist who makes fun of the headlines.
REHMWere your parents funny?
BLEYERWell, don't -- a lot of parents certainly think they're funny, right? I had that father who, yeah, he definitely thinks he's funny. And, you know, but I don't know -- I don't think we have the same sense of humor. He -- in many ways, I feel like he is like Mitt Romney, he lives for laughs, as they say. But his idea of humor is a lot of the corny jokes. You know what, on second thought, maybe some of mine are too, if you read the book. So I shouldn't distance myself.
REHMHow about your mom?
BLEYERMy mother is an OB/GYN nurse, caretaker. My father is a doctor as well. So it's a medical household. Who knows how it came to pass that I would decide not to go into medicine but rather to go to laughter, the best medicine. Isn't that what they say?
REHMSo, I gather, thinking about your career as you did.
BLEYEROh, must we?
REHMYeah. When you left college.
REHMYou thought I'm going to be a journalist.
BLEYERIt's true. And not just did I think I wanted to be a journalist, but I thought I wanted to be a war correspondent. I had some far-flung notions of going off to a war-torn country and seeing if I could, you know, be stringer in, say, Beirut or what have you. The irony, I think, is that many years after that I actually went to Iraq with "The Daily Show." So it's amusing to me that I did fulfill a dream, so to speak, but only for a few days admittedly and not really deserving any war hero, you know, element. But I did in fact get to Iraq working for a satirical show.
REHMKevin Bleyer, the book is titled, "Me The People." He Rewrites the Constitution for all of us. Stay with us. We'll be right back.
REHMAnd if you've just joined us, Kevin Bleyer is with me. He is a writer for "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart." And now he's written his own book. It's titled "Me the People." It's all about his own rewrite of the Constitution. Here's an email from Robin who says, "I'd like to see two changes made to the Constitution. First of all, how did we get locked into the 435 number for congress?"
BLEYERWell, you know, it's actually quite interesting because George Washington who presided over the convention sat there almost -- or stood there I should say rather silently. He rarely weighed in on this. He wanted the others to make decisions and he would either kind of affirm or not affirm them at some point. But the one thing he did address at the very end of the Constitution -- he felt it apparently interesting enough or important enough to mention it -- is that he thought that the ratio that they had -- and I forget exactly the numbers but I think it was 1 to 40,000 as far as congressmen to -- representatives to American people -- he thought that ratio was slightly off. So he changed it to something slightly more representative, 1 to every, I believe 30,000 people.
BLEYERAnd as the country grew it was determined well, we can't -- we don't want to have a body of say 2,000 congressmen so they did lock it in. How they agreed on 435, that's kind of an interesting oddball number, you know. And now I make the argument that, okay well if George Washington felt it important enough to say not 1 for every 40,000, but perhaps 1 for every 30,000, he must've had a good reason. So let me pursue this. Let me think about why that might be.
BLEYERAnd I make the argument that, well if we really want a congress that is representative of ourselves, if we really want a congress that is -- doesn't have such a negative performance rating, that is to say we believe that they're doing a good job, well the only way we can be sure that we will both be represented and also approve of it is if we all become congress people.
BLEYERSo I suggest why not make every American a congressman or congresswoman at birth. That way we know we'll -- we'll support ourselves, we'll affirm ourselves. We'll also know the name of our congressmen, which is something you don't very often hear. And then beyond that we know that the special interests -- well, we're all special interests at that point so we're representing ourselves.
REHMAnd she also or he says, "I would also like to see a nobody or none-of-the-above slot required for all ballots in all races.
BLEYERThat's a fascinating idea. I applaud it. It does, I think, beg the question that if we -- I think what you're suggesting is that a nobody can win. That is to say, if enough people vote for nobody well than that's an empty chair in congress I suppose. One wonders how many congress people would actually be in it. It might be a cavernous echoey room at that point if there's enough protest votes that can actually become made manifest.
REHMTo Salem, Ill. Good morning, Steve. You're on the air.
STEVEYeah, I just wondered if your writer has ever heard the comment that the Constitution was a document written by geniuses so that the country could be run by idiots.
BLEYERI have not heard that. It is clever, no doubt about it. I'm wondering if one of the founders actually said that himself. Who knows? But you certainly hear about the founding fathers, the framers of the Constitution, that they were an assembly of demigods, is the phrase I believe Thomas Jefferson suggested. But obviously in my book a little bit I make some comique out of the fact that well, we all contain multitudes. We are -- they were demigods. Certainly they did an amazing thing but they were also flawed characters as well. They would admit it.
BLEYERIn fact, that's what Benjamin Franklin said at the end when he said, let's all question our own infallibility. He said, when you assemble all of these men with so many errors of opinion that in fact can such a perfect document really be expected. So, yeah, they knew it wasn't perfect. They knew that they were smart guys trying to get it together. But I do -- I am amused the idea of they were geniuses so that it could be run by idiots. Yes, clever certainly.
REHMKevin, as a writer of funny stuff for Jon Stewart, for the President of the United States, how comfortable are you being serious?
BLEYERClearly not too comfortable, Diane. Right? It is the case that I address serious issues in the book. I hope that I have addressed issues in each of the articles amendments that people in the world from all political stripes, left, right, center, libertarian, what have you, feel our concerns about the Constitution, whether or not it applies for 2012. I don't have -- I only pretend -- I don't -- let me put it this way, Diane. I don't pretend to know the answers. I only pretend to know the answers.
BLEYERThat is to say my solutions are absurd, as I say often, indefensible but 80 percent -- I bring you 80 percent of the way there and say, well here's what's actually going on in this amendment that I understand it to be. Here's the concerns that people have -- serious people have about the Constitution. But because I don't really know the answer I make one up. So yes, maybe I'm not as comfortable as I should be but nonetheless I try to bring people to the serious considerations.
REHMAnd putting the book aside, in personal life since you are thought to be a funny man, when people want to engage you in quiet, personal, loving discussions how easy or difficult is that for you?
BLEYERI suppose one on one that's an easier thing to do. I'm happy to engage if someone wants to engage with me on something serious because I feel like it is a flattering thing for them to suggest that I might have an opinion on something. When I don't that's when I get into comic-make-them-up land and that's what usually the last, you know, page of each of these chapters suggests to the world. I'm happy to engage one on one personally in those quiet rooms I think you were trying to suggest.
REHMBut do you use comedy then as a kind of defense?
BLEYEROh, wow, I like this. We're getting a little psychoanalytic and I actually appreciate that. Of course I do, Diane. Of course I use comedy as a defense. It's only natural. And I...
BLEYER...often fail when I do that for that matter.
REHMBut why is it natural to use comedy as a defense?
BLEYERI think that comedians by and large want people to get along. And in doing -- in, you know, saying a joke either in pros or in person you're trying to suggest to the people that are either reading it or hearing it, this is not the end of the world, whatever's happening right then and we can come to terms. I think that we -- that comedians -- and I don't consider myself a comedian. I'm a writer who occasionally stumbles upon something funny -- I think that we believe that that has the capacity for bringing people forward together rather than dividing.
BLEYERAnd I hope that that's what this book does too as well.
REHMAll right. Let's go to New Bedford, Mass. Good morning, Caitlyn, you're on the air.
CAITLYNGood morning, Diane. I love you, just so you know.
BLEYERMy question for your panelist is do you think it's sad that the country's gotten so bipartisan in that the social issues are at the forefront of this important election cycle, when it should be issues like infrastructure and the economy and our school systems that have been falling internationally? I mean, when we're talking about things like birth control and gay marriage and -- when we should be talking about how we can maintain the number one super power.
BLEYERI think you're right that bipartisanship is something to -- excuse me, the lack of bipartisanship is something to lament these days. Yes, you can't help but notice that people don't even -- that is to say, our elected leaders don't -- congress, what have you, don't actually talk to each other even in private anymore, whereas as I understand it, that's where a lot of things used to get done, whether being (unintelligible) one hand or...
BLEYER...and for that matter, the people that are known for being moderates and for being willing to step across the aisle are retiring from congress now (unintelligible) and such.
REHMOr being voted out.
BLEYEROr going -- yeah, of course, being voted out. And so it is interesting to me that despite the fact that I, again, make some comique of the Constitutional Convention and how they were at each other's throats, it was -- they were in powdered wigs, it was an un-air-conditioned room in the middle of Philadelphia for four months, and for any other reason -- for that matter they also drank beer for breakfast, so you can imagine it was kind of an interesting time -- they were in that room together and they had to hammer it out. And they came up with the Constitution, the great compromise that we revere.
BLEYERAnd you get the sense that there would be no great compromise now if people had to be so -- you know, their constituents are so in touch with them and via Tweets and what have you that they always feel like they have to respond to the most extreme versions of their -- of the people they're representing.
REHMSo there's no way to rewrite the Constitution now.
BLEYERYou mean officially so.
BLEYERI think that's likely. I think you're right. I don't think there'll be a Constitutional Convention at any time in the near future because I don't even think they'd agree where to hold it let alone what it would say.
REHMExactly. To St. Louis, Mo. Shawna, good morning.
SHAWNAGood morning. Thank you for taking my call.
SHAWNAMr. Bleyer, I was wondering, having done extensive research into the Constitution, I'm curious as to what you found to be the most antiquated or bizarre aspect in relation to modern society.
BLEYERWow, that's a broad question. Let me see if I can dip into it. By the way, first of all, you called it research and I think we've established it should be called me search, first of all. But I want to make sure I understand. The most antiquated part of the Constitution...
BLEYERWow, boy. I should be flipping through the book right now to think of some things. Antiquated part of the Constitution. That's a good question.
REHMEspecially in relation to today's world.
BLEYERRight. Shucks, you might've stumped me for a moment...
BLEYER...as far as picking one.
REHMThink about it.
BLEYERLet me think about it.
REHMThink about it...
BLEYERI -- yeah.
REHM...and we'll go on to another call. Josh in Berkeley, Mich.
BLEYERWell, actually I can address that.
REHMYou got it. Good.
BLEYERWell, I got something I think is valid. It is the case that 100 and -- you know, as of 20 years ago of the 170 countries that then existed, a full 160 of them based their constitutions -- had based their constitutions, at least in part on the American Constitution. These days no one does. That is to say no fledgling democracies look for the American Constitution as a model. Justice Ginsberg was actually in Egypt two months ago and said to the Egyptians that if she were designing a democracy right now she would not use the American Constitution as a model.
BLEYERNow what is the case is that that's because -- they actually look to say South African now and to Canada now, and they do that because they -- modern democracies believe that we should -- there should be an address of human rights in their constitutions. And so I suppose there's some element of while there are natural rights we talk about and what have you, but as far as human civil rights aren't as addressed as aggressively as they are in say other modern constitutions like South Africa and Canada.
BLEYERSo it's a pretty broad answer to your question but it is the case that they were basically designing a set of laws and that's what these are. So whereas other modern constitutions not only design laws, but they try to suggest some ethics and morals involved as well, as far as taking care of our (word?) .
REHMAll right. Now to Josh in Berkeley, Mich. Hi there.
JOSHOh thank you, Diane. Good morning. Kevin, I can't wait to read your book.
BLEYERI appreciate that.
JOSHWhen you mentioned the president being chosen randomly that immediately reminded me of Douglas Adams; "The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy" series where the president was a total figurehead and the actual person making decisions for the entire galaxy was some old guy living in his shack out on some remote planet.
BLEYEROh, is that right?
JOSHIt seems to work much better that way.
BLEYERI see. It may -- it worked better in the book as well? Did it turn out all right for everybody?
JOSHOh, sure. The earth was destroyed again, but that's a different point altogether. I was going to ask you, though, what other -- obviously there was that red shirt fellow with the funny name, but what other satires or did you draw on any other satires or any other writers? And what else did you draw on while you were writing this book?
BLEYERWell, there are other people that have written kind of comic versions of say the Bill of Rights and what have you, and the Constitution as well but I don't think -- they didn't -- it wasn't a book length. It was more of a kind of quick treatise on what -- the changes they would make to the Bill of Rights and what have you.
BLEYERI tried not to, you know, write, or read I should say, too much other comedy about the Constitution while I was writing this because I wanted to make sure that my, you know, if -- I wanted to amuse myself. And hopefully if I did that, then I might be able to amuse other people. And I certainly wanted to make sure that I had a carte blanche as far as that goes, tabula rasa, I guess they say.
BLEYERSo really what I read was a lot of the accounts of the Constitutional Convention, which I thought were so rollicking and hilarious that that alone was enough comedy. Because truly there -- if you -- I think if you can see the glee that I have in recounting the Constitutional Convention for the first third of the book, because it is such an amusing time, I hope that's contagious and I hope you'll realize that I'm only a paragraph ahead of the reader in learning these things. And I wanted to kind of point out, hey I just learned this crazy thing about Luther Martin or what have you. It's all there. That's where a lot of the comedy came in for me.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And to Sean in Louisville, Ky. Good morning, you're on the air.
SEANGood morning, Diane and Kevin.
SEANPleasure and honor to talk to you both. I will be turning 35 in ten days so (unintelligible) ...
BLEYERSo you might run for congress or president.
SEAN...president and congress it's straight on track. My question to you, Kevin, is -- and I can't wait to read your book that's not entitled "Me the People." That's fantastic.
SEANMy question to you is Dennis Miller did a comedy special where he stood at the podium of the United States of America. He mentions, you know, with a president that smokes, like Obama does -- well, unofficially now. But basically when -- he made the joke about how there was a question from the prep school about the deficit. And so he, you know, he lit the cigarette and blew smoke rings. It's like it's a one with a whole bunch of these behind it.
SEANHow would you feel about a president that has more of a comedic or acting background? And I won't name names of any actors that have been president, but anything that makes light of a serious situation, but not so much satirical as, say, a 9/11 event, but something that -- you know, to make the people understand more of what's going on. And by the way, I just want to make one more comment and I'll take my answer off the air. A lot of us 30-year-old men and women, we get our news from "The Daily Show."
BLEYERWell, that's both very encouraging and utterly horrifying. I would hope that you'd have a vast recipe, a buffet of news that you could draw from. But to answer your question, I have no problem with a president with a sense of humor. I think we have one now. I think it's pretty clear that he enjoys, you know, reciting his comedy. I know that he enjoys doing the White House correspondence dinners. And I especially am thrilled when he seems to really enjoy the jokes.
BLEYERI think people have seen it happen that he tells a joke and then as the -- even the laughter in the room dies down, he gives that nice little chuckle to let us all know that, in fact, he got the joke and he's still enjoying it even beyond the intended audience.
REHMAbsolutely. And finally Ellen writes from Apex, N.C., "How have you rewritten the 2nd Amendment?" Very quickly.
BLEYERHappily. As we know about the 2nd Amendment, it's -- the question is whether or not it's an individual right or a right of militias to have guns. And part of that hinges on the somewhat odd punctuation in the 2nd Amendment that has to be parsed. I make a point that if punctuation is the issue here and I can do anything to get -- to make sure that people who shouldn't have guns don't get guns, that is to say, you know, people that do bad things with them, then I'll add as much punctuation as possible in the thing.
REHMAnd that's the last word from Kevin Bleyer. His new book is titled "Me the People." Congratulations, Kevin.
BLEYERWhy thank you very much. Now let's go get this ratified, right?
REHMAll right. Let's do it. Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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