Tuned In / 'Constitution USA': Peter Sagal talks about our founding document


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PASADENA, Calif. -- Peter Sagal, best known to public radio listeners as the host of "Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!", travels the country on a red, white and blue-painted Harley to host PBS's "Constitution USA" (9 p.m. Tuesdays through May 28, WQED-TV), exploring how the U.S. Constitution works and where it's more problematic in modern American culture.

"We revere the Constitution and for good reason," he says in Tuesday's premiere. "When it was written in 1787 it was revolutionary, an owner's manual for a new nation setting up an entirely new form of government."

'Constitution USA'

When: 9 p.m. Tuesdays through May 28, PBS.

Host: Peter Sagal, above.

But as he shows in his first stop, there's inherent conflict in the American form of government: Growing medical marijuana is legal in California under state law but is illegal under federal law. That's not the only conflict: Some states allow gay and lesbian couples to marry, other states do not.

Mr. Sagal suggests a better name for the USA might be the Ambivalently and Sometimes Grudgingly Cooperative States of America, but, he notes, "That would be hard to fit on a coin."

At a January PBS press conference, "Constitution USA" executive producer Catherine Allan said the program is intended to explore our national charter but it's not intended to be a civics lesson.

"Over the course of four hours, we look at what the document actually says and what it means," she said. "Each hour of the series focuses on an innovative feature of the Constitution: the separation of powers, the delicate balance between the states and the federal government, the Bill of Rights, and the concept of equality."

Mr. Sagal said the word "civics" is deadly and he wanted to take civics out of the classroom and move it beyond 1970s-era "Schoolhouse Rock!" cartoons.

"In addition to the experts who provide context and history, we wanted to talk to people who are genuinely and truly affected by the Constitution," Mr. Sagal said. "The case coming up in the Supreme Court about a federal or constitutional right to gay marriage is called Hollingsworth v. Perry. Well, we talked to Perry, Kris Perry, who wants to marry her partner, Sandy. These are people who are living the Constitution. ... We wanted to show people how and why, and for good or for ill, the Constitution is actually active. It's not just this abstract principle that people invoke when they want to have the right to do what they want to do."

Along his journey, Mr. Sagal interviews Richard Beeman, an author and history professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

"Americans have always vaguely revered the Constitution, but never in my life have I seen Americans so passionately interested in the Constitution, and, of course, also passionately divided over what the Constitution means. That's the good news. The bad news is that Americans continue to be amazingly ignorant of the Constitution," Mr. Beeman said, citing a poll that found 50 percent of Americans could not name the three branches of government. "We really are in a situation where Americans are passionately interested in the Constitution but really need to know more about how it works."

In Tuesday's premiere, Mr. Sagal meets with a gun advocate in Montana and a woman who was in the midst of the segregation debates of the Civil Rights Movement. He said Americans often confuse the Constitution with the Bill of Rights.

"They think about free speech. They think about freedom of religion. They think about the Second Amendment, for or against it, and then it starts to trail off," he said. "What I found out personally is that most people don't understand the Constitution doesn't exist to settle arguments. It exists to set up a democratic framework of government -- Congress, House, Senate, President, Judiciary -- by which we can have arguments without killing each other. That, to me, is the principal purpose and structure of the Constitution and where it's really interesting."

And, yes, gun rights and the Second Amendment are covered in "Constitution USA," even though the show's host thinks the issue is more cultural than constitutional.

"There is a huge legacy of law about the First Amendment, different opinions about it, different interpretations of it that have been established in Supreme Court case law. There's almost nothing for the Second Amendment," Mr. Sagal said. "There's only been one case of a gun regulation being struck down on Second Amendment grounds. So we're not really talking about rights. We're talking about political and cultural preferences, and that's where the argument is really happening."

Mr. Sagal said he was particularly taken with an observation made by Yale professor and constitutional scholar Akhil Reed Amar.

"He made the point that in a strange way, the judicial temperament, the decisions, are really responsive to what the people need and want," Mr. Sagal said. "There's a kind of unspoken democratic process at work. The Supreme Court decided that the Constitution forbade segregation, but only when the people were ready for it. When the people were ready for it, the Supreme Court decides that the Constitution forbade miscegenation laws or guaranteed privacy, and, thus, constitutional change happens by kind of a trickle up, if you will."

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Rob Owen writes this Sunday TV column for Scripps Howard News Service. Contact him at: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.


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