Sunday, 19 August 2012

The Miracle and the Glitz

By a delicious coincidence, the Army Blues swing bank (characterized on the side of their tour bus as Black Jack Pershing’s Own—he founded it in 1922) swung into “It’s So Peaceful in the Country” as Chief Justice Warren Burger’s limo pulled up to the rear door of the Second Bank of the United States, central venue through 1987 of “Miracle at Philadelphia,” the city’s $860,000 bid to become a tourist mecca throughout the celebration of the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution. The band was there to entertain 750 upscale guests ($50 per nosh) attending a preview reception where the cuisine was transcontinental—Wisconsin cheeses. Tex-Mex fire food, California haute and Cajun: by any gustatory plebiscite, New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme would now be president.

The band was not there to drown out the 700 gays and lesbians who had foregathered next door at Independence Hall to hold a simultaneous Burger roast protesting his recent anti-sodomy decision. The protesters’ placards did their special pleadings: “WARNING: THE SUPREME COURT IS HAZARDOUS TO YOUR CIVIL RIGHTS,” “GET THE GOVERNMENT OUT OF OUR BEDROOMS,” “I’M STILL DOING IT!” or the slyly witty “Uphold the Oral Tradition.”

The signs were no problem for the Army Blues—or the National Park Service’s greens, especially since they were backed up by Jack, a mean-looking 110 pound attack dog. Hobart (Call me “Hobey”) Cawood, Independence National Park superintendent, was furious, pacing back and forth behind the white police barricades: “They promised to be peaceful, so I gave them a permit; now listen to them! Next time they won’t get one.”

What bugged him were the hundreds and hundreds of whistles passed out by the local gay weekly. But the Philadelphia squirearchy has dealt with uppity mobs for centuries. They simply had the help drop a plastic acoustical shield between them and the gays and went on gnoshing and kibitzing.

Alas, their palaver had little to do with the show they had just walked through. The high-tech “Miracle in Philadelphia” aspires to be a “hands-on” show, but it is really a McLuhanish triumph of medium over message, in my judgment. Visitors are, for example, invited to “sign the Constitution” with the gold-sheened ball point pen over a huge revolving drum of paper. Or they are invited to cast their vote on the three crucial Constitutional issues that finally broke up the Union in the Civil War: the Feds’ role in regulating commerce, the future of the slave trade, and counting slaves at three-fifths of a citizen. If you put the polling place type bar in the “proper” slot, the three parts of the country would form a union; if not, chaos and disunity ensue. You press a button to see blow-ups of sad Civil War photos.

I was more impressed by plain old-fashioned words and data, supplied by the six-year-old New York specialty firm, American History Workshop. (The graphics are from a Boston firm, Krent / Paffett Associates.) The precariousness of the Confederation period is caught in quotes from a letter to the Philadelphia Freemason’s Journal: “An anti-federalist and a tory are held to be one and the same.” And Washington argues that If Georgia, a weak state “with Indians on its back and Spaniards on its flank,” won’t vote for ratification, what can we hope for? And John Quincy Adams warns, “We shall in a short time slide into an aspiring aristocracy and finally tumble into an absolute monarchy …” Plain old historical documents are worth thousands and thousands of dollars of technoglitz. Television’s brutal reducing of the attention span would have most confounded the Founding Fathers. Gone is James Madison’s character and capacity to concentrate: “I chose a seat in front … and was absent not a single day.”

Another discouraging aspect of the entertainment is what I must call the True Cross Splinter Syndrome. The media have been blitzed with stories about how much time and money went into making secure borrowed pages from Madison’s notes on the Constitutional Convention. You can’t read Madison’s tiny script (it was as tiny and orderly as he was physically) anyway, but you’re meant to genuflect mentally before this icon. If our ancestors had been as sanctimonious, we’d still be without a Constitution. The triumph of filiopietism over political wisdom is not a hopeful portent.

But the meaning is there for those not hoodwinked by the razzle dazzle. Benjamin Rush: “The American War is over but this is far from being the case with the American Revolution.” All those Mainline nabobs under the buffet tent reminded me of John Jay: “The better kind of people will be led to consider the charms of liberty as imaginary and delusory.” Even George Washington harrumphed gloomily: “We have probably had too good an opinion of human nature forming our confederation.”

I was impressed most (and then depressed to realize how far federalese has sunk in two centuries) to read that Pennsylvania’s Gouverneur Morris’s Committee of Style reduced the first draft from Seven pages to four, and from 23 articles to seven! Superintendent Cawood unreeled for me a little parable that complemented Morris’s prosaic achievement. 

Two centuries ago where we now stood, there were three buildings—Independence Hall (which doubled as a state house), Congress Hall (which doubled as a county court house) and Old City Hall. Local, state, and federal—in three buildings. Now he alone superintends 50 buildings just in the National Park, which was created in 1948. and the local research community dreams out loud about a National Center for the Constitution, price tab $15 million! Meanwhile, back on earth, only $5 million of a hoped-for $14 million to fund the 100 projected Bi-Cen events are in the kitty.

Life in a constitutional democracy, of course, is never perfect—a condition experienced when Mayor Goode arrived to greet Burger. Goode’s basketball-center-size bodyguard refused to budge when the affirmatively-actioned but short women photographers and TV camera people tried to nudge him for pictures of the mayor. The imperior mayorality is the last thing this city or country needs. But such is the ebb and flow of power once denied overcompensating.

Perhaps that old tinkerer Ben Franklin deserves the last word. (His is the coda you read as you leave the good, solid bookstore full of meanings to be taken home for a year-long pondering): “Now you have a Republic, if you can keep it.”

Reprinted from Center City Journal

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