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The Constitution’s Bicentenial Is Off to a Rocky Start

January 3, 1987

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Constitution turns 200 this year and bicentennial celebration planners, criticized for what some call lack of imagination, are struggling to capture the nation’s attention.

Critics say the birthday could be a bust.

Part of the problem is complexity. Although the Constitution embodies the bedrock principles and enduring structure of American democracy, it is not a familiar subject easily commemorated - like the Statue of Liberty or the Declaration of Independence.

Part of the problem, some say, lies with the Commission on the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution, appointed by President Reagan to coordinate the celebration.

The commission is ″doing nothing, zero, to make this a reflective, serious celebration,″ says Stanley Katz, a Princeton University professor and constitutional historian.

″It’s a great disappointment,″ says Katz, president of the American Council of Learned Societies. He is critical, too, of the make-up of the commission and its staff.

″There are only a couple of academics and no one is a student of constitutional history,″ he says.

Retired Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, the commission’s chairman, ″doesn’t seem to be able to mobilize the best people,″ Katz says.

Others say the commission, controlled by political conservatives, is reluctant to encourage free-wheeling - and perhaps interest-grabbing - debate about the Constitution’s modern applications.

Gara La Marche, executive director of the Texas Civil Liberties Union, contends the commission is neglecting the present-day relevance of a ″living Constitution.″

″Let’s celebrate the persistent strain of individual courage that translates words on a piece of parchment into advances for human liberty,″ she said in an article in the Washington Post. ″You can shout it from the rooftops, and that’s what the ... commission should be doing.″

Burger, who resigned as chief justice of the United States last year to devote full time to celebrating the bicentennial, apparently will not get all the cooperation he had hoped from his former colleagues. According to Supreme Court sources, the justices voted at a recent private conference against participating in bicentennial ceremonies in Philadelphia, the ″birthplace″ of the Constitution.

The organization sponsoring the Philadelphia festivities, We the People 200, asked the court to hold a special session in Philadelphia sometime in 1987.

Cindy Mullaney, a spokeswoman for the organization, says the court has not yet responded. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist declined comment.

The commission’s defenders say its work was hampered by a late start. Congress authorized the 23-member panel in September 1983, but Reagan did not appoint any members until June 1985. Supporters say the commission’s critics also are ignoring the full range of projects already begun.

Lynne V. Cheney, a commission member and chairman of the National Endowment for Humanities, conceded ″things were rocky at the beginning.″ But, she said, ″We are making progress. The bicentennial will be celebrated in every state of the union. It’s suprising things are going so well.″

And a commission source who asked not to be quoted by name said the panel is promoting ″nothing short of a revolution in education about the Constitution.″

But some ideas hatched by the commission, which is spending more than $25 million in public funds while asking for $9 million more to keep it in business until 1991, have come under attack even from its members.

One member, who spoke only on condition he not be identified, said such proposals as bumper stickers promoting the Constitution and fire hydrants painted to resemble the founding fathers are from ″never-never land.″

Those ideas have been dropped; some commission sources deny they ever were considered seriously.

Burger says the celebration is of paramount importance. It should be ″a history and civics lesson″ for all Americans, he says.

There are signs that plans for the Constitution’s celebration have hit rough spots.

Former Philadelphia Mayor William Green, a member of the bicentennial commission, reportedly erupted at a private meeting of the panel in frustration over lack of progress.

Green declined to return repeated phone calls from The Associated Press.

″There is a vague notion that education is supposed to happen,″ said one critical commission member. ″But there’s no grand vision or purpose. The idea of a civics lesson even turns me off.″

But commission supporters say the panel is promoting projects that, though unheralded, will have significant impact on the understanding of the Constitution for years to come.

The projects include spending $2.7 million to distribute special lesson plans to schoolchildren and competitions among schools and students to demonstrate understanding of the Constitution.

The celebration is likely to have at least one enduring legacy - the new James Madison fellowship program using federal and private money to help train teachers of constitutional history.

Critics say the commission’s ideas are often commercial and trivial.

For example, the commission is sponsoring commemorative calendars featuring contemporary photographs of the houses lived in by the Constitution’s signers - complete with aluminum doors and air conditioning units protruding from windows.

″Some of them look like abandoned fraternity houses,″ said one commission member who spoke on condition of anonymity. ″Who wants to look at that for a month?″

One of Burger’s pet projects has been to sell 50 million pocket-size copies of the Constitution, making them available at such locations as supermarket checkout counters.

Commission member Cheney says making copies of the Constitution widely available is ″an immensely worthwhile undertaking.″

There also are plans for a simultaneous nationwide Pledge of Allegiance by American schoolchildren on Sept. 16.

Originally, the idea was to hold the simultaneous pledge on Sept. 17, the anniversary date of the Constitution’s signing. But that idea conflicted with another commission proposal - making Sept. 17 a one-time national holiday and closing all public schools.

So far the White House and Congress have not gone along with the plan for a federal holiday because of the expense.

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