Americans to the Core

Washington Times  3.31.98
Balint Vazsonyi

Tony Snow wrote a column of lyrical beauty on these pages; he called it "At Reagan's Place," and it appeared on March 17. His description of a recent visit by a small, distinguished group at the Reagan Presidential Library in California was a much-needed reminder of what the presidency used to be. It served, too, as reassurance of what so many Americans still are.

A few days later, I had a treat of my own. The Association of Administrative Assistants-a designation often used by chiefs of staff in the U.S. House of Representatives-invited Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Antonin Scalia to lunch. It turned out to be much less of a lunch than an excuse to hear him speak.

Justice Scalia describes his approach to the Constitution as that of an "originalist" and a "textualist." Strange that he should feel compelled to use words the spell-checker does not recognize to describe an attitude shared by an overwhelming majority of Americans just a few decades ago.

What these abstract scholarly terms describe may be translated thus: Justice Scalia holds that the Constitution of the United States is the supreme law of the land. He is also of the opinion that words are what they are.

In case a further level of translation is required, the foregoing signifies that the only legitimate way to change the Constitution is through persuading enough of one's fellow citizens to pass a Constitutional Amendment. It also signifies that the words must be understood in their appropriate context.

Apparently, there is disagreement on both counts. Apparently, judges and justices in significant numbers hold that the Constitution is a kind of smorgasbord, of which they take what they happen to fancy on a given day. Apparently, judges and justices in significant numbers hold that the actual words...-well, language changes constantly, does it not?

This they call a "living" Constitution. (Some prefer "living-breathing" Constitution.) Translating that phrase is easy: such judges refer to the Constitution when politically convenient, and simply ignore it at all other times.

It is becoming harder to remember that all judges-and all members of the legislative and executive branches-have taken the identical oath. If they forget their oath, do the rest of us have a duty to remind them?

At the risk of stating the obvious, our Constitution is truly one of a kind. It has rendered this society more successful than any other in known history. It has elicited the best efforts of all those who came here to live under its provisions, far in excess of what those same people had been able to muster in their native lands. Why? Reasonable scrutiny will reveal all other political systems a failure by comparison, most of them resulting in certain upheaval and bloodshed from time to time.

However pretty the words in which "new" ideas are dressed up, there cannot be the slightest justification to believe that abandoning the Constitution will result in anything but abject failure in the long run. Prosperity and economic stability grow out of sound and stable political institutions. That is what the Constitution provides.

And that is the importance of a Justice who is an "originalist" and a "textualist." As long as he, and others like him, continue to observe their oath, this nation will survive, and America will remain the world's anchor.

Of course, not all can be expected to deliver these articles of faith with the same appeal. For those who had never had the honor, His Honor is some first-time experience, combining common sense, genuine humor and unpretentious wisdom with a simplicity and directness seldom encountered in one who holds so high an office.

Then again, my very first encounter with a Congressman, back in 1959, revealed instantaneously the absence of airs so characteristic of office holders in other lands. Perhaps much that one finds so engaging about Justice Scalia's thoughts, words, and manner is fundamentally American.

Perhaps the same is true about his views. He went to some lengths in explaining why it mattered not to him whether those who proposed bending the Constitution to their purpose did so from a Liberal or a Conservative platform. Is that not what we expect of a Justice of the Supreme Court?

Is that not what we should expect from all American judges?

Many of us never had the privilege of meeting Ronald Reagan in person. But even those who disagreed with some of this policies owe him for a decade that restored meaning to the word "American."

No other word possesses similar power to "exalt just pride," as George Washington put it in his Farewell Address. At the same time, no other word imposes similar obligations on the bearer.

In matters relating to the Constitution, that obligation is precisely to be an originalist.