Chewing on the Constitution

Ever since my Uncle Johnny suggested a few years ago that I study the U.S. Constitution, I've been chewing on this country's governing document like a cow's cud.

And with all that chewing, I've developed this weird habit. At home, whenever I'm watching or listening to a political speech, I reach for one of my tooth-marked copies of the Constitution to see if I can put what they're saying into some kind of Constitutional context.

Over the weekend, I happened to catch a Hillary press conference. There she was, looking all pretty and stately, surrounded by military men in their uniforms. She was talking about "national security" and "experience." Again.

But this time, she used a few props to drive home the message in a visually memorable way, riffing off the now famous political ad. You know the one with the red phone ringing at 3 a.m. What caught my attention was when she said a president's primary duty is to "defend the nation."

I flipped to Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution and read the words she hopes to recite on January 20, 2009. "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

Ever wonder why the founding fathers -- deliberators known to labor over the precise use and meaning of words -- penned a presidential oath to "protect and defend the Constitution of the United States" and not to protect and defend the nation or "the homeland?"

Yes, Article II, Section 2 says the "President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and the of the Militia of the several States." But only Congress has the authority to declare war (see Article I, Section 8).

Why did she declare that a president's primary duty is to "defend the nation" in the context of her "experience?" (And they say Obama doesn't get specific enough. Is anyone going to ask her: what experience, exactly? Or, more importantly, how does that experience square with the Constitution?)

Maybe she's playing on our collective constitutional ignorance. How else do you explain why she keeps talking about "experience" when, at the center of her record, is her vote to authorize an illegal war?

That vote wasn't just a mistake in judgment. And it certainly wasn't about WMD. It was about ignoring the Constitution.

Now, if you're part of the majority of Americans that surveys tell us don't know much about the Constitution, let me point you in the direction of Article VI.

"This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made...and all Treaties made, or which shall be made...shall be the supreme Law of the Land...(emphasis mine)."

In December 1945, the Senate and the House overwhelmingly approved the U.N. Treaty, having been persuaded by Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg that -- not only would America retain "every basic attribute of its sovereignty" -- the cold, harsh reality was: two successive world wars had not brought security to the United States.

If you read the various articles under Section VII of the U.N. Charter, you'll see that, short of "self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations," pre-emptive invasions are ipso facto illegal. And because the United States has not pulled out of the U.N., the Charter is the "supreme Law of the Land," according to the U.S. Constitution.

Funny how the "originalists" and law-and-order types never bring that up.

In December 2007, the San Francisco-based War and Law League (WALL) queried the presidential candidates on this very question. Only three responded: John Edwards, Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich.

Paul and Kucinich consider preemptive war illegal. Edwards' only problem with the 2002 congressional authorization that he voted for was that it did not give the president "the power to use U.S. troops to police a civil war." Huh?

Unfortunately, McCain, Clinton and Obama didn't respond to WALL's questions. But we know where they stand. McCain hitched his campaign to W's illegal war wagon. Clinton voted for it and has a record of continued funding support.

Both have "experience" in side-stepping the Constitution while debating war tactics. Is the surge working, etc.?

Trivia question: Which of the remaining candidates risked his political future speaking out against the war, at time when supporting the war was the popular and easy thing to do? And which candidate has experience as a constitutional scholar?

If I were Professor Obama, I'd be hosting Constitutional seminars all across the country and holding court.

And, I would counter Hillary's red phone commercial with a Constitutional ad. The ad would begin with a tight shot of Obama's hand on the Bible. Ray Charles' rendition of "America The Beautiful" plays softly in the background.

Cue Obama's voice: "On Inauguration Day, I'll swear to protect and defend the Constitution. My opponents have a record of ignoring it. Do you trust them to uphold the Constitution after voting time and again to undermine it? I'll be ready from day one to bring the Constitutional spirit back to the White House."

I'm Sean Gonsalves and I approved this message.

Sean Gonsalves is a syndicated columnist and assistant news editor for the Cape Cod Times. He can be reached at