As the formidable, extra-robust Chris Christie rises in the Republican presidential polls, appearing attractively tough, Rand Paul also remains productively active as the singular Republican now seeking out black voters.
The New York Times recently reported on Paul’s visit to Cincinnati at the National Urban League Conference, in a “demonstration of how Mr. Paul – however improbably – has become the only major figure in his party who seems eager to keep going back to African-Americans to appeal for support even if his approach unsettles some fellow Republicans.”
Indeed, as Times reporter Jeremy W. Peters wrote, “what makes Mr. Paul’s approach unique is the broad array of sentencing and voting rights law changes he embraces, positions that often put him at odds with many in his own party.”
But so far as I am aware, Paul has yet to focus his campaign on a subject – which I told him in a recent telephone conversation – that he is uniquely qualified to speak on: The dangerous ignorance throughout this nation among students and adults on why they are Americans.
For instance, before he became an active presidential candidate (as I’ve noted in previous columns), he acknowledged how many Americans appear unaware of the separation of powers at the core of our Constitution, which George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and, above all, President Barack Obama have imperiously tossed aside.
And, as I said to Paul, what’s more alarming for our future as a self-governing republic is that so few public schools – from fourth grade to graduate school – have mandated courses in American history, let alone courses in the ever-dramatic story of how our Constitution has been rescued from regal presidents and their Congresses.
Furthermore, I added that when I was still able to travel widely, before arthritis limited me, I was in classrooms around the country, discovering how excited students got as they first heard my stories on why and how we have the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and 14th Amendments – and what it’s taken to keep them alive and aggressively functioning.
These students were learning why they are Americans.
As of now, among all the possible candidates for president in both parties, Paul has been the most penetrating reminder of what differentiates us from all other countries. His widely broadcast and briefly recalled 13-hour soliloquy last year in the Senate on our essential personal liberties featured, near the beginning, his emphasis on the Ninth and 10th Amendments to the Constitution, ratified in 1791, which reserved basic rights to the people and the states.
How many Americans, let alone members of Congress or state legislatures, are aware of those two amendments? How many of our students?
In view of the extensive ignorance among Americans of their fundamental identities that reverberate in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, I intend to report from time to time about organizations that are devoted to increasing awareness among students of all backgrounds on what it is to be – and keep being – an American.
I begin with the national “We the People State Programs,” which are a yearning of mine come true:
“The Center for Civic Education (‘a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization based in California’) partners with a network of 50 state civics, government and law programs sponsored by state bar associations and foundations, colleges and universities, and other civic and law nonprofit organizations to promote teaching and learning about the Constitution and Bill of Rights.”
In addition, We the People and its partners “hold conferences and organize local and state simulated congressional hearings for elementary and secondary students.”
Dig the preparation for the annual culmination of this creation of actively knowledgeable Americans, as described by the Oregon affiliate of We the People:
“Each January, the acclaimed We the People competition brings together high school teams from around the state. Students demonstrate their understanding of constitutional principles and have opportunities to evaluate, take positions and ultimately defend those positions on relevant historical and contemporary issues during a simulated congressional hearing.
“Regional competitions ... precede the state final, which determines the team that will represent Oregon at the national competition in Washington, D.C.”
So it is in other member states, leading to the national We The People finals in Washington, which I so wish were nationally televised. Members of our actual Congress, moreover, would benefit from auditing those finals.
Since this all began in 1987, “more than 28 million students and 75,000 educators have participated in the We the People Program.”
Where has most of the media – print and digital – been?
Rand Paul should be talking about this enlivening of the Constitution and also interviewing some of the students. If he were still here, James Madison would be taking many of them out to lunch.
• Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights.