Legion’s Oratorical Contest Focuses
On the Constitution and ‘We the People’
No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.’ Winston Churchill
By LIBBY MOTIKA
Special to Circling the News
Flawed, messy and highly aspirational, democracy in the United States, codified in the U.S. Constitution, has endured for over 200 years. By studying the document’s structure and content, we, the beneficiaries, can appreciate the thought and wisdom with which the founders crafted the document.
I could read analyses by numerous historians about the strengths of the Constitution, but it was three teenagers who competed in the American Legion Oratorical contest last weekend who so ably explained how the crafters purposely wrote in an open-ended way keeping the wording broad. Each contestant presented a key aspect of the Constitution that since 1789 has fortified a workable blueprint for democracy.
The American Legion developed its national contest in 1938 to “develop knowledge and appreciation of the U. S. Constitution among high school students.”
Last Sunday’s event, here in Pacific Palisades, represented the second round of the competition, bringing together the three winners from the first round that was held two weeks ago.
Each contestant, juniors in high school, prepared an eight-to-ten-minute speech drawing connections between the document and their own life. Then each was given one surprise topic upon which they had to extemporize in three-to-five minutes.
Judges, family members, Legionnaires from Palisades Post 283 and other regions waited for contestant #1, who entered bravely and took a comfortable stand at the front of the room. (Contestants are given numbers; names and schools are not used until after the winners are announced.)
Manifestly confident, she opened with the question, setting an intimate tone as if she were in conversation with us. “Why has the Constitution endured for two centuries?” she asked. Her answer: “compromise,” which the drafters understood when trying to write a document that would ensure fair representation for both the small states and large and help to maintain a balance of power in government.
As she worked her way through specific examples of compromise, I was keenly aware that compromise continues to this day as the only way to loosen the pull of power and politics.
Contestant #2 underscored the importance of citizen responsibility in bolstering democracy. He offered many examples of the power “we the people” exert through the ballot box and through the freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment to express ourselves in speech, to peaceably assemble (citizen marches, protests), to practice our religion and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
He disparaged our perpetually dismal voting turnout and ignorance of the Constitution. He exhorted all citizens to exercise their responsibility in being an awake participant in our democracy. He also coupled that with a call to beef up the high school civics curriculum.
Contestant #3 talked about the importance of inclusion in our democracy for all people. While the framers purposely set aside the question of slavery, reflecting the impossible divide between north and south, they insisted on codifying the Bill of Rights, and the extension of civil rights through subsequent Amendments, including the equal protection clause in the Fourteenth Amendment, civil rights and racial equality. As with all the speakers, he was frank in insisting that we as a nation have failed those who are marginalized because of race, gender, sexual orientation and poverty.
All three students delivered their talks with a firm understanding of subject matter, solid supporting arguments and an engaging delivery. They are all experienced in debate, but I was particularly impressed with their five-minute discourse on the “Pop” question, which was to comment on the Twenty-First Amendment—the repeal of Prohibition. They had to fashion a theme, develop a line of reasoning and deliver a smooth, unrehearsed answer.
We judges, who included Sara Boyers, Tom Ruck, Bill Harmsen, Maryam Zar and me, evaluated each student and arrived at a winner, each of whom received a prize check.
First place winner Daniella Wilson from Brentwood School received $500 and will move on to the Area level competition. That winner will go on to the state level and so on until the national finals in April.
Second place winner Ramsay Goyal from Loyola High School received $400, and third place winner Alexander Baker, who studies on-line at Uplift Monterey, received $300.
Chairman Dave Card of Post 283 efficiently guided the proceedings, explaining the rules and overseeing a serious and optimistic demonstration of the foundational document guiding the structures of our government.
I’d like to see the leadership displayed by these three students inspire many more students to master the U.S. Constitution, which I can say unequivocally would guarantee a strong, well-informed citizenry in the generations to come.
(Editor’s note: A Broadway play, “What the Constitution Means to Me,” by Heidi Schreck, combines memories of her own American Legion oratorical success with civics lessons. Like the Constitution, Schreck’s play is a living document—elements of the play change from night to night. Previews begin at The Helen Hayes Theater on March 14.)