Savoy's 20 Questions with Steve Mount
[Editor's note: this interview with the Webmaster of this site appeared in the online magazine Savoy in its December, 1998 edition. Savoy is now defunct. This page is a reproduction of that interview. The original is no longer avaliable on the Internet, so far as I can tell.]
I first ran across Steve Mount's USConstitution.net Web site while researching an editorial for Savoy. Though I found the site intriguing, I quickly forgot it until Constitution Day, when I needed a link for the Savoy Today page.
On my second exposure, I realized the site was not the work of an organization, but the brainchild of an individual, and obviously a labor of love. I became acquainted with its creator via email and found him to be an engaging, intelligent fellow.
Steve Mount is a computer programmer and former political science major who lives in Williston, Vermont. What follows are his answers to the Big 20.
On your Web site, you say that you are a former student of political science. How did this background contribute to your creating the USConstitution.net site?
It was half the impetus. When the Web first became known to those outside the scientific community, I dabbled with Mosaic and Lynx to see what it was all about. When Prodigy (of which I was a member back then) allowed users to put personal pages on line, I started with a small "Here's me!" type page. I wanted to put something a bit more substantial on, to get experience with HTML and with this new Web thing. My non-computer interests lie in politics and American history, so the Constitution was a natural choice.
Why the U.S. Constitution? Why not another in-your-face political Web 'zine or partisan party-line commentary?
The Constitution, because of its brevity, let me start out small. Plus, this was 1995, when things like online 'zines were nascent at best; and I wasn't interest in partisan politics online. By starting with just the text of the document, I was able to slowly add to it. What was a page is now a site, with dozens of pages, a message board (home-grown software, by the way), a FAQ, special expanded topics, and other historical documents. Each of these things was added in stages, rather than in one fell swoop.
Term limits? Why or why not?
Term limits are okay for Presidents - there's so much power that eight years seems enough. But I don't support term limits for any other national office. There is power in experience. You don't make doctors stop practicing after four years.
One gets the impression, viewing your Web site, that you have a strong sense of community and community service. Would this be an accurate assessment? If so, how did this impact your decision to put the Constitution on- line?
I do see the Web as a unique opportunity to not only enhance the sense of community we have now but also to create a new community. And I do take pleasure in serving those communities. This didn't impact my decision to put the Constitution on-line, but it did influence my decision to bring it up from more than just a single page of the text. When my page started getting hits, I started getting questions from people about the Constitution. The answers were all one-way, with no one sharing in them except the person who asked - so I started the message board, which I hoped would allow people to read what others had asked, and from time to time spark some dialog. And that's what it has done. I have many people read the messages daily (according to my hit stats), and I know some people come back again and again, because they pipe in with their own opinions.
Has the recent scandal surrounding President Clinton increased interest in the Constitution (and in the Web site)?
It has definitely sparked interest, and it definitely sparked a rise in hits on my site. I went from about 2200 hits per day, on average, to over 3000; a few days, it hit 4000, right around the time of the Starr report. It has since calmed down again. The beginning of the school year bumped up my hit count, too, but both the new school year and the Starr report happened in September, so I'm not sure which had a larger effect.
Exxon, Gulf or Texaco? (Note to readers: Visit Steve's gas prices pages for an explanation.)
None of the above - Mobil's Speedpass is just too easy to pass up.
In your opinion, which of the Constitution framers had the greatest impact on the document?
Gouverneur Morris had the greatest impact on what we read today, since he is largely recognized as the man who wrote all or most of the words of the final draft. But Madison has to be the biggest influence, in my opinion. His Virginia Plan started the whole process.
Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison: advertising geniuses or political savants?
You're referring to the authors of the Federalist Papers, letters that appeared in New York newspapers to support the ratification of the new Constitution. They were in response to the Anti-Federalist Papers that were opposed to ratification. These men were most definitely political savants. The Papers give us a unique insight into the thinking of the times of ratification. Advertising geniuses, too, perhaps, both only insofar as they appealed to the literate populace of the time. The Papers wouldn't win any ADDY Awards today.
Vladimir Posner, former spokesman for Gorbachev during the era of Soviet glastnost, once said that America owes its remarkably long-lived democratic republic to the flexibility of the Constitution. Would you agree with his observation?
Absolutely. The Constitution actually lends itself to interpretation, and has since its first days, when the constitutionality of a national bank was debated during Washington's administration. Some constitutions are so rigid that it takes a revolution or civil war to change them. It was said that the U.S. would have had a civil war over the Articles of Confederation if the more forward-thinking individuals of the time had not agreed to creating a new system of government.
Many Americans feel it's time for a new Constitution, that the present document is archaic. Would you agree?
I agree that parts of it are archaic. But it has sustained us as a nation for over 200 years, and tinkering with it seems dangerous to me. I don't think we would get as flexible a document as we have now. Too many special interests would look to language in a new constitution; too many compromises. I don't even support modernizing the language contained in the Constitution; words can be so strong, can have so much meaning, that any wholesale changes would open a Pandora's box.
Douglas MacArthur based a large portion of the Japanese Constitution on the American document when he was framing it. Do you think the Constitution has a universal application? Is it the model for representative democracy throughout the world?
It is said that no constitution formed since that of the United States Constitution does not have in it something influenced by the United States Constitution. That is to say, there must be a universality of the concepts therein. Individual freedom. Restricted government. Governmental stability. These are universal concepts. It is probably not much of a coincidence that the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights also mirrors our own Bill of Rights.
Greater revolutionary: Samuel Adams or Che Guevara?
Well, if success as a revolutionary is any indication of ones greatness as a revolutionary, then Adams wins over Geuvara hands-down. Adams fought for a nation that eventually became the greatest on Earth. Geuvara fought for a nation that was used as a pawn in a great power struggle between two superpowers, and once the thrill of the Cuban revolution wore out, he went to Bolivia to stir up trouble, where he was promptly shot. Perhaps if Geuvara had lived longer... but Adams's own influence waned when it became clear that his ultimate objectives were too far away from what everyone else felt was the right direction (he thought the Articles of the Confederation gave the federal government too much power ... but he mellowed and helped pass the Constitution in Massachusetts).
Why a fascination with science fiction? (Mount maintains the Mos Eisley Spaceport, a site dedicated to Star Wars.)
When I was in high school, I devoured science fiction. I was 10 or 11 when Star Wars came out, and I had all the play figures. All my friends were into Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar: Galactica; Spiderman, the Hulk, Thor. So when I looked to books, and away from TV and comics, I turned to the sci-fi novel. I wish I had more time to read nowadays.
We noticed that Court TV linked to USConstitution.net. You're discussing the advent of trials as entertainment and trial through media with Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. Are they pleased or appalled?
Madison and Washington would likely have been appalled. But I suspect perhaps Jefferson, and certainly Franklin, would have been, if not pleased, at least intrigued.
Abraham Lincoln believed that the Constitution empowered him to preserve the Union at all cost. Would you agree?
It is hard to agree with such an absolute, but for the most part I think it imperative that the Union be preserved. It isn't that we cannot stand dissension, but that reasonable and honorable people can come to agreement and compromise that is reasonable and honorable. The Civil War may have been an inevitability, given the issues that came to a head - states rights and human rights; but I think that the outcome was also inevitable. The Union would have kept fighting to destroy the Confederacy until there was no one left to fight - the principles were too weighty to give up. Today, I doubt we would ever have to go to such extremes. I certainly hope not, given the carnage of the first Civil War.
We ask the following question of all our guests: What are you currently reading? If we barged in on your break at work, what book would you have to put down?
I'm reading two, one for business, one for pleasure: On Reading the Constitution, by Laurence Tribe; and Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein.
What would you say is the Constitution's finest hour?
I think the Roe v. Wade decision, despite the can of worms it opened up in the abortion debate, ensured the right to privacy that I think we all feel we have, or at least should have. It was predicated by a few other Supreme Court decisions that were stepping stones to Roe, both of which dealt with birth control: the Griswold and Eisenstadt decisions. Funny how sex can lead to such a fundamental right. Also, the history of tolerance and enlightenment can be seen in the amendments: abolition of slavery, racial suffrage, women's suffrage, 18-year-old suffrage.
You're sitting with the powdered wigs during the signing of the Constitution. Which do you want the most, air conditioning or Ban Roll-On?
Give me a strong A/C vent, and I can stand a little body odor.
In your opinion, will the Constitution survive into the next millennium?
Yes. It has survived quite some turmoil in the past 200 years. The present-day presidential scandal is nothing compared to some of the other scandals we've survived in that time. It has a solid framework for a working government and solid guarantees of human rights and freedoms. It will survive, particularly if more people will read it and pledge to uphold it.
You're a computer programmer. Windows 2000 or Linux? (We couldn't resist.)
My heart is with Linux, my mind is with Win2000. I'd like to see them coexist - more money for ambidextrous programmers that way.