Norman Lear

Television’s Man For All Seasons, Part II

VTR Date: September 10, 2011

Norman Lear discusses contemporary media culture.


GUEST: Norman Lear
AIR DATE: 09/10/2011
VTR: 07/01/11

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind … and last week I introduced today’s guest, television’s — indeed American entertainment’s — man for all seasons by sharing with you quite literally the way I first introduced him to my audience nearly 30 years ago at this table.

Well, I won’t show that video clip from so long ago again today.

Suffice it to say I noted then that my guest Norman Lear ruled the world of television in the 1970’s and 80’s with such great comedy programs as “All In The Family”, “Maude”, “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, “The Jeffersons”, “Sanford and Sons” and on and on.

Comedies, yes … but they had much more to them, impacted importantly upon American thought and perhaps American behavior, and certainly roughed up thoroughly and one might guess purposefully some hidebound notions of what can and cannot be said and done in public, particularly on the air.

They also paralleled and certainly in time were accused of aiding and abetting a general loosening in American manners and morals.

And on our most recent program Norman Lear and I discussed the so-called Moral Majority’s efforts to strangle the new look he had brought to mass entertainment and, further, to undermine Americans’ traditional tolerance for speech … even the kind that embarrasses, often undermines the niceties of our times. So, let the conversation continue.
And Norman, welcome back and we were … we ended last time with a reference you made to John F. Kennedy’s description of liberal thinking … what was that?

LEAR: And in three seconds … this glorious staff of yours found the, the quote. So let me read it to you.

HEFFNER: Well, it’s CUNY-TV that manages to produce who managed to produce that.

LEAR: Well, I bless CUNY-TV. But … let me see here. John F. Kennedy said, “But if by a Liberal they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind. Someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions. Someone who cares about the welfare of the people, their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights and their civil liberties. Someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and, and suspicions that grip … that grip us in our policies abroad. If that is what they mean by a Liberal then I am proud to say I’m a Liberal”.

HEFFNER: And I gather that’s what you stand for, too.

LEAR: And I am proud to be that Liberal. But when they say someone who cares about the welfare of the people, their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights … some one … I mean what, what, what means, I am sure … at least what I infer from this … is I have to step back sometimes to see that the next guy is adequately treated.

Or, or, or equally treated. I have to pay a little more in taxes. Current Republicans, wherever you are … I have to pay a little … in, in the Congress that is … I have to pay a little more in taxes to see some equality exists to help. I … this (taps the notes on the table) defines me entirely.

HEFFNER: You remember …

LEAR: Politically.

HEFFNER: You remember Ed Murrow had a program ‘This I Believe” and I gather that’s what you’re saying. This I believe and everything I do stems from this.

LEAR: I would hope everything I do stems from it. Yes.

HEFFNER: But, Norman, let, let me question before we go back to some of the other things we talked about. How many question seriously the conflict between those who say all very well and good, we share your warm and generous sentiments about our fellow men and women. But let’s realize that in the past and that’s why your valued Declaration of Independence and Constitution were created … we learned that if government becomes too big in providing these things … we lose our liberties. Have you no sympathy?

I have to admit I don’t have much sympathy. But you’re a more sympathetic, feeling person than I am …

LEAR: Oh …

HEFFNER: … so I have to ask you, don’t you have some real feelings for those who say, “Hey, Norman Lear, that, that First Amendment that concerns you … that freedom of speech that concerns you. These things are put in jeopardy by a government that provides all the goodies you want it to provide and grows larger and larger. Question to you.”

LEAR: You know the government has grown larger and larger in those terms occupied … those administrations occupied by the people who find that outrageous and threatening and so forth.

Don’t ask me to prove it now, that’s what context is all about. That’s why a half hour, if I were sitting with somebody on Fox and they want to know right now … and so forth and it might take me a week to dig it all up or somebody else to help me do it (laugh) because I can’t do it myself.

Ahh, if there were context, what I just said is very prove-able. The government has always grown larger when …though people who are against that … occupied the throne.

If, if a leader would help us understand that we are all … as human beings … help us understand who we are as human beings, help us look ourselves … not just as Americans … but as human beings … in the mirror and see our truth … I am as capable as the next guy to be greedy, to lust for power, and to use it poorly.

We are born that way. And maybe that’s if there is a leader there someplace … that’s what our test is. There are people who could have all the power in the world and get it and use it very well. And there are people who don’t use it well and every … when they’re, when they’re after the unions because there have been union chiefs who lusted for the power, got the power and it turned out to be as greedy as the next guy. But not all union chiefs. And not all people in, in … in corporate America. But certainly there are people in corporate America who lusted for the power and the greed that is … that we are all capable of … I couldn’t wish to strengthen that more. We all have these capacities and life is a series of decisions and whatever helps you make those decisions.

But if we understood those basics I think this …the whole question you raised which I’m not about to … which I, I don’t … I don’t know what started me on this (laughter) …

HEFFNER: Well, I, I, I put something to you that perhaps, as I think about it, in terms of what you say … everything has to have its setting. Give me time to put it in it’s setting and I’ll respond to you.

Maybe I have a better way of getting …going about this and saying, “Norman, we met … not really met …but I watched you and your creations and I think back to Archie Bunker. And I think back to the Jeffersons or Archie Bunker’s expressed thoughts about Blacks. And I wonder how you feel about thinking back to Archie Bunker and thinking about the President of the United States today.

LEAR: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: Real progress? Does it satisfy you? Do you think, “My goodness we’re here. Our problems are over. We’ve licked racism. I’m happy.” What’s your state of happiness about what’s going on in America today. I mean think of the difference … Archie Bunker on Blacks and a Black man in the White House today.

LEAR: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: What’s your take?

LEAR: I wish there was a national conversation. I wish we had a real national conversation that put all of that in context. You know I, I … I ask myself now, as I read more and more about, about Justice Thomas. If he were a White man would there be …would he be under a, a, a bigger microscope? Would the media be dealing much more heavily with the problems that are raised around him if he were a White man?

HEFFNER: The ethical conflict of interest.

LEAR: The … yes, yes with the gifts and so … all of it’s very complicated.

But I tend to believe if he were a White man there’d be far more of a, a hard look by the media and others. And certainly in the Congress. Certainly in the Congress. And you’re asking me about the President.

HEFFNER: Yeah, I’m not going to let you just talk about Thomas.

LEAR: And I, I … the only reason I mentioned Thomas is I think it, I think if there were a true discussion, a big, broad … that, that would be important to the country … about race and about the President … and America’s attitudes toward him and so forth … as a result of his race. Justice Thomas and everything else would be included. Our sports figures and, you know, it’s a very complicated and, and wondrous conversation. We don’t have it. Not on a national level, not where … and maybe don’t have it right now … because there are so many other things like, like existence for so many people … .just getting through the day …

HEFFNER: You mean economic existence.

LEAR: The economic issues, yeah.

HEFFNER: Well, I can have a conversation, unless you put it off limits … and you know, The Open Mind … is … it’s notorious … or well thought of … depending upon where you sit ….

LEAR: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … for this. I’m not going to push you further than you want to go. I’m really looking for Norman Lear … judgment … Norman Lear the man who has judged many political things over these …

LEAR: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … last thirty, forty years … your judgment about the present President of the United States.

LEAR: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Roll up your sleeves.

LEAR: (Laughter) I had hoped … ahhh … (coughing fit) … not necessarily fairly (coughing) because what did we all know about Barack Obama as he came along.

By the way, I happened to introduce him in my home when he was running for the Senate … so I had the opportunity to meet him then before he, he ran for the Presidency.

And so … and I don’t mean by that I know him intimately. I have not at all. But I had a taste of his aura, you know. And then, of course, watching through the years.

I had hoped when he became President that he would, would “father” us better than he has … having nothing to do with his age. If you … inexperience … all of the, you know, stuff that, that Fox hammers at … vis-à-vis how able he was. How much experience he had to take the job.

There was something about him, I thought when I was talking about a moment ago, earlier, that he could help us look in the mirror and see ourselves as we really are as human beings. I don’t say that you know, thinking “Oh my god, how terrible we’re going to look or the Ugly American” … it’s not what I had in mind at all.

It’s the truth of our humanity. I thought he was big enough, and I’m not saying he isn’t … he … big enough … it just could be he has not elected to. But I had hoped for that in him, as young as he is. I had hoped for that in him.

You know, and I think … it’s … (laugh) I’ve thought … their, their pillow talk … Mrs. Obama and the President … it’s got to more in line with what I’m saying … just the … what they’ve been through and what they’ve studied and how accomplished they are and, I don’t know …

So he hasn’t spoken or helped us understand the context of our lives … I’m back to that word. And, and I thought … that’s my greatest disappointment. And I thought that’s what we were going to get, or could.

HEFFNER: You think we can … from him?

LEAR: Yeah. I wouldn’t wish to wake up any morning without hope that anything good can happen. Yeah.

I think … I, I continue to believe that he has that capacity and that’s where he came from, he comes from.

HEFFNER: You … we opened this program with you’re reading John F. Kennedy’s description of a Liberal.

LEAR: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: You’re a Liberal … you and your Liberal friends …

LEAR: I don’t have Liberal friends …

HEFFNER: (Laughter) I don’t say that …

LEAR: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: I know that on the morning after the election, I opened up the door … there was The New York Times, I knew Obama had been elected … I had watched him make his great speech late that night in Chicago.

And yet when I saw the headlines I was thrilled and thought, as old as I am I can go now … maybe it’s time and go happily because of what my country did in electing this man.

I wonder how … I, I know you felt that way.

LEAR: Of course, I’m not going to ….

HEFFNER: I’m really …

LEAR: You know …


LEAR: … two days ago, three days ago I saw a, a film that Jonathan Demme made called “I’m Caroline”. Caroline Parker … “I’m Caroline Parker”. A Black woman, right after Katrina … he went down there with a camera … I think he went down there with a camera, just alone with a camera.

And he brought this camera to ah, ah, New Orleans and he found this woman in the lower … something …side and the camera and he fell in love with this woman.

And she’s a big, heavy, fifty-some year old woman. Not well educated. Suffered terribly in Katrina … she and her house.

But he went back there five or six times … he was going to do something about all of Katrina … but he, he … I think he found in this woman what I found the most common wondrous thing in our … in our humanity … no education … no … just … she … I don’t know how to put it … this fresh in my mind … it’s only in the last couple days … but I think about it when, when you talk about looking at the Times … the morning after the election … and I think we all felt that. The thing that, that music can do when we’re all collective in … a part of it.

And that’s what this film did. And that’s what I felt that morning and that’s what we all felt. And that’s … I guess what, what happens when there is a Katrina and everybody … for a moment … feels the pain of somebody else … you know … love is in the air. (Laugh)

It’s, it’s … you know I don’t … I used to be afraid to go into these places because it sounds treacley and so forth. But, but I have learned that in those huge crowds of people standing in the hut … one day in Austin, Texas with my 15 … then 14 year old daughter … Austin City Limits, watching 25 thousand people … standing still as a weed … you know, in, in this hot sun … listening to just some small tune in, in the middle of a big rock concert … but, but now a quiet song and they’re of all races, ethnicities, age … all is one …

That was the feeling looking at The New York Times when we elected our first Black President. How quickly it dissipates.

HEFFNER: That’s the problem. Why aren’t we holing on to that knowing that sure … we may not agree with his tactics …

LEAR: This conversation … yeah … not the conversation about its essence … is what our President wants to be about for us. I think there’s room in it … I think FDR’s Fireside chats had … if, if there wasn’t a word that was this … it was the fact that it was a Fireside Chat and “Dad” was talking to us.

HEFFNER: See, that’s the trouble … you and I … just about the same age with the same memories of FDR or a kind of leadership that maybe, maybe you can’t have today in what you have criticized as the split moment of our attentions.

We don’t, we don’t sit and watch … we don’t hear … we, we twitter and do those things … limited … what … to 140 words. You said before and I’ve read you, writing this … that in the morning you, you get up and you feel good, you have a faith that it will all work out. You still feel that way? Is it still …

LEAR: Oh, yeah … I do. You know I love waking up in the morning … (laughter)

HEFFNER: (Laughter) Well, so do I …

LEAR: It’s the best thing I do. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

LEAR: And you know, my favorite piece of philosophy … maybe this hits it. Is … a man should have a … it might be Talmudic … I don’t know where it came from … a man should have a garment with two pockets. In the first pocket should be a piece of paper on which is written … I am but dust and ashes. I am … you know … a fragment of the particle of the beach of birth … in the second pocket a piece of paper on which is written … For me the world was created.

And I think between that ying and yang … you know, just understanding, you know, we are one among billions upon billions in a planet of which there are millions in a planetary system of which there are millions or billions or … and we’re just this one individual.

But, who was it all created for it not for ME? Any morning I wake up … you’re still in New York doing this glorious show. Guys behind that camera … all for ME. People on the …

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

LEAR: All for me.

HEFFNER: You’re very much impressed by that, Norman, so you must be impressed by modernity. And despite all the things that have happened thanks to the quest for wealth and brevity … we’re, we’re further along than we were in many, many, many ways.

I don’t feel that way because I’m an old man and as I say on this program so many times, I’m the pessimist, you’re the optimist and it’s always my guest who’s the, the optimist. But you use the word …

LEAR: Are you sure your not a poseur? You know, you’re in that role because that’s what you do on that side of the table?

HEFFNER: Good question. I don’t think so. I think … I don’t … I came out of the Depression somewhat differently than you did. You came out bouncing around … you’re going to do these things. I came out, I guess, thinking I’m going to study them and I’m going to teach them. But maybe that’s the difference. You have a certain set of endocrine glands that make for this and I have a certain set that make for that.

I remember “Maude” … I remember one of your “Maude” programs in which that theme was very clearly there. And I remember my friend Norman … Nathan Kline, the, the psychiatrist, commenting on, on that.

LEAR: He’s … his specialty was manic depression.

HEFFNER: Yeah. Yeah. A wonderful, wonderful man.

LEAR: He brought lithium to …

HEFFNER: Exactly. Exactly.

LEAR: Well … I brought him to California when we did two episodes of “Maude” on manic depression and I needed, you know, the clinical help. And he came out and we spent some time together and he was the consultant on these two episodes.

HEFFNER: Terrific man.

LEAR: Oh, I loved him. I thought he was great.

HEFFNER: When you, when you go and look at our website, look for Nathan Kline, too.

LEAR: I will, I will do that.

HEFFNER: Look, we have two minutes left … I’m, I’m signaling … Norman … I’m being signaled. Norman what do you think is the most important thing that you want to leave as a message … I don’t mean on this program … though here we are. What are you trying to tell people?

LEAR: Oh. Out of a rush of … you know … I should have thought that with this … we’d wind up here with this question … it seemed now that I hear it … of course it would wind up here … you know … such things as at the moment of commitment the entire universe conspires to assure your success. I, I couldn’t believe anything more.

When you … we fool ourselves into thinking we’re committed to something … but we don’t … we’re not always committed, but when we are the phone rings, we find something in the street, somebody says something that we didn’t expect or we hear it a different way. At the moment of commitment the universe conspires to assure your success.

HEFFNER: Perfect way to end the program and to thank you for joining me again.

LEAR: My pleasure.

HEFFNER: And you’ve got to come back 30 years from now … we’ll follow this conversation.

LEAR: How about 30 weeks?

HEFFNER: Okay, it’s a deal. Thanks, Norman Lear. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

And do visit the Open Mind website at

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.