Television’s Man For All Seasons
VTR Date: September 3, 2011
Norman Lear discusses contemporary media.
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GUEST: Norman Lear
Title: Television’s Man For All Seasons
AIR DATE: 08/31/2011
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And by way of introducing my guest today, Norman Lear, television’s — indeed American entertainment’s — man for all seasons, I’d like to share the way I introduced him to you nearly thirty years ago here on The Open Mind.
And then – you and my guest can judge for yourselves just how far you think we Americans have moved forwards, backwards or perhaps not at all in the years since.
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. I doubt that anyone watching this program is unaware of the Moral Majority, of the Reverend Jerry Falwell, and of the other religious, political and social fundamentalists who feel that a deep-seated malaise has gripped this nation, that liberal humanism has led to a breakdown of our family structure, to a diminished national morality, to a rise in crime, even to a growing inability to protect ourselves from our enemies abroad.
Richard Viguerie, the extraordinary fundraiser of the New Right, has twice been my guest here on The Open Mind to express that point of view. And, of course, it’s surfaced on other programs, too.
Today I’d like to discuss it with an opponent. A media person who has created some of the brilliant, wildly popular television programs that have exercised the New Right, provoking what I assume to have been paroxysms of rage, and because of their popularity, perhaps even of profound envy on the Right. “All in the Family”, “Maude”, “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”, these are the media marvels that have thoroughly and even purposefully roughed up traditional American ideas of what can and cannot be said and done in public, particularly on the air.
Their creator, Norman Lear, a remarkably successful producer and broadcasting impresario, is my guest today on the Open Mind. Norman Lear has recently joined with Father Theodore Hesburgh, the president of Notre Dame, with former congresswoman Barbara Jordan, and with a distinguished array of other educators, theologians, popular figures in government and business, in founding and then directing what they call “People for the American Way”. This nonprofit foundation opposes the Moral Majority, thinks that more important than the New Right’s concerns about the decline of traditional American morality is the maintenance intact of America’s traditional First Amendment right to believe, think, worship and speak freely.
HEFFNER: Norman, what do you think? Have things changed? For better? For worse?
LEAR: Well, you’re every bit as good looking as you were back then … but …
HEFFNER: Come on …
LEAR: … but you are a fraction older.
HEFFNER: Just a fraction. I’m glad you’ve remained as young.
LEAR: And I (laugh) am many fractions older. But I loved seeing that, I’m happy to be here. And I want to mention one thing. I hadn’t thought about Theodore Hesburgh in a little while in this context.
But I didn’t set out … this was the beginning of The People for the American Way here.
LEAR: And I didn’t start out to, to start an organization. I could never wake up any morning and think “I’m going to start a national organization” (laugh)
I did what I do … a TV spot … and I had a fellow … I just had the idea and I did it. And I had a fellow on a piece of heavy factory equipment … camera moving in on him slowly as he said that … he sits around the table … the dinner table with his wife and kids and they argue about everything politically.
The kids have this … these ideas, those ideas. His wife has her ideas. And he is, you know, alone in the family with his ideas. But they’re getting a lot of mail, he says, from ministers and, and watching them on television and hearing them on radio, telling you are a good Christian or a bad Christian depending on your political point of view. And his wife has a different opinion. And he knows she’s a better Christian than he is.
So he says … he winds up saying there’s got to be something wrong when anybody tells you you are a good Christian or a bad Christian depending on your political point of view. That’s not the American way, he says.
HEFFNER: Is that what ticked off Father Hesburgh?
LEAR: So, so … it didn’t tick him off at all. What … he didn’t … he was with me.
What happened was that I, I, I finished it … I looked at it … I said, “My God, I’m coming after the Religious Right. I have three things against me. I’m Jewish, I’m from Hollywood (oh, my God from Hollywood) and, and, and I’m not broke. You know, I’m wealthy, I’m okay. Those are three strikes in this game.
And so I knew Father Hesburgh and I took my piece of film and flew to Notre Dame. And I showed it to … I had to go out and rent a set to bring it in to show it to him.
And will never forget what he said because he used one phrase that I had never heard before or since. And I just … too memorable.
He said I understand what you’re doing. He said, you’ll find mainline church leaders and I want to tell you about some that you may want to visit … will agree, will agree with you.
We agree with you on what they’re doing socially and so forth. But the thing you may not know is that we, we … exactly how he worded this … we don’t like the way they are torturing scripture. You don’t forget a phrase like “torturing scripture”.
And I … in one of the offices that he sent me to you … one of the mainline church leaders that he suggested I show this to … somebody else in the room said, “You know, that’s great and you ought to do a few more of those, but you ought to institutionalize around it”. And I love what that man said at the end. That’s not the American way.
And that’s why it was called People For The American Way. Which, by the way, Richard, is … this is its 30th anniversary this year.
HEFFNER: How’s it doing?
LEAR: Thirty years ago we did this show, 30 years ago … it is … in the last few years since Michael Keegan became its leader, it has … well, since it began … Michael Keegan became its leader and since things turned the way they turned in our world (laugh) and the difficulty with all of that, it’s as significant today if not more so. And I personally believe more so.
It … it’s, I don’t wake up many mornings when I don’t read my newspaper and thank God that People for the American Way is there.
HEFFNER: Well, now listen, I’m not going … not going to let you get away with just that phrase about the way things are …
HEFFNER: What, what are you specifically concerned about?
LEAR: Well, in that arena … I’m concerned about a number of things, but in that arena I’m prompted to say I was at your 58th luncheon yesterday …
HEFFNER: Make it 55 …
LEAR: Good. 55 years? That long?
HEFFNER: 55 years for The Open Mind.
LEAR: For The Open Mind on the air?
HEFFNER: Right. Yeah.
LEAR: And I was in a room full of major intellectuals and the, the people I would be thrilled to be with … I spent my life wishing to be in that … at that luncheon.
I admire so many of the minds in that room. And I don’t think of myself that way. I didn’t come through this life to this place scholarly…ly…ly … but I have an appetite and concern and so forth for … understanding what’s going on in my own way.
So I, I just … what I’m saying is I think the people who sat across this table and able to talk a great deal more in, in an informed political, sociological … scholarly way.
HEFFNER: Norman, you know, I have to … I have to take exception to that … I’ve been reading … because Daphne Doelger prepared for me so many of the speeches or excerpts on the speeches that you have given and what you have written over the years … ranging from that wonderful exchange of letters between you and Ronald Reagan …
LEAR: Ronald Reagan …
HEFFNER: Which is, which is so touching in a very real sense …
HEFFNER: To the most erudite comment on where we are today. And wondered whether it was this … you talk repeatedly … you write repeatedly about short-sightedness …
HEFFNER: … in our country and wonder if that’s what … you most …
LEAR: Well, I think the … I … if, if you were to ask me what I think the systemic disease of our time and perhaps increasingly … you know, the last century … well, Andy Warhol said, didn’t he … defined the last century in one sentence. You know “everybody will have their 15 minutes”. Short, short term.
And my God, talking to you … my mind races … I, I don’t want to leave with you just said without saying life is a collaboration. And in regard to these speeches and everything else, as a young man … younger … younger than I David Bollier … who’s been a major part of my life, has worked with me on speeches and so forth … so I just want to mention that in that context … throughout my life … a series of great collaborations.
So … what’s your question … (laughter)
HEFFNER: Well, the question really had to do with what bugs you the most.
LEAR: Oh, on the Religious Right I think we look at … we look at the confluence of, of the neo-Conservative point of view … extreme neo-Conservative point of view … big money through corporate American … people have gotten wealthy through corporate America and, and the Religious Right.
They need each other from issue to issue and they join each other from issue to issue.
And there is no context in, in media … in, in our America, we don’t get things in context. So what we get is spec … or I get anyway … is that big picture …those three factions coming together is … doesn’t bring about the America … I thought we were much closer to when I was a boy and a young man.
HEFFNER: You bring the media into this. You’re not letting the media off the hook, are you?
LEAR: How do you let the media off the hook? (laugh) Oh, my.
HEFFNER: Because they’re so important? Because they play so big a role?
LEAR: Because, because Americans in their emotionally crowded lives … when I say “Americans”, I’m talking about that middle class that we … you know, it’s tossed around … the expression, “middle class” by all the politicians and everybody else.
Nobody talking to us about who they are. And how many they are and what is really happening to them. Oh, it’s all in little squibs and you know, phrases.
But, but those people, trying to get their kids thorough college, trying to keep three good meals on the table, hopefully an RV in the driveway with, you know, a life. In their emotionally crowded life, it is really difficult.
HEFFNER: Are you, you talking here about the Archie Bunkers …
HEFFNER: … of America?
LEAR: I’m talking about the Herman Lears about … and his brothers … when I was a kid in the Depression. And what I saw as a kid in the Depression absent the, the … those lines that we saw in the black and white films … the, what, what do they call those … waiting for coffee, waiting for … you know … lines of … but absent … we’re not, we’re not seeing that …
HEFFNER: The bread lines.
LEAR: The bread lines … I couldn’t remember … bread, it’s a very difficult word to remember …
LEAR: (Laugh) So, absent that, people are really, you know … in great … in such great numbers … struggling. And they need information. And what they get are sound bites.
And what they get is whatever somebody on Fox can say to trump somebody on another … MSNBC is saying … blasts … short (clears throat) … pardon me … short blasts, no context.
HEFFNER: So what’s the remedy?
LEAR: Ah, we have to take over, Richard.
LEAR: Yes, just you and I. We have to …
HEFFNER: Who …
LEAR: What the …
HEFFNER: Who would we call upon to be our troops? Who will march for us?
LEAR: The remedy is probably the Constitution … I’m in awe every time … how … I heard something on the tube last night … talking about the sudden importance of the 14th Amendment.
And, and there again … you know, everything goes back to the Constitution … it has something to say about everything that’s going on and at times so much more complex …
HEFFNER: Yeah, but Norman that brings me directly … if we’re talking politics … to the matter of that First Amendment. I mean you’re noted for the fact that you bought at great, great, great expense a copy of the Constitution of the United States and you were showing it …
LEAR: Declaration of Independence.
HEFFNER: The Declaration of Independence and you’re showing it to many, many people because you think that combination of the Declaration and of the Constitution of the United States, you’re thinking particularly of the first Ten Amendment. You’re thinking particularly of the First Amendment which you make much of and have in the 30 years since we last talked … that same First Amendment, is protecting, it seems to me … the very people … in the media, in corporate life … whom you have so many questions …
LEAR: That’s it.
HEFFNER: … about it.
LEAR: That’s …
HEFFNER: What do we do about that?
LEAR: It’s protecting those people because five out of nine minds on the Supreme Court of the United States decided that corporations are individuals.
And, and I’ll leave it to the … you know, if only in total context this could be presented to the American people … and ask the American people … “Here’s the situation, folks” … you know … there are five people on the Supreme Court of the United States.
We’re not going to talk about how political, or what … or if they are political or anything. But there are five (laugh) and actually if you had some context and knew all of them as well as the media owes you the opportunity to, to know all of them … you’d know … I wouldn’t have to say a word about politics or anything else.
But five minds have decided that the corporate … that that corporation with its tens of millions, hundreds of millions of dollars …
LEAR: … and …
HEFFNER: Come on, millions don’t mean anything any more.
LEAR: But they’re not going to spend billions on … but they would if they had to. If that is the same as the …
LEAR: Yeah, the postman who’s bringing you your mail every day, when he goes to the Post Office … tell me … and each of the individuals who are part of the organization, the corporation that can also be an individual … has their own individual vote, you know. So if there are a thousand people working there, there are a thousand and one votes.
HEFFNER: Okay, there it is.
LEAR: No, that’s a good way … that’s, that’s a really … I hadn’t thought about that. But that’s a really good way to look at this.
HEFFNER: But that’s …
LEAR: Why should that thousand people have an extra vote?
HEFFNER: But that’s not going to happen is it? The media will not do what you want them to do. What you expect.
LEAR: No, and there aren’t, there aren’t enough loud voices being raised about it. People understand that.
HEFFNER: Well, you know … I, I … you say not enough loud voices and I think you’re correct. But People For The American Way certainly is a loud voice, is a voice, is an important voice and thinking about it in …
LEAR: Just let me say … there’s a publication called The Right Wing Watch that People For The American Way puts on … puts out. I encourage your viewers … write me … I’ll send it to you. Write them, but, but take a look at that Right Wing Watch as it comes out constantly … it’s, it’s brilliant and …
HEFFNER: The produce of that Declaration of Independence, the product of that Constitution of the United States, the product of that Bill of Rights. Now you attribute this to five people on the Supreme Court at this moment.
But there they are, the Supreme Court established under the Constitution of the United States and you don’t like it. You don’t like what they’re doing.
LEAR: I don’t think it is fair and/or reasonable and I do not like it. And I don’t think it’s good for my children and … I have young children and I have grandchildren … and, and I don’t think it’s good for my grandchildren. And that matters a great deal to me.
HEFFNER: I knew that that … I’d draw that from you because it’s in everything you write … that that’s where it all begins. All in the family.
HEFFNER: And it brings me back to All in the Family as, as recently as … what … two weeks ago … in The New York Times there was a piece talking about Julie Taymor and Spiderman and her difficulties.
And I was fascinated because I don’t know whether you know this quote from the Times, she said she had recently spoken with Norman Lear, the legendary television producer about his experience creating the character Archie Bunker on “All in the Family” in the 1970’s. Audience reaction was initially hostile to the openly racist, sexist Archie, she noted, but in time he became a fan favorite and a cultural forerunner, obviously, she’s talking about her own view of, of Spiderman.
What about you and Archie Bunker, what was it like to be in a bunker situation …
HEFFNER: … in those years when many people and I have to admit, I included, were saying you’re fostering the very thing supposedly you are opposed to.
LEAR: Well, I mean there was a little of that. And, uh … Sol Linowitz who became a great friend and a member of the Board of, of the Business Enterprise Awards … our relationship started with a letter he wrote to me.
Just a … a lovely letter saying he thought I was making a big mistake, I was making a hero out of the bigot. And, and what her name who wrote “Gentleman’s Agreement” … Laura …
HEFFNER: Laura Hobson.
LEAR: Wrote a bit piece in the Sunday New York Times about it. I don’t know about Ms. Hobson, but, but Ambassador Linowitz changed his mind about six, eight weeks later. And I got another letter from him … he understood what he felt we were up.
And what I was up to … was not to make this … Archie Bunker a villain, but to make him a product of the times. Again, the media … Mary Hartman is the best example of all. I mean in terms of our intention, anyway.
Archie was like a lot people, it’s a human condition. Afraid of progress, or timorous, you know, anxious about things changing because they’re comfortable with what is. And so he was that, and he was a product of the media. I mean he got what he got. So he knew a little about this and a little about that … and he could repeat the things he’d heard. So Black people moving into his White neighborhood was … “Oh, that’s not what I know … I don’t want that.”
But … and this came out in the course of the show … ask him to sign a petition or be among the group of people who put a cross on a lawn … then he wouldn’t do it, then he wouldn’t do it.
So, but Mary Hartman … Mary Hartman was intended to be a product of the media. So on the opening show of Mary Hartman … a family of five, two goats, and 8 chickens were slaughtered, right around the corner and she was concerned about the waxy yellow build up on her … because the ads in the, you know, that’s where her mind was that morning.
At the end of the show on the very last of two episodes, she is sitting on the David Susskind show …
HEFFNER: Oh, you did it all …
LEAR: Open End … and, and he has three media types … three … they’re still about …those people, those faces, those attitudes … and they’re questioning her because she has been … this …some organization picked, probably a breakfast cereal, picked her out to be the housewife …the Mother of the Year.
So she’s being asked questions by these three people who were on Susskind. And she goes crazy. As, as good a piece of acting as I have ever seen on television. And they drive her … literally … out of her mind. And that’s the way the show ended.
HEFFNER: Were you putting the needle into David?
LEAR: Into David? No, no, no. He was a guest on the show and it was the show …
HEFFNER: No, no David Susskind, it was his show …
LEAR: No, no … I was …
HEFFNER: You were using …
LEAR: We were doing Open End on our show …
LEAR: So it wasn’t his show, it was our show.
LEAR: David Susskind is my first cousin.
HEFFNER: I didn’t know that. Because I used to go around … when people used to say “Oh, is your program Open End, and I used to say, No, I rather have an open mind than an open end.”
LEAR: Oh, I like that.
HEFFNER: But … you, you … we’ll talk about David at, at another time. How purposeful were you, politically speaking in what you did with your comedies.
Now I know you, you drove the Religious Right beserk, but how purposeful where you politically speaking … were you trying to accomplish social, political objectives?
LEAR: You know, I do not know how to say it strong enough. Absolutely not. I see life the way I see it. And things … you know if you were to ask me about health and welfare or you were to ask me about raising children, you would ask me about political life, I see it the way I see it.
So, I love … I wish I had it in front of me so I could read it. I wish I had John Kennedy’s definition of a liberal. But … it’s in two to three lines and it’s exquisite and I’m that. I just am that. So everything I think about … to … you know, are … I’m, I’m that.
HEFFNER: Well, look I promised you that I get you out of the studio one hour from now … so if you will just sit still because we’ve come to the end of this half hour … we’ll do another program and I, I’d like to ask you more about that purposefulness. You willing?
LEAR: I am thoroughly willing.
HEFFNER: Good. Thank you very, very much for joining me for this first program today on the Open Mind.
LEAR: You are welcome.
HEFFNER: 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 www.theopenmind.tv
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.