Editor’s note: The below article first appeared in David Corn’s newsletter, Our Land. The newsletter comes out twice a week (most of the time) and provides behind-the-scenes stories and articles about politics, media, and culture. Subscribing costs just $5 a month—but you can sign up for a free 30-day trial of Our Land here.
A year ago, I received a phone call out of the blue from the legendary producer Norman Lear. He said he was ringing me to say that he was impressed with my work, mentioning my recently published book American Psychosis and my appearances on MSNBC. I wondered if there was something more to the call. Did he need me for anything? No. He just wanted to pass along a compliment and chat. Norman was 100 years old at the time, but he was, as usual, astute, funny, and well-informed during our wide-ranging discussion of the news of the moment, the dire state of American politics, and the continuing threat to democracy posed by MAGAism. “I love liberty,” he told me. “It’s the heart and soul of all I’ve tried to do.”
When our conversation was done, I was in the clouds. The man who changed American culture with All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Maude, and his many other successful television endeavors and who had long been a champion of liberalism with his creation of People for the American Way (formed to challenge the religious right) and his decades of extensive philanthropy appreciated my work. But it was especially an honor coming from a fellow who was extraordinary also because of his personal qualities. As many have noted through the years, Norman was one of the most engaging, intelligent, witty, warm, and delightful men you could meet. It is difficult to convey the experience of being in his company. He exuded decency, smarts, and affability, and he possessed a remarkable ability to connect. He had an aura, and it was a rush to be within it.
Norman died at the age of 101 last week. His obituaries depict him, quite rightfully, as a towering figure of modern America. His accomplishments in transforming America are staggering. What also deserves mentioning is that he was a helluva guy. He embodied the best of liberalism and the American spirit.
His call to me was not my first encounter with Norman. We met in the late 1980s or early 1990s. I was having lunch outdoors at a Los Angeles restaurant with Stanley Sheinbaum, a philanthropist and civic activist widely considered to be one of the top L.A. liberals. Norman and his wife Lyn sat down at the other end of the patio. Even at that distance, Norman, then pushing 70, had this hard-to-believe healthy glow to him. “I hope,” I thought to myself, “I look that good when I’m 50.”
“Look at Norman,” Stanley said to me. “He’s two years younger than me but looks 20 years younger. When he first came to town, I introduced him around. Soon everybody liked him better than me.” When we finished lunch, Stanley introduced me to Norman and Lyn. Norman was the bigshot, but he asked me, this young pisher, a host of questions about my work. He made me feel 10 feet tall. “Keep in touch,” he said, as we left. It was a much-valued invitation. At that point, he was not just a showbiz titan; he was a political force.
Norman was an early participant in the nation’s culture wars—but as a positive and witty warrior. His early TV hits in the 1970s injected social issues into primetime network sitcoms for the first time, poking fun at bigotry, hatred, and small-mindedness. A key value all his storylines advanced was tolerance. Naturally, he was aghast to see at that time the rise of the religious right—most notably, the Moral Majority led by Jerry Falwell—and its powerful merger of fundamentalist intolerance and politics.
As he recounts in his wonderful memoir, Even This I Get to Experience, one day he was watching the highly popular televangelist Jimmy Swaggart (not yet disgraced in a prostitution scandal) and saw him ask his viewers to pray for the “removal” of a Supreme Court justice. Requesting good Christians to beseech God for the death of a justice pushed Norman over the edge. Soon thereafter he created a public service announcement with an actor portraying a hard-hat worker standing next to a forklift who says straight into the camera:
We’re a religious family, but that don’t mean we see things the same way politically. Now, here come certain preachers on radio and TV and in the mail, telling us on a bunch of political issues that there’s just one Christian position, and implying if we don’t agree we’re not good Christians. So, my son is a bad Christian on two issues. My wife is a good Christian on those issues, but she’s a bad Christian on two others… [M]aybe there’s something wrong when people, even preachers, suggest that other people are good Christians or bad Christians depending on their political views. That’s not the American way.
Whoa, his friends told Norman. You’re Jewish, rich, and a Hollywood top dog, and you want to go to war on your own against the Christian right? Norman recognized his pals were right. He recruited prominent religious leaders to endorse this spot: Father Theodore Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame; Rev. Jimmy Allen, president of the Southern Baptist Convention (yes, you read that right—the last moderate to hold that post); William Sloane Coffin, a prominent liberal Episcopalian clergyman; Charles Bergstrom, the spokesperson for the Lutheran Church; and others.
With the support of these folks (including Stanley Sheinbaum), he organized People for the American Way, a nonprofit to advance liberal causes and values, and barnstormed across the nation raising money for the new outfit. PFAW eventually bought time to play the PSA on a Washington, DC, television station. That landed Norman and former Iowa Sen. Harold Hughes, a Democrat, evangelical Christian, and PFAW supporter, on the Today show. Norman’s group was now officially on the map. More PSAs followed (including several directed by Jonathan Demme, who would go on to fame as the director of The Silence of the Lambs). Norman produced a blistering half-hour documentary on the Moral Majority that indicted the extremist organization by showing the speeches and sermons delivered by its officials. Burt Lancaster narrated the film. (Today, PFAW is a vital piece of the progressive infrastructure; among its many activities, it funds the essential Right Wing Watch.)
Continuing in this vein, Norman pitched to the three broadcast networks a variety show to be called I Love Liberty. His plan was for it to be a star-studded, completely nonpartisan, two-hour salute to America to mark the 250th anniversary of George Washington’s birthday in 1982. The executives had a tough time believing an avowedly liberal group like PFAW would be able to eschew partisanship, but ABC told Norman that if he could get two ex-presidents—a Democrat and a Republican—to co-sponsor the shindig, they’d go for it. Jimmy Carter was the only living former Democratic president and still unpopular after his recent loss to Ronald Reagan, and Richard Nixon, well….you know. So Norman countered: How about an ex-president and a former first lady? He had Gerald Ford and Lady Bird Johnson in mind. With the help of Betty Ford, a fan of Maude, Norman roped in her husband. Johnson subsequently agreed as well.
The showed began with Sen. Barry Goldwater, the legendary Arizona conservative and former GOP presidential candidate, standing alone in a spotlight. He said that he had wanted an enormous opening with a great deal of patriotic hoopla but that the producer had desired something much more modest. Then came the number: a jamboree with 1,700 performers, including marching bands, a dozen Uncle Sams on stilts, dancers, jugglers, 16,000 red-white-and-blue balloons, the reenactment of the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima, and much more.
When it was done, the camera cut to Goldwater: “That was the compromise.”
The rest of the show featured the Muppets as members of the Continental Congress, Martin Sheen reading a letter from George Washington, a host of patriotic tunes, Jane Fonda, Jimmy Buffett, LeVar Burton, and other famous entertainers, as well as Barbra Streisand singing “America the Beautiful.” In one segment, a Black man, a Latino, a Native American, a woman, and a gay man each vented his or her frustration that the United States had yet to deliver fully on its promise of equality. They concluded their remarks with this line: “Right now America isn’t working that well for me, but I love my country.”
One of the best bits was Robin Williams performing as the US flag:
The Christian Science Monitor praised the show: “Through the skillful use of songs, dance, dramatic skits, and recitations, ‘I Love Liberty’ tries to wrest away from and then share the mantle of patriotism with those who insist upon using the flag as their exclusive cloak. It invests the love of freedom, liberty, and the flag symbol itself with a kind of natural and refreshing sophistication in which all Americans can join unashamedly. However, besides championing good old-fashioned patriotism, ‘I Love Liberty’ succeeds in being good, old-fashioned family fun.”
Several times when I chatted with Norman about his television career, he reminisced more about I Love Liberty than his many other achievements in the business. At the time, he knew that he was in a knife fight with the reactionary forces of the right, but he brought to this clash not another knife, but humor, goodwill, creativity, and entertainment. He refused to concede patriotism to the bigots of the religious right and their political allies.
Not long after that phone call from Norman last year, I was in Los Angeles and went to see him at his home. He was in a wheelchair, wearing his customary bucket hat, and a motorized lift carried him up the stairs to his memorabilia-filled office. We spent about two hours together. His mind was sharp. But he did say that he was getting forgetful about certain matters. He asked me to remind him of some of our previous encounters, and I recounted for him an evening during President Barack Obama’s first inauguration when we had dinner in Washington, DC, with Mike Mills and Michael Stipe of REM. I have no idea how we managed to gather in this group. But the five of us ended up at a fancy restaurant having a wonderful time. As we dined and drank, Lynda Carter, who had starred as Wonder Woman in the television series, walked past. She spotted Norman and tried to vault over a group of large planters to say hello, stumbled, fell to the ground, and then stood up and with great dignity presented herself to him. He was, of course, gracious and chatted with her for a while. Wonder Woman doing whatever was necessary to be with Norman—that made sense. “Ah, yes,” he said to me, perhaps remembering. But maybe not.
We discussed the never-ending tribalization of American politics, the grip that hate-fueled Trumpism had on the GOP and millions of Americans, and the unsettling prospects of a Donald Trump restoration. Though the recent midterm elections had provided reason for hope, he knew that the dangers of MAGA demagoguery had not passed. “It’s never over,” he said with a sigh, referring to the battle to preserve tolerance and progressive gains. This was a fight he had led for over four decades.
As he did so often, during our visit, Norman expressed astonishment at his immense good fortune. He reminisced about his television years and chuckled when I told him I was a big fan of some of his lesser-known shows, particularly Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, a soap opera spoof, and Fernwood 2 Night, which became America 2 Night, perhaps the first send-up of late-night talk shows. He was developing a television show, he said, that he wanted me to work on. It was about a host on a liberal cable news network whose adult daughter was a Trump conservative. Once again, in All in the Family style, he would be exploring modern-day politics through family dynamics, but in an inversion of the relationship between conservative Archie Bunker and his liberal daughter Gloria and son-in-law Michael. He told me one of his own children was a Trump supporter, and the two of them had to rely on love to navigate through their political differences.
Norman, I said, you’re 100. You have future projects? He described the five shows in development he was overseeing, including an animated version of Good Times. And I could see he was not kidding. Throughout our conversation, the telephone kept ringing. He would pick it up and say something brief like, I read the script; the notes are on the way. Or, I can review the edit tomorrow. Or, Arrange a meeting so we can flesh that out further. He was creating and juggling—and still looking for how he could be a meaningful part of a debate that could make the United States a better nation. And, damnit, he still looked good. The glow was there.
If anyone could cheat the Grim Reaper—hold him at bay, perhaps with a mischievous smile, a wink—it would be Norman. His optimism was contagious. Maybe, I thought, we would soon be working on a sitcom that would convince people that they can find shared values and connect across harshly drawn lines in these divisive times. Alas, it was not to be.
I don’t know how he did it, but I felt as if I became a better person just by sitting next to Norman. When I tweeted that sentiment upon the news of his death, actor John Cusack, who had worked with Norman, replied, “Feel exactly the same. Whenever you left his company you left a better and more thoughtful kind person.” Norman was responsible for so many marvelous and important parts of American life. (His film company backed This Is Spinal Tap when others wouldn’t touch it.) He deserves all the encomiums he’s now receiving. But for those lucky enough to have known him, he uniquely graced their lives. That’s a success that can’t be honored with an Emmy.
For more on Norman Lear, watch the 2016 documentary Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You:
David Corn’s American Psychosis: A Historical Investigation of How the Republican Party Went Crazy, a New York Times bestseller, has been released in a new and expanded paperback edition.