Norman Lear: The Last Unreconstructed Liberal

Norman Lear talks with Lloyd Grove about being 90, why he loves 'The Book of Mormon' and how the right hijacked patriotism.

Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images

It might surprise—or even vex—Pat Robertson, Bryan Fischer, Jimmy Swaggart and other firebrands of the Christian Right that Norman Lear considers himself a religious man.

“I believe I am deeply religious,” Lear tells me in the middle of a chat about People for the American Way, the prominent advocacy group he founded 30 years ago to promote free speech, civil rights, gender and same-sex equality, the right to seek justice in the court system, and to combat the insidious—in many cases overt—influence of religious dogma on American politics and government.

“I’m culturally as Jewish as I can be, respectful of all of it, but I don’t like the dogma in any religion,” says Lear (who notes that he isn’t strictly observing Yom Kippur this week). “I am the ultimate fan of The Book of Mormon, which savages—savages!—everything wrong with every religion that allows us to believe fucking nonsense and kill each other.”

Another reason he loves the hit Broadway musical is “it celebrates the human need for some transcendence, the need for answers to everything I don’t know and something better,” Lear adds. “That’s religion for me and I hope for everybody—not the ones who believe in hell and damnation and all that shit.”

Lear allows himself a chuckle—something he frequently does when discussing the things that both alarm and amuse him.

Holding forth in his Manhattan pied-a-terre—a fabulous, sun-dappled apartment with floor-to-ceiling windows affording views of Central Park on one side and the Hudson River on the other—Lear neither acts nor looks like someone preparing to turn 90 next July.

Sporting jeans and a cap to cover a fringe of white hair, he exudes the life force—reminding me just a little of Truman Capote’s famous description of the aging CBS mogul William S. Paley (“He looks like a man who has just swallowed an entire human being”). But in a good way!

“I feel, being almost 90, exactly the way I did when I was 70 and 50,” says Lear, who has finally gotten around to working on his memoirs. “Except I’m smarter—there’s no question in my mind—from the learning process. I don’t mean ‘smarter’ the way we usually mean ‘smarter.’ I only mean I know myself better, and therefore a little bit more about us, the human species.”

Lear, of course, did business with the legendary Paley as the producer of the hit CBS sitcom All In The Family, probably the groundbreaking television program of the 1970s, to say nothing of being the man behind any number of successful network shows (Sanford and Son, Maude, Good Times, The Jeffersons, Who’s The Boss?) which made Lear a rich man as well as a pop-culture icon.

These days he’s more a consumer than a creator, and a casual one at that. He hesitates when I ask him to name his favorite entertainments.

“I don’t watch enough television,” Lear demurs, before conceding: “I watch Jon Stewart. I’ll take his politics. He speaks for me. Certainly South Park. I’m a fan of The Family Guy. I’m a fan of The Book of Mormon—it’s a gift to sanity.”

What about The Simpsons, which in its 23rd season has been embroiled in fractious contract negotiations between 20th Century Fox Television and the actors who voice the characters in the animated sitcom?

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“I love The Simpsons,” Lear answers. “But it’s been around too long so we tend to ignore it. I’m a product of the media so I forget it.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with being around too long, he concedes with a grin.

So should Fox yield to the actors’ demands and grant them a small piece of the plentiful back-end syndication and merchandizing profits?

“I have a reflexive liberal point of view,” Lear answers. “If they’re part of the family all these years, they should be part of the family and have a taste of the back end. I don’t have any objections on behalf of Fox.”

So if Norman Lear were a Fox studio exec, he’d share the big bucks? With a slight frown, he scolds me mildly, “This is sooo far from why we’re here!”

Right. We’re supposed to be talking about People for the American Way—which Lear celebrated Thursday night with an intimate cocktail party for the loyal 30-year donors, at which friends like Alec Baldwin (a People For board member) and Bill Clinton showed up to pay their respects.

Today the organization has many thousands of supporters, a large professional staff in Washington, D.C., and a heavy footprint on the American body politic. It proved itself a force to be reckoned with when it played a key role in the defeat of Ronald Reagan’s Supreme Court nominee, Robert Bork, in 1987, airing a memorable TV ad against Bork’s confirmation, narrated by Gregory Peck.

“That was one of our great early winning fights. That was a beginning,” Lear says. “Nor has anybody who knows anything about Judge Bork regretted that fight…I think People for the American Way has had tremendous impact since then.”

Still, he notes ruefully, Bork was recently named as a key legal adviser to none other than Mitt Romney, the man considered by many the most likely Republican presidential nominee. “I can’t overstate how big that is,” Lear says.

He says he’s supporting President Obama’s reelection, but not without reservations. “My sense of the administration—and I can’t single him out—is that he has all those so-called smart people around him, and it’s a whole team. And the team has not been effective in the people’s interest.”

Lear’s group was started almost by accident in 1981 after he heard the Baton Rouge, La.,-based Swaggart—who before his downfall in a sex scandal was the nation’s most powerful televangelist—urge his followers to pray for the “removal” of a faithless Supreme Court justice. Lear was outraged. At first Lear thought of making a feature film satirizing Swaggart and his ilk—sort of an updated Elmer Gantry. In due course he shot a controversial TV commercial in which an actor playing a construction worker inveighed against religious zealots who meddled in politics. The tag line—“That’s not the American way”—inspired the organization’s name.

“The radio and the airwaves had started to proliferate with TV evangelical ministers,” Lear recalls. “I always had a fascination with religion as it influenced politics and the culture too much. It always worried me.” When he was a boy growing up in New Haven, Conn., “my father gave me a crystal set, and I found Father Coughlin”—the viciously anti-Semitic radio priest—“broadcasting from Detroit in the middle of the night.”

Today Lear is proud to call himself an unreconstructed liberal. “A liberal, in my view, is a bleeding-heart conservative. Liberals unfortunately are cursed with reason. But I’m not cursed with reason when I read the Bill of Rights. The fucking Bill of Rights is as clear as it can be. The First Amendment and the Second Amendment are as clear as they can be. You’ve got to be a ‘conservative’ to look at the Second Amendment and stretch it and bend it to make it say we want guns for our protection against our government."

Indeed, Lear so reveres the nation’s founding documents that in 2000, he and his wife Lyn paid $8.1 million for a vintage copy of the Declaration of Independence in order to send it on tour around the country.

“Where we have utterly failed—along with the Democratic Party and every organization I know of, including mainline church leaders—is in preventing the ultra-right from taking the flag and the Bible away from us and claiming it as theirs,” Lear says. “They own the language of patriotism. They own the life of the spirit. And we don’t dare go there. We’re afraid of being religious.”

The irony is that Lear is a decorated World War II veteran who, as a radio operator and gunner in the Army Air Force, risked his life on 52 combat missions over the Mediterranean in B-17 Flying Fortresses.

“Of course I was scared,” Lear says. “But I never believed I would die. Do you think you could have gotten me into a plane, to get shot at from the air and the ground, if I believed it was gonna be me? But I think that’s the nature of the human species. No matter what is going on, we don’t believe it’s going to be us.”

Even so, isn’t it possible he was merely lucky, and his faith was misplaced?

“I don’t believe it was misplaced,” Lear answers with a laugh. “I’m here.”