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On Norman Lear's 100th Birthday

Today, July 27, 2022, Norman Lear turned 100 years old and he is still going strong! Norman’s many successes are common knowledge to most who follow such things, but what is not so well known is the back story behind the creation of the nonprofit, People for the American Way, an organization he launched in 1981.

In 1979, I was a 26-year-old idealistic kid eager to start my career in show business and thrilled at the opportunity to become Norman Lear’s executive assistant. He had stepped away from the day to day demands of supervising his TV shows and wanted to try something new. I was hired to help him with all his new endeavors and my first assignment was to do research for a film he wanted to develop called Religion.

It upset Norman to watch the behaviors of people like televangelist Reverend James Bakker and his wife, Tammy Faye, use their TV pulpit to sell products to well-meaning Christians and make millions of dollars in the process. As Norman continued to watch and listen to other fundamentalist preachers on television he became increasingly concerned about their divisive message. Norman found it terrifying if the belief that America was solely a Christian nation were to be embraced and spread on a wider scale. At that time, it had only been thirty years since he had risked his life fighting Nazis during World War II so that America would continue to be the land of the free. He felt that people who shared the views of the religious right were entitled to their opinions, but those opinions needed to be countered.

Norman knew better than anyone about the power and reach of television and began to think that producing a film wasn’t enough—it might take two years to get one to the screen, and he would likely miss the moment to counter the religious right’s unsettling message.

One morning, Norman arrived at the office with a few pages of a script he had written the night before. The script read: “Hi. I have a problem. I’m religious. 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. Lucky me, I’m a hundred percent Christian because I agree with the preacher on all of them. Now, my problem is I know my boy is as good Christian as me. My wife, she’s better. So maybe 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.”

The leadership at the company was wary that he wanted to take on the Christian conservative movement alone, so we set out on an extraordinary journey to meet with others who agreed with Norman’s concerns. Our travels included meetings with like-minded people in restaurants, living rooms, and offices across the country. We met with Father Ted Hesburgh, who had been president of Notre Dame University for thirty-five years; Dr. Martin Marty, one of the most well-regarded religious historians in the country; Senator Harold Hughes, a devout Christian and former governor of the state; Andrew Heiskell, who was then chairman and CEO of Time, Inc., and dozens more like them who agreed to join our effort. Everyone was concerned about the religious right and committed to raising awareness about it in their respective communities.

Norman was so prescient in his warning about the changes taking place in America and that continue to this day. He genuinely cared about the people we met across the country, especially the religious scholars. I, too, was impressed with their intellect and deeply held beliefs. Everyone mattered as far as Norman was concerned, which was why he was so fierce in his fight for diversity and pluralism—the very foundation of The American Way. Even the name People For the American Way came about, because Norman wanted to take back the phrases and American symbols that the conservative movement had long claimed as theirs.

The words found in the organization’s initial statement of purpose are the same words Norman used in all our meetings: “In times of hardship, in times of crises, societies throughout history have experienced wrenching dislocations in their fundamental values and beliefs. The decades of the Eighties and Nineties will be troubled times—some predict the most turbulent since the 1930s—and we are alarmed that some current voices of stridency and division may replace those of reason and unity. If these voices continue unchallenged, the results will be predictable: an increase in tension among races, classes and religions, a rise in “demonology” and hostility, a breakdown in community and social spirit, a deterioration of free and open dialogue and the temptation to grasp at simplistic solutions for complex problems.”

In the desire to bring this message of inclusivity to young people and inspire hope and faith in the future, he came up with the idea of a television special that would be a great big love letter to America with celebrities, stories about the American experiment, and lots of hoopla. The “hook”—the compelling reason for the special—was George Washington’s 250th birthday, on February 22, 1982.

When Norman pitched the idea to ABC, they asked that two former presidents, one Democrat and one Republican, serve as honorary co-chairmen to ensure that the special would be viewed as bipartisan. He had a good relationship with President Ford’s wife, Betty, and asked to meet with her husband. Once President Ford agreed to be a co-chair, we approached President Johnson’s widow, Lady Bird, to represent the Democrats. She listened attentively to Norman’s impassioned pitch and, to my surprise she graciously replied, “Oh, I don’t think so. I’m a warrior no more.” Luckily for us, her daughter Luci had been in the meeting and understood the weight her mother’s support would carry. After we left it was Luci who convinced her mother to agree, giving us our Democratic co-chair.

On February 22, 1982, I Love Liberty was filmed in front of 10,000 people at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. Norman seemed like the pied piper of patriotism because he was able to bring together such a phenomenal group of celebrities. Senator Barry Goldwater played a role in a big extravaganza of balloons, confetti, singers, dancers, bands, and even roller skaters gliding around the arena. Accompanied by the US Air Force band, Barbra Streisand sang an elegantly staged version of America the Beautiful that was taped in London. Jane Fonda spoke of her late father Henry Fonda’s friendship with John Wayne—they disagreed on all things political but admired one another very much.

Robin Williams did a very funny impersonation of the American flag, and Christopher Reeve, Patty Duke, LeVar Burton, Judd Hirsch, Madge Sinclair, Michael Horse, Geri Jewell, Rod Steiger, Dick van Patton, and several others participated in vignettes dramatizing different turning points in American history. Between the dramatic scenes, there were familiar patriotic songs and lots of tap dancing.

The unabashed patriotism we all hoped to convey was present from the start of the show. It opened on a young boy’s face leading a chorus in a song entitled Liberty Calls that had been written for the special, which then segued to Burt Lancaster portraying Judge Learned Hand (no relation) swearing in a new group of immigrants. It was Judge Hand’s famous speech delivered in 1929 that became the premise for the entire show: “Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women and when it dies there, no constitution, no court, no law, can save it. What, then, is the spirit of liberty? I cannot define it; I can only tell you my own faith. The spirit of liberty is the spirit that is not always sure that it is right. The spirit of liberty is the spirit that seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit that weighs their interests alongside of its own, without bias; the spirit of liberty remembers that even a sparrow does not fall to earth unheeded; the spirit of liberty is the spirit of Him who, two thousand years ago, taught mankind a lesson it has never learned, but has never quite forgotten . . . that someday there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard side by side with the greatest. Congratulations, Americans!”

It took an army of people to mount the show. I get chills recalling the moment before we went live. The sound of 10,000 voices was exhilarating—though I was also filled with fear about what could go wrong in a live taping. Then an incredible calm came over me. I thought about all that had happened to get us to this moment. The multitude of meetings across the country in creating “People For” and hundreds more in the development of I Love Liberty—all with people equally passionate about The American Way. We had done it. We had created an event to show young people that the individual still matters; that there is reason to believe in the future rather than despair of it—and that we must strengthen the common chords that connect us as humans and as citizens.

I thought of what Mrs. Johnson said -- she was a warrior no more—but every single person performing that night, everyone involved with People For the American Way, and everyone who made I Love Liberty possible were warriors. It takes courage to fight on the battlefield, and it takes another kind of courage to find those common bonds that illuminate the human spirit. Whether they are on the battlefield or on the home front, a warrior doesn’t fight only for him or herself, but for something greater than self. As I watched the filming of I Love Liberty I realized how fortunate I was to work with such warriors.

On Norman Lear’s 100th birthday I just want to be one of many who say, “thank you” for all you’ve done to illuminate the human spirit. Thank you for teaching me how to find the courage to become a warrior.

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