People for the American Way will mark its 30th anniversary at a Dec. 5 fete at the Beverly Wilshire, and while there will be plenty of references to the org’s origins as a counter to the religious right, founder Norman Lear sees a more urgent connection to the here and now.
“To me what is happening right now with joblessness, the confluence of the neoconservative movement and religious right and big, big money… resulted in what we are looking at today in this country,” he said in a recent interview from his Beverly Hills office, still sharp and energetic at 89. “And when you look at the kids in Occupy Wall Street..young people are actually telling us, ‘Enough,’ and that is going to become clearer as we go along.”
He added, “One of my favorite of all the mythical American expressions is that eternal vigilance is the price you pay, because the seeds are still there.”
In creating People for the American Way, Lear was one of only a handful of industry figures to translate personal activism into a lasting advocacy organization (he will be among the honorees along with board member Alec Baldwin; a similar anniversary event was held in New York on Oct. 6). One of the org’s biggest early victories came in 1987, when it and other groups successfully fought the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, something that presaged the polarizing nomination battles to come. More recent work has included campaigns for marriage equality as well as others against the influence of corporate money in politics.
Three decades ago, Lear was in the midst of a remarkable run of sitcoms that redefined primetime entertainment and was among the most active figures in Hollywood’s political scene, a leader in a group of influential liberals who got the nickname the “Malibu mafia.” He recalled watching TV one morning in the early when he heard Jimmy Swaggart asking viewers to pray for the removal of a Supreme Court justice. His company then had seven shows on the air, but Lear said that he was so incensed by Swaggart’s remarks that at an executive retreat just two days later, he told his associates, “You have to find my replacement.”
“I was scared to death,” he says of the televangelist’s statements. “That frightened the hell out of me.”
He decided to do a couple of television spots, including one in which a hard-hatted forklift operator talked of the ministers showing up on TV and radio “telling us that we are good Christians or bad Christians depending on their point of view.” The man’s last line was “That’s not the American way.”
As he plunged into the culture wars, Lear said he was aware that he had two big strikes against him — he was from Hollywood, and he was Jewish — so he flew to South Bend, Ind., to meet with Father Ted Hesburgh, a friend and then president of Notre Dame, who thought the spot was “terrific” and turned him on to other church leaders. With more supporters onboard, Lear paid to have the ad run in Washington, D.C., knowing that the networks would pick it up as a news story. Another church leader encouraged him to start an organization around it and suggested the name People for the American Way.
Their first major event was a two-hour ABC show in 1982, “I Love Liberty,” designed to show diversity as a part of the American fabric. The special featured Lady Bird Johnson and Gerald Ford as co-hosts, and “it had Barry Goldwater and Jane Fonda on the same stage,” Lear recalled. As nonpartisan as the special aimed to be, Falwell’s Moral Majority saw it as an effort to promote liberal politics, including Lear’s own.
The televangelists, sensing liberal Hollywood as a target, fought back. Lear easily recited a line from a letter he received from Pat Robertson telling him that his “arms were too short to box with God. Lay off him.”
“And Jerry Falwell sent out a newsletter calling me the ‘No. 1 enemy of the American family in our generation,’ and I had serious death threats as a result,” he said.
As the influence of televangelism abated in the late 1980s, so too did the energy to support People for the American Way, Lear noted. But the organization has revived in recent years, and he’s especially hopeful about its fortunes under Michael Keegan, president since 2009, along with programs like the Young Elected Officials Network for progressive leaders. Lear also started a campaign two years ago called Born Again American, designed in part to show that patriotism hasn’t been ceded as a concept to the right.
People for the American Way now promotes a progressive agenda, but Lear still talks of its origins as not “liberal” but “American.” He’s friends with Nancy Reagan, who invited him and his former business partner Jerry Perenchio to fly by helicopter to Simi Valley in September to attend the Republican debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. “I was probably the only Democrat there, certainly the only liberal, but that is the America I like,” he said.
It should come as no surprise that Lear wasn’t impressed with what he heard at the event. In the media, he’s also expressed some reservations about the current administration’s performance but will support President Obama’s re-election. “I think the best thing Obama has going for him are the nine people running for the Republican nomination. If they were carrying Obama signs, they couldn’t be doing a better job.”
Many high-profile figures from showbiz have followed Lear, but among those he singles out is Rob Reiner, co-star of “All in the Family,” who has been involved in issues ranging from early childhood education to same-sex marriage. “I don’t know what Rob knows. …I have my passions. I have my concerns. I know a good deal about a lot of things, but I don’t begin to know what some few (activists) know because they become scholars on the issues, and I don’t do that.”
While a case can be made that the agenda of the religious right has failed, given the growing acceptance of gay rights and the failure (so far) to overturn Roe vs. Wade, Lear doesn’t buy it. Bork is an adviser to Mitt Romney’s campaign, he points out. “I learned early on at People for the American Way that most of these born-again Christians were being used against their own best interests,” Lear said. “That is the same thing today. The Tea Party is full of people just trying to find their way, in the absence of real leadership from the Democrats, in the absence of real leadership from the moderate Republicans. The extremes get it, and they have all the money because they have the backing of these billionaire sources.”