‘They’re Going To Kill You’: Why Norman Lear Founded People For the American Way

This week marks the 30th anniversary of the founding of People for the American Way by Norman Lear, the legendary “All in the Family” producer, who still bristles when anyone insists on “progressive” instead of liberal. In a conversation with The National Memo, Lear recalled how he became increasingly furious watching TV evangelists like Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell. What could he do?

“I started to write a film, titled ‘Religion,’ a satire, like Paddy Chayefsky’s ‘Network.’ But then I heard Jimmy Swaggart one morning, calling on his listeners to pray for the ‘removal’ of a Supreme Court Justice — and it scared the shit out of me.” He wanted to do something more, and fast.

“I’ve got to find my replacement,” Lear soon told associates at his production company, because he intended to focus all his creative energy on the threat to freedom represented by the religious right. “I’m going to do some commercials.” Somebody warned him, “Norman, you’re a Jew from Hollywood. They’re going to kill you if you go after the religious right.” Perhaps that spurred him to go ahead and make the original TV spot featuring “a middle-aged guy,” a forklift operator who is troubled because “here come these ministers telling him he’s a good Christian and his wife is a bad Christian, based on political criteria…and he says, ‘That’s not the American way.'” The commercial ran only on a local Washington, D.C. station, but as Lear anticipated, it was swiftly featured on all of the network evening news programs, and CBS ran the entire spot.

For all the achievements of People For, as his group has come to be known, including the defeat of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork and the defense of Sonia Sotomayor, Lear understands that the nation faces an even more implacable brand of conservatism than when Reagan was president. “The chief contender for the Republican nomination is Mitt Romney,” he says, “and there is Romney on a stage with Bryan Fischer,” currently a powerful figure on the religious right, who has said, among other outrageous remarks, that gays were “responsible for the Holocaust…he’s a lunatic!” And of course the Romney campaign has brought Bork on board, to benefit from his dubious wisdom on the judiciary.

Back in those days, Lear believes, decency was more likely to prevail between political opponents. He was quite friendly with the Reagans, despite political clashes during his presidency, and flew up to the recent debate at the Reagan Library with the late president’s widow Nancy. “The fact is, I had some very positive dealings with him,” said Lear, something he can scarcely imagine with today’s aggressive Republican leaders.

Now working on a personal memoir and other projects, Lear is no longer at the helm of People For, which is led by president Michael Keegan and a board that includes Alec Baldwin, Kathleen Turner, and “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane. But the exceptionally vital 89 year-old seems proud, if mildly astonished, that the group he founded in fear and frustration has grown into a preeminent liberal presence, spanning three decades. “I would never wake up any morning in my life thinking that this is what I would be doing,” he said. Today Americans who cherish liberty can be thankful he did.


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