Politics & Policy

Liberal King Lear

In his old age, Norman Lear is still walking the line between righteous and self-righteous.

Washington, D.C. — On the third and final day, things are winding down at the Take Back America conference, sponsored by the Campaign for America’s Future. As host of one of the largest gatherings of liberal and progressive activists in the country, featuring a wide swath of issues and interests, the Omni-Shoreham has been buzzing. Future progressive leaders dart in and out of plenary sessions, seminars, and workshops, learning to live up the conference’s eponymous mission.

Perhaps the largest crowd of the three-day event is assembled in the Regency ballroom. A very attractive woman steps up to the podium, flanked by 15-foot Orwellian screens of her welcome visage. She proudly declares that at age twelve, full of burgeoning religious conviction, she began a life of prayer, telling God “If you are real I want to know you.”

That burning conviction has stayed with her ever since. As a woman she’s finally met someone who has helped her realize what it means to know God. “His is the voice I hear saying ‘they shall know you by your deeds.’

Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome Norman Lear! Founder of People for the American Way, Truth and Life! Okay, maybe the introduction was more humble than that, but it was effusive and delivered by Iara Peng, who heads up Young People For — that’s the full name, Young People For — an organization “empowering the next generation of young progressive leaders” and funded by Lear. Either way, the famed TV producer and liberal activist is here to offer up his “Reflections on God and Country from the Left.”

Still quick-witted and spry at 85, Lear gets right down to business, warming up the crowd with a few jokes fit for nightly news commercials. In Lear’s expert opinion, America is suffering from “a massive case of electile dysfunction. Let’s all say that together.”

“A MASSIVE CASE OF ELECTILE DYSFUNCTION!” the crowd barks back. Can the man get an “amen”?

“I’ll donate $1,000 dollars to any organization that thinks they can come up with a more accurate description for the predicament we find ourselves in,” says Lear. “We’re in deep sh**.”

Well, maybe the rest of America isn’t afflicted with an 85-year-old prostate and forced to wear Depends adult undergarments, but assuming we do suffer from electile dysfunction and are in fact in deep sh**, why is that?

“There must be something wrong when people try to tell you you’re a good Christian or a bad Christian depending on your point of view,” says Lear.

Just the previous evening, the America’s Future Lifetime Leadership Award from Bill Moyers at the Take Back America gala dinner, Lear explained in his acceptance speech that the U.S. is currently under the sway of “the neocons, theocons, and big business — a threesome to end all threesomes.” Wait, isn’t America suffering from electile dysfunction? Nonetheless, Lear notes the resultant bastard child is “the normalization of religious demogoguery” in American politics.

Is George W. Bush’s “theocracy” really the dawn of a new era in American politics? Lear himself traces his “lifelong sensitivity to religious intolerance to a childhood in the Depression spent listening to Father Coughlin’s anti-Semitic opinions and rants against the New Deal.” At his height, Coughlin had 40 million listeners. Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and the leaders of the so-called Religious Right couldn’t dream of a soapbox that large, and yet, things are always getting worse in Lear’s America. (Nevermind that Coughlin initially helped elect FDR and, as an ardent socialist, opposed the New Deal because he believed Roosevelt was in the thrall of capitalistic Jewish bankers. But that Coughlin himself was of the Left is but an inconvenient detail when your speech topic is “Reflections on God and Country from the Left.”)

According to Lear, the problem of religious demagogues didn’t reach critical mass until the 1980s and has only gotten worse. “In 1981, the first year of People for the American Way, I was watching a TV preacher and heard something that all but made my heart stop,” he said. “I believe it was Jimmy Swaggart urging his audience to pray for the removal of a Supreme Court justice whom he found particularly offensive . . . I could not find the words to describe how this disturbed every fiber of my American being.”

Shortly afterward, Lear walked away from his TV empire to fight for the American way full-time, to fight for an America where agents of intolerance don’t pray for the removal of a Supreme Court justice. Is it also unthinkable the Supreme Court would ever render a decision that disturbs a majority of fibers in the American fabric by being intolerant of our collective sense of Judeo-Christian morality? Perhaps Lear thinks abortion is just another word for “point of view.”

Of Swaggart’s sins and religious distortions, one wonders why this one resonated so strongly with Lear. God works in mysterious ways, but in all likelihood prayer isn’t the most effective way to go about removing a Supreme Court justice. Starting a well-funded advocacy group to attack Supreme Court justices you don’t like — that’s much more in line with the American way.

Of course, everybody has the right to free speech. Except one of the first things Norman Lear did as a political activist was take legal action to apply the antiquated “Fairness Doctrine” to limit the airtime and influence of televangelists. “The preachers of course were pissed. Though they would not describe it that way,” he notes. Preachers around the country were also proverbially pissed when in 1972, 65 million people tuned into Lear’s sitcom Maude to watch the title character have a prime-time abortion. Maybe Lear didn’t have to beg for money like the televangelists he so despises, but he too profited handsomely for his demagoguery. And no one threatened him with the Fairness Doctrine.

Nor was it applied when ABC paid Lear and People for the American Way almost two million dollars to produce a primetime network special called “I Love Liberty.” To be fair, at least that special included a broad array of personalities and viewpoints, from Barry Goldwater to Jane Fonda. (Presumably Fonda was appearing on “I Love Liberty” having been chastened by the low ratings for her “I Love North Vietnam” special.)

But even if the spectacle of Barbra Streisand singing “America the Beautiful” isn’t your idea of entertainment, it’s hard to doubt Lear when he says he loves liberty. Norman Lear flew bombing missions in World War II. Norman Lear used his personal fortune to purchase one of the original copies of the Declaration of Independence and put it on tour so the public could see it. Lear is certainly sincere about his desire for liberty, even if is conception of it is needlessly framed in partisan terms.

“Can we progressives who won’t be caught dead these days calling ourselves liberals stop being a punching bag for the Right?” Lear demands to know, as he accepts his Take Back America lifetime achievement award. “Can we break through the false and humiliating charade that they alone are the arbiters of family values, morality, patriotism, the life of the spirit, God talk?” Which begs the question, when God talks, is he as profane as Lear?

Earlier that very day, Barack Obama gave his now-historic speech on race in America and attempted to distance himself from the controversial statements of his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, who among other statements, blamed America for 9/11 and said the United States government invented AIDS and unleashed it on the black population.

Wright wasn’t right, or for that matter, of the Right. Yet Wright’s remarks were the mirror image of those of Falwell, Robertson, and all the right-wing and “un-American” targets Lear and People for the American Way have spent decades going after. The real “false and humiliating charade” is that religious intolerance — indeed intolerance of any kind — is the primary domain of either liberals or conservatives. The nebulous forces on the Right are no more arbiters of morality than Lear is of the “American way.”

However, that kind of admission requires that, at age 85, Lear possess the wisdom to tell the difference between righteous and self-righteous. He might discover, like most enlightened people of faith, that taking back America starts with a long hard look in the mirror.

– Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.

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