20 Questions with Norman Lear

TV producer and philanthropist Norman Lear says his father reminds him of Archie Bunker, the character he created in the show he produced in the ’70s, “All in the Family.” But these days Lear is going after a more inclusive message with a new, non-racial initiative and corresponding website that urges Americans to get involved. The initiative urges people to become “their country’s keeper.” For more information, visit www.bornagainamerican.com.

Your new initiative motivates people to become “born again” patriotically by signing up to volunteer in their communities. That’s a pretty catchy phrase. Do you consider yourself born-again in the patriotic sense?
Well, I had a number of experiences that I can think of that I do think of as born-again in a patriotic sense. When I was a kid,  Father Coughlin was a major figure at the time and an extreme anti-Semite. He did not represent anything I considered American in the true sense of the word. I entered an American Legion oratorical contest. We all spoke about the Constitution and my take in my speech was how the Constitution meant so much to me in addition to being not just an American but being a member of an American minority. So that is what I passionately addressed, the constitutional guarantees that give each of us religious freedom.

Did you experience a lot of discrimination?
You’re talking to a man who experienced this in the 1940s. This is a time when colleges had quotas for Jews as well as for any other minority. It was a different time in America.

Did you have any personal experiences of discrimination?
Yeah — no need to go there. But I’ve had experiences where in the early 1970s fundamentalist preachers started to proliferate on the television. I was deeply concerned because they were mixing politics and religion. That was not my America. I did half a dozen television spots. When a preacher tries to tell you they are a good or bad Christian, that is not the American way. People for the American Way [which Lear created] grew out of that. It grew as an act of spontaneous combustion around those spots. That was a kind of a born-again moment for me.

Did it bother you that former President Bush wore religion on his sleeve?
Not in the most general way, only when it clearly was tearing the wall. When money was going to faith-based institutions that discriminated, [that bothered me]. That’s why our current president has said he will clearly not tolerate that.

Where do you volunteer?
At the office [laughs].

How did you feel about the presidential race? Did you support Obama from the start?
I supported [former New York Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham] Clinton and [former North Carolina Democratic Sen. John] Edwards and Obama until Edwards dropped out, then I supported both of them, Hillary and then Mr. Obama. I had a favorite. The debates were very good for them and very good for us. They needed to be heard against each other and we needed to hear that.

Are you close with the Clintons?

I can’t say I’m close to the Clintons but I know them well. It isn’t like we see a lot of each other. I contributed to all three campaigns.
What do you think about the financial straits this country is in right now?
My God, I think so many things. I think who we are and who we’ve been has finally caught up with us. When I say we, I mean establishment we, I don’t mean the American public at large. We have not looked ourselves in the mirror and seen ourselves accurately. We have been a nation of excess.

So, greedy.
I think self-interest is an undeniable part of the species. What we’ve denied is the excessiveness. We’ve lost the desire to restrain that elemental part of us.

In 2001 you purchased a rare, original copy of the Declaration of Independence for $8.1 million. Do you think that was excessive at all, and where is it now, framed in your home?
What’s the credit card ad? It’s priceless. I didn’t buy it to hang in my home. I bought it to travel, and that’s what it does. It goes to public schools, town halls, courthouses. It’s been traveling ever since. I did a reading in Independence Hall with Michael Douglas and 11 major stars. There are a lot of bells and whistles to it.

Does the financial crisis affect you personally at all?

Well, of course. I lived in this culture, my children grew up in it, my grandchildren grew up in it.

Who are your favorite politicians? Do you have any?
It’s difficult when you ask that question. The first thing that comes to mind is how much time each of them spends raising money for the next election, voting in a way to ingratiate themselves with their constituents with the next election in mind. Americans need to look at themselves in the mirror and see themselves correctly. It starts with leadership, and that begins in the Congress.

So do you not have any favorites?
I can’t talk about favorites without talking about individuals in some depth, so I pass.

Where were you for the inauguration of President Obama?

I was sitting in the freezing cold with my son in D.C. We had a big event on Sunday night at Renaissance Hotel. It was great.

Did your feet get cold?
I had those things, things you put on your hands and feet. I had a great coat. I had bought it for the Winter Olympics in Norway years ago and hadn’t worn it since. It weighs a ton and a half, so no, my feet were not cold.  

Let’s talk religion. Are you “born again” in the Christian sense as well?
I’m born again every morning of my life.

You’ve produced “Maude,” “The Jeffersons,” “All in the Family,” “Sanford and Son,” “One Day at a Time,” “Good Times” and “Mary Hartman Mary Hartman.” Which was your favorite to watch?
Whatever I am watching in the moment.

In 1999, President Clinton awarded you with the National Medal of Arts. He noted that you “held up a mirror to American society and changed the way we look at it.” What did you think when he said that?
I thought, “Go no.” What it means is who knew that could happen? Who would have guessed? My grandmother used to say that phrase.

I’ve read you’re a big proponent of the First Amendment. So what do you think of Rush Limbaugh?

I love the First Amendment.


To recommend a political personality for 20 Questions, call Betsy Rothstein at (202)628-8516 or e-mail her at betsyr@thehill.com.