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Norman Lear: Liberal Legend, Ultimate Mensch 

Norman Lear in 2015. Credit: Louise Palanker / Wikimedia Commons

As a political consultant, I have always thought politics was more important than just about anything else, except the love of family and friends. I was fortunate enough to know Norman Lear not only as a political ally, but as a dear friend. He knew better than anyone that culture leads politics and the two are inextricably intertwined. Norman left a remarkable legacy in both arenas, and changed our country profoundly and indelibly.

I was 10 years old when “All In The Family” premiered. I remember seeing the warnings from CBS, saying that it dealt with controversial topics and might not be suitable for everyone in the family. That of course made me determined to watch it. With great anticipation, I camped in the “family room,” which had the second TV in the house, the one my parents rarely watched. And I loved every minute of this wild new show. The characters felt like real people; the conversation sounded like a lot of the talk in my working-class neighborhood; the topics had never been seen on TV sitcoms before. As I grew to adulthood in the 1970s, all those great Norman Lear shows, and the ones they opened the door to, like ”The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and ”The Bob Newhart Show,” introduced me to issues and ideas I wouldn’t have experienced if I had kept watching the standard sitcom crap of the decade before.

One of the great honors and joys of my life was that after all those years in my youth watching his TV shows, I had  the chance to become his friend and colleague. In 1996, I went to work at People For the American Way, and got to work closely with Norman in a variety of fun and meaningful projects that were a true joy to be involved in. I got to see how his mind worked as we collaborated on a variety of ads on different issues. He loved powerful, emotional ads where real people sat in a chair and spoke from their heart into the camera. One of those kinds of ads I will never forget was where a conservative Republican who had been a POW in Vietnam talked about why he was against a constitutional amendment banning flag burning. 

I got to see Norman’s whimsy when a group of us were talking about how right-wing Republicans were competing with each other for who would be the biggest horse’s ass of the year, and Norman said, “Let’s give an award!” He then called Robert Rauschenberg and got him to do a sculpture of a horse’s ass, which PFAW would symbolically present each year to a worthy right winger, calling it the “Equine Posterior” Award. 

After I left PFAW, we remained good friends and I often got to see him and work out of his office when I traveled to LA. He kept coming to his office and working on new projects, both in entertainment and in politics, up until he was 100 years old. At 97, he became the oldest Grammy award winner in history. And he kept coming up with new ideas for TV shows and music, and civic and political projects. He was involved in so many fields, so many causes that all the biographical articles and obituaries I have seen this past week don’t even mention. I haven’t seen any article mention, for example, that he decided a couple of decades back to buy one of the last existing copies of the Declaration of Independence, and send it on tour around the country to inspire people to get more engaged in the civic and political life of our country. Or that he was a leading thinker on the topic of socially responsible businesses. Or that he created one of the earliest websites that made it easy for young people to create their own video content.

Through all those years and all those achievements, Norman never lost his warmth, his kindness and tenderness toward his friends and colleagues, his joy at the simple pleasures of life and the new ideas that bubbled up in conversation. As you can imagine, he was one of the funniest people I have ever known, but still seemed surprised and genuinely touched when I told him so. 

Norman had one long running debate, something we argued about many times and never agreed on. I grew up in the Midwest, in Nebraska, where calling yourself a liberal was a sure way to lose an election. I preferred the words populist and progressive, usually in combination. But Norman gloried in calling himself a liberal, and he would often quote JFK to me on what being a liberal meant: 

I believe in human dignity as the source of national purpose, in human liberty as the source of national action, and the human heart as the source of national compassion, and in the human mind as the source of our invention and our ideas. It is, I believe, this faith in our fellow citizens as individuals and as people that lies at the heart of the liberal faith, for liberalism is not so much a party creed or a set of fixed platform promises as it is an attitude of mind and heart, a faith in man's ability through the experiences of his reason and judgment to increase for himself and his fellow men the amount of justice and freedom and brotherhood which all human life deserves.

Norman lived those words. They were written in his heart and soul. And while he never convinced me to use the word liberal in my political self-definition, he made me love the heart of his liberal faith, because I loved him. Who could not love Norman, liberal legend and ultimate mensch?

America has lost one of its greatest citizens and greatest patriots. Norman Lear dearly loved this country, and was so passionate about our nation’s ideals and best aspirations. He wanted us all to have the freedoms and opportunities he had been given. He will be sorely missed by a nation that needs his kindness, empathy, and open heart right now.


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