Norman Lear produced some of TV’s most memorable comedies including All in the Family, The Jeffersons and Maude. In part two of his conversation with Robert Scheer, Lear reveals that in spite of his progressive views on many issues, he actually considers himself a “bleeding heart conservative.” Lear says he wonders why more Republican nominees in the 2016 election didn’t invoke the accomplishments of President Eisenhower instead of Reagan’s. And he confides that, at 95, he is happy simply living in the moment and not knowing what happens after death. [Contains mature language.]
Listen to Part I.
RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, Part 2 of my interview with the television creator, legend Norman Lear. A fascinating life, both politically involved in this country, culturally. And welcome, Norman. So let’s talk about Donald Trump a little bit, because he is a product of television. Les Moonves, the head of CBS, the same network you work for, during the campaign he said, you know, Donald Trump may not be good for America but he’s–
NL: He’s good for CBS.
RS: –he’s great for CBS, bring it on–“Bring it on!” you know, the ratings and so forth. So you, a man who reinvented television and, you know, great comedy but you made it, in the best sense of the word, responsible. Concerned, educational–in the best sense, not the boring sense, but in the best sense, exciting sense. And then here’s a guy who comes along–yes, we could say television is great, but it’s also not always great. And bullying as represented by Donald Trump was celebrated by television; I would think that’s the main characteristic of, you know, a show like The Apprentice and so forth. And it takes this guy to the presidency! He’s a creature of television. What is your appraisal of him?
NL: You know, as I hear you say that, I’m thinking, ah, it had to come to this. [Laughs] This fixation on short-term thinking and what’s good for this moment. And he’s the ultimate example of that. He seemed like–you know, if you want to say “fuck you,” with the middle finger of your right hand, to go back to that metaphor, it happens in a flash. You know, you think it, you do it, you mean it from the bottom of your heart–you know, boom! Take that. And I honestly think the American people were saying, “Take that,” you know. And they gave us the worst–well, the worst example of that was running. The best example of the worst [Laughs] was running. And they said, “Take that.” And I look around today, and there isn’t sufficient reason to change your mind–if you are living an emotionally crowded, difficult economically, life. You know, somebody working your ass off with a couple, three kids you adore, worried about their future. Living, you know, as I don’t know what percentage of Americans are living, finding it so difficult. And through no fault of their own–I mean, there are people, I’m hearing the people in my head that would quarrel with “no fault of their own,” but too many are born into it.
RS: We live in a class-divided society that I suspect when you came out of the Army–because I’m old enough to remember, I was a young kid–you know, you got a bunch of years on me. But I remember the optimism, you know, with Levittown, with the little houses; you know, the jobs were coming back, opportunity. You know, and yes, the Civil Rights Movement was starting as a reminder that they weren’t going to get a break, and women were, you know, kept in, paid less, and so we all know the imperfections. But there was a feeling that this country, the old de Tocqueville celebration of an ever-expanding middle class and opportunity, and the public schools working. And you had that. And now we’ve accepted a situation where just a large number of people–because they use public schools, the thing we loved–they use public, oh, those are not good, you got to send your kid to a special private school and you got to know somebody who’ll get you that advantage. And I–what you just said is really the key thing. The fact is, these people got screwed for the last 20 years because of policies that were followed. We know that, you know; that freed Wall Street greed, and so forth. And one of the things I’ve always liked about you, Norman, is you are deliberately nonpartisan. [Laughs] You’re not indifferent, but you’re nonpartisan. I remember, you got me to support a guy, John Anderson, who was an independent republican from Rockford, Illinois or something. You’ve always been. You know, hey–our friends can be up to bad stuff, our friends can be doing mischief. And I–
NL: Well, I like hearing that. [Laughs] Thank you. I hope that’s true.
RS: No, but I mean you–but you were–
NL: But John Anderson, I do of course remember John Anderson.
RS: Yeah, but I remember all along. Well, when you were even reaching out to John Wayne, or reaching out to Gerald Ford, so–
NL: Or Reagan. Remember our history, yours and mine, with Ronald Reagan?
RS: Just to set the stage, ‘cause it is sort of historically interesting. I had interviewed the first President Bush when he was running. He was running against Reagan. And I had interviewed him after he won the Iowa primaries, it was for the 1988 election. On that, he had said that he believed that you could win a nuclear war; that was the controversy. And then I did the interview–
NL: Well, we have a president right now–
RS: Yeah, I understand. We’ll get to that in a minute. But what happened then was–and I was, for the Los Angeles Times, I was then interviewing Reagan, and I had been conducting these interviews over–you know, ‘cause they’re busy and you got 20 minutes here and a half hour there. And then you had the idea to send a television crew. And the Reagan people accepted it; they were on the plane, and they allowed this portion. And the grilling was about winnable nuclear war, and did the Russians believe in it, and their fallout shelters and all that stuff. And I must say, I had met Reagan much earlier, ‘cause when he was running for governor I had interviewed him for Ramparts magazine. And again, I found he was a guy who would talk to you, and he was confident in his views, and he didn’t pull rank; I actually have very fond memories [Laughs] of Reagan as an individual in that regard. So when you set this thing up–and I think you got their permission. You knew Nancy, right?
RS: And you knew Ronald Reagan, right. And so there was your crew on the plane, and that normally would make a candidate very nervous; you know, why is this being televised, this crazy guy Scheer, and I’m talking to him and I got Norman Lear’s crew here. And he was not flummoxed at all about this. And he–you know, yes, he handled himself; he stated his position, and he obviously believed it, you know. And it was quite amazing. And he had also been briefed, you know, that we could shoot down these things, and Edward Teller who he was close to had believed we could have Star Wars defense. So it was an important exchange. And as I recall, you knew Nancy quite well. Did you know Ronald?
NL: Well, as a result of–you know, I don’t remember how–I did know Nancy well enough that she invited me to present to her when a group representing this John Wayne hospital somewhere in Texas. And they were honoring Nancy at the Beverly Hilton hotel. The only time I’ve ever been in a ballroom with tuxedoed men in ten-gallon hats. [Laughs] I’ll never forget that. And Nancy asked me to present to her that evening, and I did. She also, she and Perenchio–Jerry Perenchio, my long-term partner who passed recently, and was an ardent republican–they were flying up to Ronald Reagan’s memorial at the library and invited me to come along. So I sat with Nancy and Jerry at his memorial. I could have been the only–I started to, I was thinking to say, the only liberal. But I consider myself a bleeding-heart conservative. I don’t think of myself as a liberal. Because I think you will not mess with my Bill of Rights, my Declaration, my Constitution, my First Amendment; I think that’s as conservative as you can get. You know, if you really mean it. Then comes the question of affording equal opportunity and equal justice and so forth. That’s where all the work comes in. And my heart bleeds in that direction.
RS: But again, sticking to this nonpartisan or, you know–I know you’ve taken some heat for it. And it’s interesting, because it’s very easy to demonize the other side, and you know, virtue is all on your side. And I think one of your great strengths–after all, All in the Family, you took a conservative, right, Archie Bunker, and you had him be human, you know? [Laughs] And you tried to understand what made him tick. And that’s why the show has such great credibility; conservative people enjoyed watching that show, you know, because he raised a lot of their concerns. And I think we’ve gotten into a place where we think democrats–many people I know, they seem to think the Democratic Party is the center of virtue, and it’s true we don’t have too many moderate republicans around in the mold of Dwight Eisenhower and some of the other folks. But it’s too easy. And I was just wondering about how you regarded this last election. I mean, you had Bernie Sanders, who was not that different than you, actually–another old Jew, right, from back East. And raising a whole bunch of questions. And then you had the anointed candidate, Hillary Clinton. And you know, how did you look at that whole political choice?
NL: The American people, those suffering, and I always think of being in emotionally crowded lives, as I try to imagine what it would be to live like so, like most Americans have to live, and struggle to keep a roof over your head and your kids in school, and their future–and oh my God. And not find leadership! You know, I spoke at the Bohemian Grove. You know about, what the Bohemian Grove is.
RS: Yeah, that’s where rich men gather and they piss on–
NL: It’s largely republican, and you know, several thousand. And it was–I talked about, you mentioned Dwight Eisenhower. And I said, why I said this was when 17 people were running for the republican nomination. And I said, why do I never hear the name Dwight David Eisenhower? Five-star general, led us through World War II, two-term republican president, responsible for the interstate highway system. You know, kept us out of several other near-wars. And you know, there are people who find fault with him, but he was all of what I just mentioned, and he’s never, ever–you never hear his name invoked by 17 people running. You hear Reagan and Reagan and Reagan, and you hear Bush, Bush, Bush. You hear even Gerald Ford, but you don’t hear–why? And the reason was he warned us about the military-industrial complex that I think is choking us to death now. And in his first draft, which I saw, I don’t remember how I saw or heard, at his library in Kansas, he called it the military-industrial congressional complex.
RS: One of my bravest actions as a child was wearing an “I Like Ike” button in the Bronx. [Laughs] I never even met a republican, but I liked this guy. And I.F. Stone, it was this columnist I used to read in the, I forget the name of the paper, the PM or something, one of the newspapers in New York, the legendary journalist–he came out for Ike. And I.F. Stone argued, this guy knows war, he’s a general, and we need peace. We need somebody–and Eisenhower was, by the way, against dropping the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, said it was not justified, not necessary, he was opposed to it. And he was very concerned about the misuse of military power. The irony–
NL: Look at that, the republican president–[Laughs] The republican was against the dropping of the bombs, and the haberdasher democrat dropped the bombs.
RS: Yeah, dropped the bombs. And by the way, it’s interesting, because it was supposed to be to save guys like you. Right? You were involved in the war, and so forth. And one of my great heroes, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, he’s a great Beat poet, happened to be an anti-sub commander in Normandie and everything, another guy with war experience. And then they shipped him off to Japan, and he was, he visited Nagasaki after the bombing. And that devastation is what, you know–again, like others, it turned him into a lifetime pacifist, he was just so shocked. And yet his life was supposed to be saved by dropping the bomb, basically killing civilians; these were not military targets. Norman, you’re 95 years old. It’s almost going to be a century. I’m going to be there when, you know, unless I kick off before, I’m going to be there when we celebrate your century of life. You were born in ‘22, what, just a few years after the end of World War I, for God’s sake. You saw World War II, you’ve been fighting the good fight, you know, both creatively and politically and so forth, and everything. Did you ever imagine we’d be at this moment now with Donald Trump being president?
NL: No. [Laughs] No, I never, I never imagined. But that doesn’t mean I don’t believe I understand. I really believe what I’ve been saying. The American people didn’t want what’s going on now. And they didn’t vote for what’s going on now. They voted against what led up to what’s going on now. And as I watched the republicans, as we sit here now, they in Washington are shoving this anti-Obamacare bill. Which I can’t find a good word for even among republicans. They’re doing it, but they’re not talking about how great it is for the American people, none of them.
RS: You mean ending Obamacare.
NL: Amending, yes, or eliminating Obamacare in favor of whatever the hell it is, some bill. You can call it Ryancare. They’re not proud of it. I don’t hear anybody raving about what’s good for America in this bill. It’s just pushing the bill to get rid of the other. I mean, the American people are bereft. And in their emotionally crowded lives, they don’t have the time to figure it all out. My degree of sophistication, which is not at all as larger as my career would suggest–you know, I struggle myself to understand. I have basic beliefs when I talk about, you know, describe what I mean by being a bleeding-heart conservative. Like I see so clearly what is so great about the America we fought for in World War II, and how little of it is motivating the Congress, democrats and republicans.
RS: [omission] Norman Lear, discussing an incredible life in the television industry and political life. You never lost the common touch. That’s–and I think it’s absolutely critical here, because you never demonized ordinary–I remember, because I traveled with Jerry Falwell when he was attacking you, and I profiled him and so forth. I interviewed Richard Nixon in ‘84 and all that. And I had you in my mind. I want to say this. I know you object when I say you’re a role model, you know, but–OK, I don’t want to get into a big discussion. But I learned from you, from when I first met you, this thing you’ve been stressing all through this interview: don’t underestimate the average person. Don’t underestimate people. And that’s what informed your art and it is why you were so successful–not just in finding an audience, ‘cause you can find an audience by pandering and so forth–but by raising the bar, I think. I mean, if I were to summarize your life, you know–you were the opposite to the Barnum thing, you know, the sucker born every minute. You actually believed in the American people, and I guess, people everywhere.
NL: I do. [Laughs] Everywhere.
RS: Yeah. And one of the reasons I’m doing these podcasts–I mean, this is supposed to be a study of American originals. I say, out of the crazy-quilt of American culture–and I haven’t even asked you, and you might want to mention why your father went to jail when you were nine years old. But we’ve all got these varied histories, we’ve all got different religions and different ethnic backgrounds and different, different, different. But somehow in this crazy-quilt of American life, we have these originals, OK? Some of the people we’ve talked about–Lawrence Ferlinghetti is one example, another 95-year-old, by the way, who’s still going strong. I just saw him a couple weeks ago. And what I try to capture in these podcasts is, what it is about this American experience that has created these American, whether it’s Willie Nelson who I interviewed, or it’s Oliver Stone, you know, or other folks, and Dolores Huerta who I interviewed from the Farm Workers–
NL: Oh, yes! Oh, God–she’s one of my heroes.
RS: Yeah, and 11 children, and she’s out there organizing–
NL: Do you remember the name Marsha Hunt?
NL: She’s going to be 100 on Monday.
NL: Well, Marsha Hunt was an actress. You have to Google her. You Google, you’re going to find a very pretty woman with a long history of civil rights activities. And I think she suffered the blacklist; if she didn’t suffer the blacklist, she was among the people who were most affected by it. And never stopped speaking her mind, never stopped loving the country. The way I feel–I mean, she expressed in her way everything I’m talking about. And she’s turning 100 on Monday. So I am going to stop by and give her a hug.
RS: People have made fun of Hollywood, you know, obviously as a source of all kinds of scandal and stories and so forth. And I’ve been, I came to L.A. in ‘76, I came out to California to go to graduate school in ‘59 at Berkeley, but then I came down here when I first met you to work at the LA Times in ‘76. And I must say, I know I’ve been told I’ve been naive, but I have met actually not only the most interesting, but really the finest, or some of the finest people I’ve met in this lifetime, right here in this much-maligned Los Angeles community. Really. And I remember our lunches, you know, with Marv Goldberger, who was actually a major physicist, and concerned about nuclear weapons. And Stanley Sheinbaum, who was the police commissioner who fired Daryl Gates over the racism of the police department, and he was a regent. And you know, Warren Beatty, who had the courage to make a movie like Reds. And you know, really fascinating people. And there was never really small talk. We were sort of committed to having small talk, but it never was small talk; it was all about saving the world or what’s going on–I mean, Harold Willens would be at some of those meetings.
NL: I was just thinking about him, too.
RS: Yeah, and just, you know, I could go down–and you mentioned Geoff Cowan, whose father had been head of CBS, and who was the head of the Voice of America, I think the second, and Geoff went on. But these people, whether they were successful, whether they were born rich, whether they made money in Hollywood, whether they had criminals in their background–you know, like your father did get in trouble and so forth. But the fact of the matter is–and this is where people tell me I’m naive–I always felt idealism, maybe sometimes misplaced idealism, but I always felt idealism. And this is with your first and second wives, and everyone else, a lot of people I’ve met–my own wife, who was the associate editor of the LA Times, Narda Zacchino. I mean, the conversations that I–and in your house, where you’ve had one speaker after another; it’s been a great forum in Los Angeles, the Lear household, you know, and you bring all these people. And one movement after another, whether it was civil rights, gay rights, women’s rights and so forth. And I felt, hey, wait a minute. Out of this den of inequity of Hollywood [Laughter] in L.A. has come a fountain of idealism. How the hell did that happen?
NL: I wonder if it doesn’t exist in every community. This is a community that happens to, where, you know, I was born and raised in Hartford, Connecticut, which was an insurance community. They were not celebrated, you know, in the newspapers or radio or television or so forth, but I have to believe that the same ratio of interested and interesting people, of people who were doing exactly what their, you know, the people in this industry have been doing, some getting caught doing it brilliantly, some getting caught doing it poorly [Laughs]. You know, or doing what they shouldn’t do. I don’t know, people are people and cultures are cultures. And the culture of Hartford, probably at essence if one studied it, wouldn’t be all that different from the culture in Hollywood.
RS: What is the end game? I mean we are, in your case, approaching a century of life. World War I, right now to Donald Trump, and who knows what’s coming in the next years. And you keep yourself in good health; you’ve got, your mind is–trust me, I interviewed you in ‘76; your mind is clearer–and I mean this advisedly, I’m being really serious. I interviewed you. [Laughter] So it’s now, do the math, it’s what, 40 years ago or something, you know, more. You’re more interesting than you were then. And I honestly believe this. You’ve seen a lot more–
NL: Well, and I should be. I mean–
RS: Well yeah, but you know, as another old-timer here, you know–
NL: You don’t stop learning.
RS: Yeah, but everybody tells you, you know, you’re getting, you’re going to forget, and you don’t know this, and you’re slowing down, and so forth. The fact is, you have not slowed down. You really have not. I mean, I’m not bullshitting you. And I’ve talked to you many times over the years. You’ve never been better than you are now, at least in my experience with you.
NL: I want you to phone my home and tell my wife that.
RS: Yeah, I will, you do the same with my wife. [Laughs] We all know that. But the point is, you know, OK. But you’re up against the reality–OK? Because we’ve lost that faith in traditional religion, primitive religion, fundamentalist religion. I don’t know if any of them believe it, or they wouldn’t do what they say anyway. I mean, it’s a question I had about a lot of the religious right. If you really believe you’re going to be judged, and you’ve read the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke, something doesn’t connect year, you know. Because Jesus tells you in the parable of the Good Samaritan, you’d better worry about that other when they’re not in your tribe. And you’d better pick him up, take care of him, take him to the inn and feed them, and that’s how you will be judged, whether you’re going to have this eternal life. Well, by that standard, you’re certainly going to have an eternal life. But I suspect you don’t fully subscribe to what might be a more simple view of fundamentalist religion. You are 95, OK? And let me ask you a question I ask myself. I’m 81, so I can’t [Laughs] I can’t give myself that, but I have had a few operations and so forth, so I understand about mortality. How do you deal with mortality? How do you deal–it’s the one thing we haven’t learned anything more about, right? Science has not helped us. We had the eclipse, we now believe in the eclipse, we’re not–
NL: I have thought for a long while–I’ll express it this way right now, but it’s been on my mind this way for a long time. The fact of my life and yours is that it’s taken me, in my case it’s taken me 95 years, a number of months, weeks, days, hours and so forth, to see you just shift your weight in that chair. To look at you right now and hear my voice saying exactly what I’m saying. And as the seconds tick off, it’s taken me every fucking second of 95-plus years to hear myself say this. So is living in the moment important, or what? Now–it has taken everybody who hears me say this, every split second of their lives to hear me say it. Are we connected, or what? [Laughs] I love thinking about that. I love thinking about that.
RS: Do you have fear about–?
NL: It’s gotten to a place where it feels like bragging to say you don’t fear it. It’s a wonder that as much as we know scientifically, as much as we’ve learned, as much as we continue to learn day by day, we have no guess as to what happens at the conclusion of this game we’re playing. Nobody has ever come back. Do we rest? Do we go on? My wife will give you chapter and verse about what she believes will follow. But at the core of what she believes is faith. Nobody’s proved it. I can’t get there, in any direction; as much as I’ve heard, as we’ve all heard about it’s this, it’s that. But I’m totally satisfied with the wonder of not knowing. I think there’s something gorgeous about that.
RS: Wow. Norman Lear, an American original.
NL: We’re all originals.
RS: Ahh, but you’re a special one.
NL: And there’s nobody can interview me the way you do. Jesus Christ. It’s nice to be loved. [Laughs]
RS: I’m in awe, I must say. I really am, Norman. I’ve interviewed a hell of a lot of people in this world, and I’ve known you for a long time. And I mean, it’s just–you still give a shit! I mean, the amazing thing, OK–I, you know, I was a journalist. Everybody gives you a line. I’ve interviewed Fidel Castro, I interviewed Ronald Reagan. I mean, I’ve interviewed–you know, Gorbachev. I’ve interviewed the good, the bad, the ugly, you know–all over the world, all over the world. And there’s always this big bullshit factor, there’s always this self-glorification, there’s always layering on, layering on, layering on, and another plan, and not taking a position, positioning yourself. I mean you know, it’s always there, you know, and you spend hours trying to get–with you, and I’ve known you, as I said, when I went to interview you back there in the seventies, and I’ve known you forever–you have gotten along with your, you have a great bullshit detector about yourself. That’s–[Laughs], now maybe that informed your comedy, it informed your–you know, not maybe, it definitely–
NL: You know, I think that comes from–I’ve never been afraid of saying “I don’t know.” Or indicating I don’t know. I’ve never felt I had anything to prove except doing what I do as well as I can do it.
RS: That’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence where, hah, the intelligence certainly came at a very high level from Norman Lear. Our producers are Rebecca Mooney and Josh Scheer. Our engineers are Kat Yore and Mario Diaz. We’re broadcasting from KCRW in Santa Monica, and next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.