Besides his family, what meant the most to Norman Lear were the freedoms guaranteed to all Americans.
By Mary Daily
No one loved liberty more than Norman Lear, who died December 5 at age 101.
As a young man, he forfeited his scholarship at Emerson College, where he was studying theater, to defend freedom in World War II. He enlisted in the U.S. Army and flew 52 combat missions with the Tuskegee Airmen over Nazi Germany. Throughout his life, none of his accomplishments made him prouder than his military service.
The groundbreaking television shows Lear later created exposed the ugliness and inequity caused by bigotry, homophobia, sexism, anti-Semitism, racism and more — the enemies of freedom. Rather than preach to us, he made us laugh at ourselves to show us the absurdity of small thinking.
In the second half of his century-plus life, Lear became more directly active politically. In 1981 he founded People for the American Way to promote freedom of expression, civic engagement, fair courts, and legal and lived equality for LGBTQ people. The organization is rooted in the freedom to vote and the guarantee that our votes will be fairly counted and that we will be fairly represented, regardless of our race, religion or beliefs, which he saw as “the American way.” The group has battled voter suppression, censorship and injustice ever since.
In 1982, I had the privilege of attending a television special that Lear and People For produced at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena in celebration of George Washington’s 250th birthday. The patriotic variety show, titled “I Love Liberty,” was billed as a salute to freedom and brought together a vast and varied group of influential people, as divergent as Barbra Streisand, who sang “God Bless America,” and Republican Senator Barry Goldwater. Actor John Wayne even appeared on film to say that while he didn’t agree with Streisand, he respected her right to express her views. Lear termed the program “a patriotic reaffirmation, a paean, a tribute to the guaranteed liberties in this country that is unique in the world.”
Nothing meant more to Lear than those “guaranteed liberties,” which he saw continually threatened by groups like the so-called Moral Majority. He loathed the fear tactics some groups used to claim superiority or disparage those who didn’t agree with them. He believed that the Bill of Rights belongs to all of us and applies to each of us. He bought one of the original copies of the Declaration of Independence and sent it on tour around the country to be seen and celebrated. He embraced the First Amendment, constitutional democracy, the American experiment and the American flag. He wanted to affirm people’s faith in themselves, regardless of their politics and religion. Unabashedly patriotic, he believed our mutual love of freedom should unite us.
Lear wasn’t out to make you agree with him. He recognized your right to freely believe what you would. But he wanted that same right for all of us, without being abused or belittled. Like President Eisenhower, who he admired, Lear believed we must guard against “unwarranted influence” and that only an “alert and knowledgeable citizenry” can do so. He departed this earth wanting nothing more than for the liberties guaranteed to Americans to be loved, honored and lived.
Mary Daily is a writer in Los Angeles and Wake Forest, NC.