People For the American Way Foundation

Norman Lear: A Hollywood Legend’s Lasting DC Legacy

Norman Lear: A Hollywood Legend’s Lasting DC Legacy

First Published in The Hill.

On the recent Emmy Awards broadcast, actor and director Rob Reiner paid tribute to People for the American Way founder, the late Norman Lear, with a Yiddish word that he said described Norman’s genius: “kochleffel.”

Kochleffel is “a ladle that stirs the pot,” Reiner explained. “And when Norman the kochleffel stirred that pot, he wound up changing American culture.”

Norman is best known for his work in television, where he broke new ground by portraying families and their struggles more realistically, and by making people laugh while compassionately addressing tough issues like racism, sexuality and abortion.

But he was no stranger to Washington, D.C., and not just when he was being awarded the National Medal of Arts or celebrated at the Kennedy Center Honors.

At the height of his success in television, he committed himself to the defense of democracy when he founded People For the American Way to “stir the pot” here in D.C.  And he made waves.

In 1983, he spoke at a U.S. Senate hearing to defend Federal Communications Commission policies designed to protect the public interest in broadcasting, at a time when the Reagan administration was stripping them away.

“It is regrettable that the Chairman of the FCC should think of service to the community as a myth,” Lear testified.

Mark Lloyd, an associate general counsel at the FCC under President Barack Obama, wrote after Lear’s death that when the Reagan-era FCC ended those policies, it led to “the hollowing out of the FCC’s duty to make certain the communications industry operates in the public interest.”

In 1990, when members of Congress tried to pass a constitutional amendment banning flag burning as a form of political protest, Lear — a patriot who dropped out of college to fight the Nazis in World War II — defended the First Amendment:

“I love the flag because it is the symbol of the constitutional government that guarantees the freedoms of the land of the free and home of the brave,” he said, adding that Americans are “free to speak out, to criticize, to rail against. And brave enough to allow anyone who disagrees with us to do the same thing.”

The young organization he planted in D.C. made its mark too. Early on, it became famous — notorious, to some — for leading the charge against the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork.

And it exposed — and unbalanced — the televangelists Lear saw as such a threat to our country. The late Jerry Falwell became irrational on the subject of People For the American Way, which he blamed — along with the LGBTQ community and abortion — for the attacks of 9/11.

Decades later, Lear had a unique and insightful take on Donald Trump and the movement that mobilized on Trump’s behalf.  Watching the showman-turned-politician make a run for the presidency, he declared Trump proof of the power of popular culture.

On his 100th birthday, he wrote in The New York Times, “To be honest, I’m a bit worried that I may be in better shape than our democracy is.”

“I am a flag-waving believer in truth, justice and the American way,” he wrote, “and I don’t understand how so many people who call themselves patriots can support efforts to undermine our democracy and our Constitution.”

He was honest about feeling disheartened by some of the directions that our politics, courts and culture have taken in the Trump era. But he never lost faith in our country or its future, finding renewed hope in the creativity and commitment of younger people working in entertainment and political activism.

When Norman honored me by asking me to lead People For the American Way, he made it clear that he was still committed to the cause. And he was. He continued to advocate for federal judges who would protect all Americans, not just the most powerful. He spoke out against politicians who were imposing new restrictions on the right to vote. He was up to the minute on the results of the Virginia legislative elections last fall.

He can never be replaced. And while the world remembers Norman’s Hollywood legacy, we in D.C. will never forget the lasting legacy he created here. We’re honored to be entrusted with it.


Norman Lear