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Looking Back on 30 Years

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What follows is my speech to the 30th anniversary dinner for People for the American Way, delivered at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel on December 5, 2011. Please watch it below, or continue scrolling to read it in full.

It is the 30th anniversary of People For the American Way.

You honor me for having had something to do with starting it -- and a reasonable amount to do with keeping it relevant and effective.

You raised over a million and a half dollars -- just tonight -- honoring Alec Baldwin and me -- and you pay me the additional honor of allowing me to close the evening that celebrates all that!

But please, don't for a second be concerned as to whether this is all too much for me.

I can take it.

That comes as a consequence of my age.

I get a kick out of my age.

Just getting out of a chair and crossing the room gets me applause now.

And I can't believe how wise I've become.

A simple "Good morning", is thought to hold deep meaning.

Now if any of you are thinking that at my age a fellow may believe he's earned the right to feel that way, I want to tell you that If I lived to be 99, 109, I wouldn't feel I earned it.

My mother saw to that.

Many years ago, she visited us in Los Angeles for a couple of weeks.

Actually, I sent a car to Connecticut to drive her to JFK where I met her, had a wheelchair ready for her, pushed her up to the plane myself, and brought her to LA.

First Class.

When I tell you we did everything -- I mean we did everything to show her a good time.

We took her to a couple of previews and to a few dinner parties; introduced her to all the Caroll O'Connors Bea Arthurs, all the Reiners and Mel Brooks' of my life.

We took her to a cocktail party to meet Walther Matthau and Gregory Peck, brought her to a book signing for Groucho Marx; screened a film for her where she met Paul Newman- - Anyway, we did everything we could to show her a good time.

When her visit was over and I was driving her to the airport for her flight home -- First Class -- she said to me, "Norman, sweetheart, when I get home to Bridgeport and you speak to someone back there, if you hear that I told them a little white lie, you shouldn't be upset." "Why?", I asked. "What little white lie, mother?" " Nothing, darling," she said. "Just remember, if you talk to your sister or cousin Esther, and you hear--"

"Mother", I begged, "What are you talking about? Why would you have to tell a little white lie?"

"Well", she said, "Who has to know that I didn't get to Las Vegas?"

That was my mother.

Many of you have heard this story before -- I called her in Bridgeport, one morning when I learned that the Television Academy of Arts and Sciences was starting a Hall of Fame and I would be among the very first inductees- along with Bill Paley and General Sarnoff, Paddy Chayefsky, Edward R. Morrow, Lucille Ball and Milton Berle -- and I when I told her she said, "Listen, if that's what they want to do, who am I to say?"

Would you believe I have 75 years of those stories?

I can't believe it has been 30 years since I was startled by the proliferation of TV evangelicals across radio and television -- Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, James Robison and Pat Robertson, among others, mixing politics and religion -- and reminding me when I was 9 or 10 years -- of listening to Father Coughlin on the radio -- ranting against Franklin Roosevelt, liberals, the New Deal and, in his case, Jews.

I decided to take them all on with a film and started writing one I called RELIGION -- hoping to savage these TV ministries much in the way Paddy Chayevsky savaged the Networks.

And then -- one morning I'm watching the Reverend Jimmy Swaggart -- and I see him ask his viewers -- his TV congregation -- to pray for the "removal" of a Justice of the Supreme Court -- and it scared the hell out of me.

I couldn't wait the 2 or more years it would take to write and make my film, so I made that TV spot you saw a bit of earlier -- the blue collar worker.

I paid to run it on a local TV station in DC and it caused so much talk that all three networks -- there were only three at the time-ran it on their 7 o'clock news and, like an act of spontaneous combustion -- People For The American Way was born.

From that day to this, I haven't gotten up and read my newspapers when I didn't thank God that People For was there.

I take great comfort knowing we have active members and supporters in 50 states -- activists who wish for everyone the freedom to read any book or movie of their choice -- create or appreciate even the most challenging art -- who believe the government has no business telling us who or how to love -- members and supporters who truly believe in equal justice and equal opportunity under the law -- who appreciate to their toes the blessings of an independent judiciary; and who couldn't appreciate more our wonderful staff in our DC headquarters - call them the professional People for the American Way, the ones who fight for these principles day in and day out, 24-7.

For the 30 years PEOPLE FOR, now under the leadership of the indefatigable Michael Keegan -- provided much of the eternal vigilance that the protection of our civil rights and liberties required. Our government, no matter the party in power, it aches me to say, was of no help in this regard. Often quite the contrary.

For example, 30 years ago we had something called the Fairness Doctrine. The Fairness Doctrine, enforced by the FCC, held that the media provide balance and objectivity in its news and discussion shows. So, for example, when People for the American Way saw Pat Robertson espousing only one point of view on a political matter -- and on a religious broadcast at that -- we notified the FCC and that ministry, often the entire Christian Broadcasting Network, was forced to provide us with equal time to respond. That sounds right, doesn't it? Fair and balanced news reporting? Where have we heard that before? People For used the Fairness Doctrine so effectively until it was repealed in 1987.

On May 13, 1982 I received this letter from The Reverend Pat Robertson, President of the Christian Broadcasting Network:

Dear Norman,

Last week, your organization challenged our program on KTLA in Los Angeles, and yesterday, the sales manager of KTLA called our headquarters and said, "If you discuss anything political on your program, next week we will take it off the air."

Norman, you are not merely trying to silence a member of the press, you are trying to silence a prophet of God. I warn you with all solemnity -- Norman, 'Your arms are too short to box with God.' The suppression of the voice of God's servant is a terrible thing! God himself will fight for me against you -- and he will win. I remain, sincerely yours, Pat Robertson.

Unfortunately, too many of us to the left of center tend to laugh at things such as this. I am chilled by it. With good reason.

On October 1, 1981, hundreds of thousands of people belonging to the Moral Majority received these words in a newsletter from Jerry Falwell. "Dear friends, I am about to name the man that some people believe to be the greatest threat to the American family in our generation: Norman Lear!"

He went on to talk about the filth and sexual perversion that my shows brought into America's living room -- but calling me "the greatest threat to the American family" earned me some hate mail -- and death threats -- One so threatening that my family and partners insisted I secure protection. This religiously stoked hatred threatens humanity everywhere across the globe today -- and it is very alive in our America as well - and most threatening when it comes with a partisan political tinge. People For has stood as a bulwark against that -- in the press, in the media, and by example.

When we produced a two-hour special, I LOVE LIBERTY, years ago, our co-chairs were Gerald Ford and Lady Bird Johnson. On the same stage we had Barry Goldwater, John Wayne and Jane Fonda, all contributing to the idea that, fight as we may over policy and ideology, we stand united when it comes to basic American principles.

We continue to work toward that end today. 6 weeks ago -- my People for the American way credentials quite intact -- I accepted an invitation to accompany Nancy Reagan to the Republican debate at the Reagan Library. Her husband, with whom I had a friendly, however contentious, relationship would have been happy to see me there, I know. That civility is so unlike anything we hear from the Republican candidates as they battle each other.

Newt Gingrich, like the others, cloaks everything he says today in a kind of bumper sticker religiosity.

We on the left have ceded the God and values talk to the Right and I think it's been a big mistake. The "What's it all about, Alfie?" questions make for the best conversation going. I consider myself as much a believer -- as religious if you will, as the next guy -- but it's MY belief system. I have thanked whatever and whoever is responsible for my being alive with every wake up. Virtually every time I've bitten into a ripe peach or looked into my children's eyes or enjoyed a great laugh in a group, I've been grateful, often to the point of tears.

I once asked a great theologian and friend in Vermont to give me the shortest definition he could of "worship". He gave it to me in one word -- "gratitude." You don't agree with that, no problem -- so long as you don't decry it. If worship for you means going to a church or a synagogue or a mosque, reading from a specific sacred text, wonderful. Or if you choose not to believe altogether -- I offered my life in a war for you to believe whatever way you do.

But it is also my view that we humans and our faith systems are so gloriously complex that you can take any amount of people sitting in the same pews, knee to knee, every Sunday of their lives, reading and praying from the same sacred text -- and like no two snow flakes, no two thumb prints -- no two compacts with the Almighty will be the same. The way we think and feel and relate to the deity is unique to each of us.

Our founders clearly intended that there be a level of separation between church and state.

I was just trying to build a wall of understanding, of common sense -- to go along with the notion that it's a poor idea to mix politics and religion -- and a good idea -- to back that caution with laws that make that clear. For 30 years, I've brought my perspective to People For the American Way and linked arms and minds and spirits with people of all faiths and experiences who have brought their unique perspective to the work of the organization.

What unites us are the promises and guarantees of our founding documents, and the precise language with which they are expressed. The majesty of words and phrases like "Endowed by their creator with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." The constitutional guarantee of Equal Justice under the law and the promise of Equal opportunity for all.

Then there are the last words of the Declaration of Independence where the founders pledge their "lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor."

"Sacred honor." Feels antique, doesn't it? We don't sense much of that today, do we? The last time I came across Sacred Honor was watching "The Godfather."

I want to suggest we lefties start laying claim to what we see as "sacred" -- and serve it up proudly to the Religious Right -- to the James Dobson, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Karl Rove hate-mongers, sheathed in sanctity -- and to the Koch Brother types that fund them -- and use them so effectively for their own political power-grabbing purposes!

Over the past several decades, the power-grabbing right has built a powerful infrastructure of radio and TV networks. They've built think tanks, colleges and law schools. And funded political groups that prepped the way for the Supreme Court, in Citizen's United -- to grant Corporations the right to provide any amount of financial backing to a candidate or a cause just like any other average citizen. And all of it carried off with an air of holier-than-thou sanctity -- no less apparent than Pat Robertson's when he told me my arms were too short to box with God.

And now, as frightening as it is, where do we find that holier-than-thou sanctity most apparent in politics today?

Among the seven candidates attempting to prove in every debate we have seen that they are the right kind of Christian to be the Republican candidate for the Presidency of the United States.

In light of the circumstances we liberals and progressives have succumbed to, it is hard to remember that we -- not the right -- WE are the spiritual heirs to those Americans who struggled to end slavery and segregation -- to end child labor and win safe conditions and a living wage for workers.

And WE are the spiritual heirs to those who conceived of and fought for just about every bit of social legislation in the last century, legislation that everyone, left and right, now take for granted -- and that resulted -- until not that many years ago -- in the most flourishing, hopeful and empowered middle class in the history of nations. And yet, despite being the spiritual heirs to all of that, it is the Right that presumes ownership of everything that pertains to God and to the Flag.

Looking to the future, I will rely on People for the American Way and its sons and daughters in Young People For and Young Elected Officials to continue to fight for that wall of separation between government and religion. I will rely on them to insure that equal protection of the law covers all Americans no matter their race, religion or sexual orientation. And I will rely on them to claim their share of God and the flag -- by acknowledging that the God for all believers on the right is the same God for all believers on the left as well -- and that no one side can lay sole claim to the family values, patriotism and all the other good stuff that stems from that source.

I have loved sharing this with you tonight. You glorious people for the American way. Thank you.