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Transcript: Bill Moyers Interviews Norman Lear
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Norman Lear

MOYERS: It shouldn't surprise Americans when people rise up to protest a foreign power's encroachment on their rights. We started it all because of a multinational company called the East India company backed by the British Crown.

Here's our call to arms, the Declaration of Independence, a single sheet of parchment that became the birth certificate of rebellion. The one you see here is the only copy in private hands. It belongs to Normal Lear, the Emmy award- winning producer of "All in the Family" and other television hits, and founder of the liberal advocacy group, People for the American Way.

He paid $8.2 million for this copy of the document, and like every good showman he's taking it on the road from the Superbowl to the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

Norman Lear is with me now. He's a long time friend, a patriot known to shed a tear when the flag unfurls. Welcome to NOW.

LEAR: Thank you. Happy to be here, Bill.

MOYERS: Why did you buy this copy of the Declaration?

LEAR: Because I had read that it was going to be auctioned off by Sotheby's, and learned that it was three blocks away in Los Angeles.

Walked over to look at it, started to cry a bit.

MOYERS: At what? What were you crying about? Not the...

LEAR: Well, you used the expression birth certificate. The birth certificate of the United States, "the" United States of America, written July 4th, 1776, for the very first time. And it goes back in my life to a grandfather. If you've got a minute I'll tell you about my grandfather.

My grandfather, I lived with him for a couple of years when my dad had a problem and I was shunted to my grandparents. My grandfather loved this country, stood holding my hand so tightly it hurt, on street corners when a parade went by. And they went by often, you know, July 4th, Veteran's Day, President's Day. There were always parades. And he wrote the president.

MOYERS: The President of the United States?

LEAR: He wrote...he was an inveterate letter writer to the president. And so I was with him, I heard these letters, he read them to me. Every letter started off, My Dearest Darling Mr. President, don't you listen to them when they say such and such and so and so. You know, giving him advice. And when he disagreed, which was rare, but when he disagreed he wrote, My Dearest Darling Mr. President, didn't I tell you last week....And he would read them to me with this inflection.

But, I would go downstairs, three flights, 74 York Street, New Haven, Connecticut, and in that little bronze mailbox every now and again, this little white post card that said, White House. And my nine, 10 year old heart would just thumping, I couldn't get over it.

MOYERS: So did you feel the same evocation when you stood in front of this document?

LEAR: Every bit of it. Every bit. And instantly thought, people's document, it will travel. If I am lucky enough to secure it, it's the people's document, they'll never have to hunt for where it is, it's coming to them.

MOYERS: And you've been taking it on the road as I said earlier. What's been the reaction out there?

LEAR: Well, it's phenomenal. You know, in our culture if you pay a lot of money for something you get a lot of press. So it was a lot of press.

MOYERS: We asked your team for some reactions from the people who were coming to...have been coming to see the Declaration of Independence. Let's look at what they gave us.


Woman: You can actually look at the document that set in place America.

Officer: You grow up learning about it in school and stuff like that. And then to actually see it, to hold it. It just kind of touches little deep. It really means what this country's standing.

Boy: It's really a standard for a lot of revolutions around the world.

Teenage Girl: I definitely believe that it will inspire people, especially people in my generation. Helping them realize that it's in their power to reclaim their freedom.

Man: It just brought this heartfelt feeling.


LEAR: ...this was in Salt Lake City at the Winter Olympics, there were well over 100,000 people who came to see it. It sits in a bed of 1,000 pounds of stainless steel that kids can come up over and look at, see the document at close hands.

MOYERS: Is it possible that we are more sentimental about it than we are devoted to living it out? Any danger of that?

LEAR: I think the culture has trivialized our point of view about such things. The last line of the document, you know, we pledge our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor. The words "sacred honor" -- where in our culture do we propagate the notion or do we help kids understand the beauty of the words and the proposition, sacred honor? You know, I often think you have to go to The Godfather, you know, you have to go to places like The Godfather to find people who are for wrong reasons pledging sacred honor.

MOYERS: What do you mean by sacred honor? What do you think they mean, and do you mean what they mean?

LEAR: I think sacred honor means if I say to you, count on me, you can count on me. As simple as that. If I say I'll be there, if I say you matter to me, you can count on it.

MOYERS: Did your heart leap with joy last week when the Federal Court in California said that the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional because that phrase one nation under God violates the separation of church and state? Were you pleased with that?

LEAR: I won't say I was pleased; I wasn't upset. I wasn't upset. A ceremonial deity. Somebody used that phrase, some great thinker. The Senate says...uses the word God in the first sentence of prayer every morning, that doesn't trouble me.

MOYERS: Do you think it would surprise people, particularly people in the religious right, to know that the Pledge of Allegiance was written by a Christian socialist?

LEAR: I think it would surprise them very much as it does me. It was.

MOYERS: In fact, he originally had in it, equality, justice for all. Equality and justice for all. But the superintendent of education on his commission did not believe women and African Americans were equal so he took that out. But as a Christian socialist. The words under God were added...

LEAR: In 1950 something.

MOYERS: In 1954 after a campaign by the Knights of Columbus. So these, our friends on the right, the Protestants, conservative Protestants, are pledging allegiance to an oath written by a socialist, and the Catholics.

LEAR: You know, interesting the word conservative, because there are sometimes when I think, who's really the conservative? I hold a very narrow view about my First Amendment, my Bill of Rights. Don't mess with my Bill of Rights. Isn't that a conservative point of view? It's very focused, it's very narrow. I would think very conservative.

MOYERS: What do you mean my Bill of Rights?

LEAR: It's mine.

MOYERS: How so?

LEAR: This is my country, this is my flag, that's my president, this is my Bill of Rights. That's what my grandfather would say were he sitting here, and I'm speaking through him.

MOYERS: What is written in the Declaration, Norman, in today's terms, that is still revolutionary, that's still is important to remember.

LEAR: All men are created equal, endowed by their creator with the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. If one takes those words very seriously and then examines all of the policy that's necessary to make those words real...

MOYERS: Do you think...

LEAR: We haven't made good on all these promises.

MOYERS: One doesn't hear that much anymore, the word equality. Do you think that idea is still revolutionary, and is it...

LEAR: I think equality before.... We're not certainly all equal. We don't all run as fast, we're not all as smart, we...there are lots of differences. But equality before the law, I think nine out of 10 people would tell you they believe...I think 10 out of 10 people would tell you they believe totally. When it came to what is necessary to ensure that, that's where the differences come.

MOYERS: You have lived through over one-third of this country's history. You've won some and you've lost some. How do you feel about the country this fourth of July weekend?

LEAR: You know, I don't want to wake up the morning I don't have hope, and I don't think that's only the...that's the only reason why I have hope. The co-chairs of the Declaration of Independence project are Presidents Ford and Carter. Among the...on the board are Lady Bird Johnson and Nancy Reagan.

And I'm here, everybody knows me to be progressive or liberal or whatever the term they care to use. But we collect around this document and those basic ideas: life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, created equal. And I couldn't be prouder of that. And that and the people's response to the document give me great hope.

MOYERS: What do you think is American's greatest contribution to political science?

LEAR: I think the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

MOYERS: The protection of the individual...

LEAR: The protection of the individual conscience, of the right to speak, of the right to gather, the right to protest.

MOYERS: You think we do much protesting?

LEAR: I don't think we do enough protesting. I don't think we do enough protesting. And when we do we hear from the establishment that for all kinds of reasons that perhaps we're doing the wrong thing. We're not going along. Well, America isn't about going along. America is about being heard.

MOYERS: So this is still a revolutionary country.

LEAR: In that respect it is still a revolutionary country. May it never change.

MOYERS: Thank you very much, Norman.

LEAR: Thank you.

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