In 1999 Norman Lear’s organization, People for the American Way, gave me and Archie Bunker’s son-in-law (Rob Reiner) Spirit of Liberty awards and hosted a dinner for the two of us. It was a thrilling night for me, especially because Joni Mitchell, Lou Reed (who actually presented me with the award), KRS-One, Steve Nicks and Mad Lion came to the event and sat with me. But something even more important happened soon afterward. PFAW asked me to join their board. The idea of working with Norman Lear blew my mind. It’s been over 2 decades now that I’ve been on that board and I’ve been thrilled to work with him and associated organizations like Young Elected Officials, where I met incredible activists like Stacey Abrams (GA), Rashida Tlaib (MI), Shevrin Jones (FL), Micah Ali (CA), Stanley Chang (HI), Ilhan Omar (MN), Svante Myrick (NY), Kevin Killer (SD), Chris Larson (WI) as well as the treacherous sociopath Kyrsten Sinema (AZ), each of whom I learned valuable lessons from.
I remember one time I was trying to persuade the Board to endorse now-Governor Ed Lamont (D-CT) in his primary against then Senator Joe Lieberman, the Joe Manchin of his day. PFAW didn’t like getting involved in primaries and I was trying to persuade the other board members why this was so important. Many agreed with me. Some didn’t. One even wanted to endorse Lieberman! The more radical members agreed with me but it looked like I was going to lose that battle. Norman was listening carefully to my arguments and he suddenly said he agreed with me and that he would vote to endorse Lamont. Total turnaround. No one voted against the proposal. PFAW became the first big DC-based organization to endorse Lamont, who then went on to beat Lieberman in the primary, much to the fury of the corrupt Democratic Party establishment.
Today is Norman’s 100th birthday! Imagine that! I haven’t seen him lately but today The NY Times published a fantastic OpEd he wrote, On My 100th Birthday, Reflections on Archie Bunker and Donald Trump. He’s grateful to be alive. I know the feeling. I’m in my 70s and all during my most formative years I never imagined I’d live beyond 30. On Thursday I’m going to City of Hope for surgery on my thyroid. They tell me it isn’t life threatening and I hope they’re right. Like Norman, I feel there’s more to do. He wrote that reaching his “own personal centennial is cause for a bit of reflection on my first century— and on what the next century will bring for the people and country I love. To be honest, I’m a bit worried that I may be in better shape than our democracy is. I was deeply troubled by the attack on Congress on Jan. 6, 2021— by supporters of former President Donald Trump attempting to prevent the peaceful transfer of power. Those concerns have only grown with every revelation about just how far Trump was willing to go to stay in office after being rejected by voters— and about his ongoing efforts to install loyalists in positions with the power to sway future elections. I don’t take the threat of authoritarianism lightly. As a young man, I dropped out of college when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and joined the U.S. Army Air Forces. I flew more than 50 missions in a B-17 bomber to defeat fascism consuming Europe. I am a flag-waving believer in truth, justice and the American way, and I don’t understand how so many people who call themselves patriots can support efforts to undermine our democracy and our Constitution. It is alarming.”
At the same time, I have been moved by the courage of the handful of conservative Republican lawmakers, lawyers and former White House staffers who resisted Mr. Trump’s bullying. They give me hope that Americans can find unexpected common ground with friends and family whose politics differ but who are not willing to sacrifice core democratic principles.
Encouraging that kind of conversation was a goal of mine when we began broadcasting All in the Family in 1971. The kinds of topics Archie Bunker and his family argued about— issues that were dividing Americans from one another, such as racism, feminism, homosexuality, the Vietnam War and Watergate— were certainly being talked about in homes and families. They just weren’t being acknowledged on television.
For all his faults, Archie loved his country and he loved his family, even when they called him out on his ignorance and bigotries. If Archie had been around 50 years later, he probably would have watched Fox News. He probably would have been a Trump voter. But I think that the sight of the American flag being used to attack Capitol Police would have sickened him. I hope that the resolve shown by Representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, and their commitment to exposing the truth, would have won his respect.
It is remarkable to consider that television— the medium for which I am most well-known— did not even exist when I was born, in 1922. The internet came along decades later, and then social media. We have seen that each of these technologies can be put to destructive use— spreading lies, sowing hatred and creating the conditions for authoritarianism to take root. But that is not the whole story. Innovative technologies create new ways for us to express ourselves, and, I hope, will allow humanity to learn more about itself and better understand one another’s ideas, failures and achievements. These technologies have also been used to create connection, community and platforms for the kind of ideological sparring that might have drawn Archie to a keyboard. I can only imagine the creative and constructive possibilities that technological innovation might offer us in solving some of our most intractable problems.
I often feel disheartened by the direction that our politics, courts and culture are taking. But I do not lose faith in our country or its future. I remind myself how far we have come. I think of the brilliantly creative people I have had the pleasure to work with in entertainment and politics, and at People for the American Way, a progressive group I co-founded to defend our freedoms and build a country in which all people benefit from the blessings of liberty. Those encounters renew my belief that Americans will find ways to build solidarity on behalf of our values, our country and our fragile planet.
Those closest to me know that I try to stay forward-focused. Two of my favorite words are “over” and “next.” It’s an attitude that has served me well through a long life of ups and downs, along with a deeply felt appreciation for the absurdity of the human condition.
Reaching this birthday with my health and wits mostly intact is a privilege. Approaching it with loving family, friends and creative collaborators to share my days has filled me with a gratitude I can hardly express.
This is our century, dear reader, yours and mine. Let us encourage one another with visions of a shared future. And let us bring all the grit and openheartedness and creative spirit we can muster to gather together and build that future.