Norman Lear, the legendary, 94-year-old television writer and political activist, has jumped into the presidential election in co-producing an eight-part documentary for EPIX on social issues ranging from education to housing to addiction. WaxWord spoke to Lear as the series debuted this weekend.
What did you think of the presidential debate?
I’ve said this before: I think of Donald Trump as the middle finger of the American right hand. (Pause.) I think more of the American people than H.L. Mencken did, when he said no one ever lost money underestimating their intelligence.
We’re not the best educated, but we’re wise at heart. Some things are reflexive. We are wise enough reflexively to say, “F— it — this is what you’re giving us [in America] — take this!” And they give us Donald Trump. I don’t think their hearts are in it. Their “F— you’ is in supporting the Trump candidacy.
So meanwhile you’re basically acting as a journalist in exploring racial inequality in housing in this series? Isn’t that our job?
Alongside not being a journalist, I am a citizen. I am interested in things that interest a good citizen. Can the state of journalism bear one intrusion — why not?
What are you hoping to accomplish with this series?
Allowing myself to be there on the scene, meeting people, talking to them, living it a little bit with them — that was surprisingly emotional for me. Despite everything I thought I knew — s—.
Families would gather in the foyer in Brooklyn, Crown Heights. I was the only white dude there. They had long leases, they were “protected” by these leases, but in order to get them to break the leases, the landlord was doing terrible things. Noisy, dust-raising “fixes,” tearing out a step, putting it back again. Dust, debris. After raising the rent.
What did you expect to find?
I thought I knew a lot of what I would see, but you don’t really know it if you haven’t come up to it. It’s hard to believe what the human species is capable of. So when I’m shown a $120 million apartment on the 53rd floor and it’s empty, it’s 360 degrees of the greatest views, and it’s empty. I ask who bought this, and finally they show me a slip of paper with 4 letters and 9 numbers — it’s some foreign entity that’s parking $120 million in Manhattan. No one is living there. I didn’t expect that anymore than I expected these families living with dust and debris and landlords determined to get them out of there.
Is the intention to have an impact on the election?
I wasn’t thinking about the election. I guess it does reflect on everything going on. These are the things that divide America.
I don’t know that you have to be on the left to say, “This is too much. We don’t want to be responsible for this.” I’ve got good Republican friends who will react to this the way I react — they don’t want to see landlords behaving the way I describe.
What do you make of the current political landscape?
When I was a kid we had civics classes. I so bemoan that we don’t study civics anymore. People don’t know what the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, what the Declaration of Independence promised me as a member of a Jewish minority. I don’t compare it with what blacks or other minorities suffer. But to some degree it helped me — to be a little Jewish kid, who heard Father Coughlin on the radio, and I understood that his country said “Unh-unh, not here.”
What will you do if Donald Trump wins?
I’m gonna run away with you.
Where are we going?
We have a place in Vermont.
Are you feeling optimistic?
I don’t want to wake up tomorrow without hope. I don’t have the answers as to how we cure this and that, but I’m altogether hopeful we’ll come out of it. And if we have to live with four years — of DT — I bet it wouldn’t be more. We’ll make it through that.