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Spirit of '76 Lives On in Norman Corwin at 83

August 26, 1993|LINDA FELDMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It is not a contradiction to see a Macintosh computer and an ancient Smith-Corona typewriter side by side on Norman Corwin's desk. He may be 83, but he has an agenda that will take him into the 21st Century.

For him, some things change, and some things just don't--such as his disdain for mediocrity and his love of freedom.

More than 50 years ago, Corwin wrote "We Hold These Truths," a radio show celebrating the Bill of Rights, with Orson Welles as host. It aired a week after Pearl Harbor was attacked and had an audience of 60 million listeners.

In 1991, he did a show with the same name, using 20% of the old show's material, on American Public Radio. The narrator was Richard Dysart of "L.A. Law." It was a typical Corwin reminder that Americans need to remain vigilant in defending their rights and that the Bill of Rights is a living document, not a museum piece.

Corwin has been called everything from gadfly to poet. He doesn't like either label: He thinks gadfly lacks weight, and poet is too heavy. He prefers to think of himself as a chauffeur to millions of people, taking them on excursions inside the Bill of Rights.

His own journey from high school graduate to journalism began in Massachusetts as the sports editor at the Greenfield Daily Record in Springfield. He spent his early years in radio as a writer, director, performer and producer, accumulating awards and honors along the way.

He tried screenwriting and received an Academy Award nomination for his script for "Lust for Life," and an Emmy for the TV adaptation of his radio play, "The Plot to Overthrow Christmas." On Nov. 7, he will be inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in the Pioneer category.

Ten years ago, Corwin began to write about what he thought was hurting the country. His book "Trivializing America" was published in 1984. In it, he described a "loosening of the fabric of society . . . a national attitude that strives for momentary pleasures and is amenable to getting along by going along, comfortable with mediocrity."

Some critics called him overly pessimistic. Corwin chose not to respond. "They canceled themselves out," he said in a recent interview in his West Los Angeles office. "The fact is that nothing has changed, and the trivializing process continues and accelerates. There has been a planing down of quality, expectations and the requirements we make of ourselves and our standards--and the media contribute to it."

He picks the news of a rather typical day--July 10, 1985--to illustrate how the media play a direct role in the process. Among the top stories: The Soviet Union and China signed a $14-billion trade deal; a Greenpeace ship was blown up, killing a photographer; eight major fires burned in California, destroying 300,000 acres of forest and brush; an emergency is declared in New York City because of an acute drought.

"And what's the lead of two television networks that night?" he asks. "Coca-Cola decided to go back to its original taste! The headline of the Denver Post? 'Real Thing Is Back.' "

If Corwin could choose his own label, it would be idealist--but he thinks the term is not so much a compliment as a responsibility.

"It's not a matter of choice for any artist who is aware of gross injustices in this world and who has the voice and the means to speak out," he said. "It's his responsibility to do so. He reminds us of the screams and shrieks of humanity and is the bulwark against those who would, for instance, say that the Holocaust is too remote, historically, to concern us. We need the idealists to protect us. It comes naturally to anybody who hopes to rely on his wits and imagination."

Corwin says he will continue to write about the trivializing of America because the alternative--allowing those forces to go unchallenged, further reducing a "nation that has had moments of grandeur and can have them again"--is far worse.

Corwin recently wrote the text to political cartoonist Paul Conrad's new book, "ConArtist." He also has another play to write, a library of his work to create, students to teach, essays to compose, and maybe an opera.

On the subject of getting older, he says, "Forget the damn numbers. Recognize there are no arbitrary limits to the ability of individuals to contribute to the culture and the political well-being of their society."

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