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Channeling Patriotism Into the Voting Booth

Lear hopes 'secular revival' tour featuring historic document will raise turnout at polls.

November 01, 2002|Anne-Marie O'Connor | Times Staff Writer

In the 1970s Norman Lear reinvented prime-time television, bringing debate on feminism, race and the Vietnam War into the living rooms of families as quintessentially American as Archie Bunker and his pinko son-in-law, "Meathead."

Today Lear wants to reinvent patriotism -- or at least reframe it. As Americans prepare to vote and the Bush administration rattles its saber at Iraq, Lear is sending his own personal copy of the Declaration of Independence around Middle America.

"This will be a red, white and blue revival, like a religious revival," Lear said in an interview in a living room dominated by pre-Columbian figurines, a wall-sized Rauschenberg and a sweeping vista of the Santa Monica Mountains.

"This will be a secular revival of America," he said, "and they will rush out of the tent to register to vote. That's the goal of the whole effort."

Appropriating traditional Americana to send subversive messages is an old Lear shtick. But at 80, this Hollywood doge in a white porkpie hat may have outdone himself when he paid $8 million for a copy of "the nation's birth certificate."

The sepia-tinged document, one of 25 known to exist, is touring cities such as Danville, Ky., and Oxford, Miss., in a Postal Service truck that roars into town sounding sirens and trailing American flags. Upon arrival, the exhibit is set up in a museum or library, state capitol or other space.

The road show has a corporate sponsor -- Home Depot -- and Hollywood production values. There are the requisite taped celebrity readings by Morgan Freeman, Michael Douglas, Whoopi Goldberg and Kevin Spacey -- filmed by Conrad Hall, the cinematographer on "American Beauty." There is "America the Beautiful," recorded by 50 country singers -- including Lyle Lovett, Amy Grant and Kenny Rogers -- in Nashville.

There are T-shirts, classroom materials, a Reese Witherspoon video sermon on the importance of voting. The document lies in a bulletproof glass case that rests on a gleaming 5-foot-high aluminum scroll. "Kids practically climb on it," Lear said gleefully.

He's recruiting rappers and gospel singers and "scouting the country for multiethnic poets" for an eventual live show aimed at young adults, who often don't bother to vote.

Flea Market Find

Lear's copy of the declaration was one of 200 printed in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776. It turned up on the back of a painting picked up at a flea market in 1989.

On Tuesday, 3,400 people -- many of them schoolchildren -- lined up in Louisville, Ky,. to see it.

The Southern tour began Sept. 11 in Charleston, S.C. The exhibit has stopped at smaller Southern towns such as Camden, S.C., and Beaufort, N.C. It will make its way down to New Orleans and work its way up to Kansas City, Mo., by March. The road show won't end until November 2004.

The goal, Lear said, is that the morning after election day in November 2004, "we hope the country will wake up to learn [that] 1%, 2% -- some percent -- more Americans voted."

Lear also wants to remind Americans that dissent is constitutionally enshrined -- and, to Lear, as much a duty as a right. He is concerned that the war on terrorism has America headed for a confrontation with Iraq with insufficient debate, in part because opponents of the idea fear appearing unpatriotic.

"My response is two words: What debate?" he said. "I don't have a cut-and-dried answer about what we should do. But I've had a slide rule my whole life, and in this case my slide rule tells me I need to hear a serious debate. That's what America's all about."

Opening forums for discourse was what Lear's 1970s television belle epoque was all about. There was his early show on a black family, "The Jeffersons"; his sitcom "Maude," about an uppity liberated woman; his campy send-up of American housewifery in "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman."

And of course, there was "All in the Family," where the changes roiling U.S. society played out in a family in which the bigotry of its patriarch, Archie Bunker, was portrayed not as an aberration but as a cultural trait as American as apple pie.

"People always say, 'Did it change anything?' " Lear said. "I can't say. But when people turned the shows off, conversation ensued."

But that was years ago, before the ocean-view mansion, the 24-car garage, the tennis courts. F. Scott Fitzgerald once said there were no second acts in American lives, but Lear -- who is father of a 14-year-old and 8-year-old twins -- seems to have had at least three or four.

In 1980, during the rise of the religious right, Lear co-founded an advocacy group -- People for the American Way -- that is a sort of liberal answer to the John Birch Society.

Lear said he was disturbed by televangelists such as Pat Robertson, by "the mixture of politics and religion, and the conviction that God is on your side in social and political matters."

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