Norman Lear Celebrates 30 Years of People For the American Way

People For The American Way Foundation's 30th Anniversary Celebration - H - 2011
Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for People For The American Way Foundation

President Bill Clinton and Alec Baldwin joined the legendary TV creator in honoring the progressive group's three decades in New York on Thursday.

30 years ago, All in the Family creator Norman Lear saw an evangelical preacher on TV asking his audience to pray for the removal of a Supreme Court justice. Something clicked in his mind and the man behind countless TV successes had a new mission.

"Three weeks later, my company had a retreat in La Jolla," Lear remembers. "I walked into the retreat and said, 'You guys are going to have to replace me. There's something else I have do.'"

That something was the creation of the People for the American Way, the progressive civil liberties advocacy group that turns 30 this year. And to celebrate, the organization held a gala in a Central Park West apartment building with an all-star guest list that included President Bill Clinton, board member Alec Baldwin and actress Doris Roberts, along with some of the group's biggest donors and board members.

As part of the celebration, the group unveiled a new print by artist Ed Ruscha, titled Liberty, that was created in honor of the group's three decades in existence.

Over the years the People For the American Way have worked to prevent the abolishment of funding for the arts and humanities and to stop the passage of a constitutional amendment mandating prayer in public schools. They worked to stop the appointment of potential Supreme Court Justice Robert Bork and worked to hasten the approval of sitting Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

But Lear is frustrated that for all the work the group has done over the years, the same issues continue to crop up in society. "One of the great examples of that is one of the things the People For the American Way is as responsible for as any other group, which was to see that Robert Bork did not gain the Supreme Court. Now, all these years later he's been appointed judicial consultant for Mitt Romney. You want to talk about frustration."

However, Lear can look to other efforts that the group has succeeded in. "The Texas School Board Authority would be a much bigger factor in the content of school books across the country but for the People For the American Way." In 1984, the group successfully pressured the Texas board to repeal a 1974 rule requiring that evolution be taught as only one of several explanations of the origin of mankind. "That was one of the great triumphs."

Controversies about the teaching of evolution and the content of Texas school books have popped up again as recently as 2010, when the authority sought to revise the books to have a more conservative political outlook.

Today, Lear is not as involved with the group as he once was when he was producing several notable TV spots to promote the organization, but he credits the current team, including president Michael Keegan with continuing to do great work without him.

The current board includes actress Kathleen Turner, Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, Rabbi David Saperstein and former ambassador James Hormel.