TV Legend Norman Lear Loves America So Much He Read Us The Declaration Of Independence

Norman Lear in the Heineken Green Room at Vulture Festival Presented By AT&T at The Roosevelt Hotel on November 10, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Rich Fury/Getty Images for New York Magazine)

Fewer than 400,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II are still alive, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

One of those is Norman Lear, who turned 97 this summer. After serving in the European Theatre, Lear told the story of the America he fought for in groundbreaking TV shows like "All in the Family," "The Jeffersons," and "Maude." Lear has also been a champion of democracy, touring a copy of the Declaration of Independence across the country, and speaking out for the First Amendment.

We spoke with Lear at his office in Culver City.

You are a combat vet of World War II. You've continued to fight for the values that you and my dad and millions of other men and women have fought for during the war. What's your message today on Veterans Day?

My message on Veterans Day is: Is there anything you wouldn't do for love of country? I ask myself and I can't think of anything I wouldn't do.

You joined the war as soon as you heard Pearl Harbor had been bombed. What did you end up doing in the war?

I was in the B17 in the 15th Air Force which flew out of Foggia, Italy and bombed Frankfurt and Hamburg and Berlin. All the German cities.

Can you give us some sense of what you were thinking when you were doing this?

I was the radio operator, which was closest to the bomb bay doors. So I watched our bombs fall out of our plane ... watching hundreds of bombs falling. I imagined a dining room table with a family sitting around it — mother and father and four kids, let's say. And a bomb hits that kitchen. I remember thinking, "Screw them, I don't care." Afterward, I thought, if somebody came to me with a paper and a pencil and said, "Mr. Lear, sign this, and you will forever mean you didn't care," I could never sign that. But the fact is, I've never proved it to myself. It's too strong to say it tortures me, but it troubles me, because I can't be certain.

Did you talk about the war with your kids or anybody after? Or were you one of those guys who just held it all bottled up inside?

Well, that sounds like I held it up because I had to hold it. I just didn't happen to talk about it. A lot of guys didn't happen to talk about it. They weren't holding onto something they couldn't deal with or whatever. I think that's bulls—.

How often every day do you think about the war?

How often every day? Oh, 30 times a day. No, I don't think about the war. (Laughs) At all.

Certainly not every day. It comes up from time to time and I think about it. As I'm telling you these stories all these years later, it's hard to believe it was in the same lifetime. Sometimes I say, "Wait a minute, did I really go through that?" But I did.

You're 97. When I grew up, we had World War I vets in my town and they were in their late 70s up to the 90s. I watched them go, one by one. I'm just thinking ... it's gonna suck when you guys are not around anymore.

(Laughs) Well, I don't know, there can't be that many of us around now. I don't have a lot of 97-year-old friends.

In 2001, you bought one of the first published copies of the Declaration of Independence and toured it around the country where millions of people got to be close to it. Why'd you do it?

I did it because it was an impulse of the moment. Just like hearing the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor all those years before and instantly wishing to enlist. It has a lot to do with love of country. My father went to prison when I was 9 years old. I was Jewish. There was a Father Coughlin on radio who was a vicious anti-Semite. I heard this guy while my dad was away and I learned for the first time that there were people who don't like me because I was born to a Jewish couple. At the same time, they were teaching civics in school and I had learned why I should love this country. And I did indeed love this country ... for its values and for its promises. Not all kept, but promised. That had to do with the Declaration of Independence. I don't think there are words anywhere in the world I care more about:

We hold these truths to be self-evident. That all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

They mention happiness twice in there.

I think happiness is an important word. A declaration that promises or seeks to promise happiness ... you have to love the framers who gave us that document and those words. Who felt that happiness is a gift.

You're going to read the First Amendment for us for our National Democracy Project. What do you think people need to understand about the First Amendment?

That it is the first amendment. It is the sentence that most identifies America and the American promise. I think it's the primary one because it's the one that seeks to guarantee everybody has the right to speak their piece.

Can I have dibs on the 100th birthday interview?

You've got it. As a matter of fact, I want the big guy upstairs to know I've already made a commitment for my 100th!

Caroline Champlin contributed to this story.