By: Jim Longworth
Some years ago I moderated a panel discussion featuring a number of television’s biggest stars. The event took place just prior to election day, so I began by asking, “Is it OK for actors to be openly involved in and vocal about politics?” A tinge of unease came over their faces. You would have thought I had asked them to disrobe. They, like many performers, worried that taking a political stand could alienate half of their viewers, or even derail their career.
Ed Asner knows what it means to pay a price for taking a stand. By 1982 Asner had seven Emmys under his belt, many of which were won portraying newsman Lou Grant in two different television series (“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Lou Grant”). He was one of the most popular and successful actors in Hollywood, and “Lou Grant”, then in its fifth season, was still in Nielsen’s top ten. But Asner made one fatal mistake. No, he didn’t sexually harass his co-workers, or sell illegal drugs, or violate underage boys. Instead, his “crime” was to speak out against the Reagan administration’s Central America policy, and help send humanitarian aid to Nicaraguan civilians under attack by U.S. backed Contras. Suddenly CBS canceled “Lou Grant”, and Asner was effectively blackballed from headlining his own network series. But Asner never stopped working, and today at age 88, he is still one of the most sought-after actors in America, and still one of the most politically active.
I first met Asner in 2010 while he was shooting a film in High Point, and took time out to visit the Triad Today studio to tape an extended interview (which is archived on www.jimlongworth.net ). We recently spoke by phone about his new book, “The Grouchy Historian: An Old Time Lefty Defends Our Constitution Against Right Wing Hypocrites and Nutjobs”, which he co-authored with T.V. scribe Ed Weinberger. The book clears up common misperceptions about our great document (it never mentions one man one vote), and about the men who framed it (many were Deists, not Christians), while taking jabs at modern-day politicians and pundits who routinely misrepresent the Constitution in order to advance their own agenda.
Longworth: Why did you write the book? And why now?
Asner: Well, both Ed Weinberger and I were commiserating with each other on how unhappy we were with the right wing constantly claiming the Constitution was theirs, and we decided that some counter-thrust should occur.
Longworth: What’s worse, right wing nuts who abuse the Constitution, or a President who hasn’t read it?
Asner: (laughs) What’s the difference? He’s a pip. Trump is a P.T. Barnum like I’ve never witnessed in my life. There’s a sucker born every minute, and I think he’s corralled most of them.
Longworth: Should the 25th Amendment, which allows for a President to be removed from office due to incapacitation, be interpreted to include “mental” incapacitation?
Asner: I’ll probably be jumped on from every quarter for saying this, but it’s an inexact science. You can get one expert to testify to one’s sanity, and you can get another expert to say that the same man is looney tunes.
Longworth: In the section of your book titled, “Asner’s Articles”, you advocate for free healthcare. Will America ever get a Medicare For All system like the one Bernie Sanders advocates?
Asner: Why is Canada’s achievement so impossible for us? Why? They have single-payer, and they do so well, but we can’t seem to guide our policies that way.
Longworth: The week before your book was released, 59 people were murdered at a concert in Las Vegas by a man with over a dozen assault rifles. Since then, another 26 people were killed in similar fashion while attending church services in Texas. Can we have effective gun control, and still preserve the spirit of the 2nd Amendment?
Asner: Yes, there’s a way if you put the emphasis on the “militia” (police and military) being well armed, and not individuals. I am shocked and disgusted that after that Las Vegas incident, that nobody in Congress has talked about gun control.
Longworth: Let’s be realistic. Right wingers are not going to buy your book.
Asner: They’ll borrow it (both laugh).
Longworth: So then as an old Lefty, how do you ever reach the far Right, and help them have a better understanding of the Constitution, and of the issues facing us today?
Asner: Our problem in this country is that those folks don’t read, and Betsy DeVos is not helping them. If we could lead a mass education policy in this country, getting people to read what they should be reading, then we might get such books as mine popularly read.
Longworth: Do you ever regret being politically active, and getting “Lou Grant” canceled?
Asner: I second guess on it all the time. My great regret is that a show with ideas was removed from T.V., and I don’t think we’ve had a show with ideas to take its place since. The causes we covered on “Lou Grant” are still untreated, and that’s the guilt I carry. But I don’t relive my past beyond that.
Longworth: Like me, you’re an Independent, but what has to happen for Democrats to take back control of Congress and the White House?
Asner: Getting off their asses, for one thing. If some preacher could come along and show Democrats the suffering caused by Republican policies, then I think that preacher could affect a large following.
Longworth: So what would it take for you to stop being grouchy?
Asner: I think that avuncular is very attractive, and I like filling those shoes. I don’t want to stop being grouchy, and mind your own Goddamn business!
“The Grouchy Historian” is available in bookstores and from Amazon.com.
Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11 a.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).