Sitcom King Lear

A reflection on Norman Lear, Archie Bunker, and All in the Family.

The recent death at the age of 101 of Norman Lear, creator of All in the Family and its improbable folk hero, Archie Bunker, set me to musing (always a dangerous thing) over Archie’s voting history and the dirty tricks that politics plays on us all.

I doubt if anyone under the age of 60 grasps the impact of All in the Family when it debuted on CBS in 1971. This wasn’t Punky Brewster or Manimal. Archie Bunker was a malaprop-tripping, outer-borough (Queens), blue-collar union-man paterfamilias given to bigoted asides and (thanks to actor Carroll O’Connor) perfectly timed double-takes. Whatever Lear’s satiric intentions, Archie became a beloved character during the show’s heyday, before it descended into stupid laugh-track moralizing. 

Norman Lear was a thoughtful pro-free speech liberal Democrat, a species rarer than goldfish-swallowers on today’s campuses. Even as a left-sympathizing kid I scorned Archie’s liberal son-in-law and sparring partner, played by Rob Reiner, as a self-righteous ingrate, and my guess is that Lear wanted it that way.

Yet Lear cheated, too. The wistful line in the All in the Family theme song—“Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again”—warbled off-key by Archie and his long-suffering wife Edith, is dishonest even by sitcom standards. The archetypal Archie would have been a pedigreed FDR Democrat. His supposed Protestantism was also ridiculous: Archie—with a different forename—would’ve been Catholic.

Surely he cast his first votes for FDR in 1944 and Truman in 1948 over the prig (and Kitty Carlisle’s boytoy) Thomas E. Dewey, the little man on the wedding cake. Archie (without the Hollywood makeover) liked Ike but voted rotely for egghead Adlai Stevenson in ’52 and ’56. He was JFK all the way in 1960 before facing his first ballot-box temptation: jumping the fence for anti-Civil Rights Act Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964. But…Social Security. Archie was no entitlement-reform wonk, so he pulled the lever, with misgivings, for LBJ.

In 1968 Archie could’ve gone any of three ways. (And here let me recommend Luke Nichter’s perceptive account of that race, The Year that Broke Politics.) George Wallace’s denunciation of “pointy-headed intellectuals” who can’t park their bicycles straight was the summit of Bunker’s hill, but his defense of segregation was its nadir. In any event, Wallace’s Southernness would’ve been too strange. 

Hubert Humphrey’s full-throated endorsement of civil rights would’ve irritated Archie, but the Hump was for whatever the big unions were for—including the manufacture if not necessarily use of weapons of mass destruction—so after a moment’s hesitation in the voting booth Archie chose HHH against Nixon. The Minnesota motormouth would be his last Democrat.

(Thinking on this sent me back to Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, a formative reading experience for the teenaged me. The Aspen assassin wrote, “Any political party that can’t cough up anything better than a treacherous brain-damaged old vulture like Hubert Humphrey deserves every beating it gets. They don’t hardly make ‘em like Hubert any more—but just to be on the safe side, he should be castrated anyway.” It’d be pretty easy to update that passage for 2024.)

In 1972 Archie Bunker, over the Hump, flipped to the GOP for good, turned off by George McGovern—or, rather, the caricatured misrepresentation (abetted by the Democratic candidate’s obnoxious celebrity supporters) of the true patriot McGovern as an acid-dropping, welfare-dispensing commie.

Carroll O’Connor was no more Archie Bunker than Charlton Heston was Moses. In a 1972 Democratic primary race containing two genuine if mottled populists—Oklahoma senator Fred Harris on the “left” and George Wallace on the “right”—the actor stumped for the silk-stocking Republican turned Democrat John Lindsay, whose limousine liberalism would’ve reduced Archie to paroxysmal sputtering.

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Long after the laughter has died, the last joke is on Archie—the real one, not the Hoover-voting Protestant. The Bunkeresque tough-talking white Democratic mayors of the 1950s and ‘60s collaborated in the destruction of their cities and the neighborhoods that gave them life via urban renewal and the Interstate Highway System. At the national level, the Trumans and Johnsons that Archie supported shipped working-class boys into the abattoirs of Korea and Vietnam while militarizing the economy. 

Archie turned coat just as the Republicans were taking up the mantle of world policeman from Vietnam-spooked Democrats and as the GOP’s stolid but solid Main Street faction was being bulldozed by Wall Street.

If only the Archie Bunkers had voted for Herbert Hoover—who once said that what America needs is a great poem—and George McGovern, who requested, sensibly and sincerely, that America come home in the spirit of peace and community. I’ll bet Norman Lear would’ve loved that country.

This article appears in the May/June 2024 issue

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