At 85, Norman Lear is, by age and experience, Democratic Hollywood's elder statesman. But he was also the first guy in town to recognize that presidential politics would be different this time around. (Change isn't limited to the young, after all.)
While the rest of Hollywood is still agonizing over which candidate to publicly endorse, Lear -- who hasn't endorsed either Hillary Rodham Clinton or Barack Obama so far -- has been busy signing up the constituency that may well elect the next president: voters younger than 30.
Seven years ago, Lear, who has always had a flair for politics and the dramatic, dropped $8.1 million of his own money on a rare, original copy of the Declaration of Independence. He and his wife, Lyn, took it on the road so that people all over the country could see it and be inspired.
"Everywhere the document went, kids were knocked out by it," said Lear, a man who has made three or four entertainment fortunes by reading the minds of young America. "Little by little we saw how it was turning them into voters."
Hoping to capitalize on the excitement, Lear started the nonpartisan, nonprofit group Declare Yourself to register young Americans to vote. Some people thought it was a waste of time. According to conventional wisdom, 18-year-olds regard politics with the same sort of enthusiasm they reserve for dinner with their parents.
As usual, Lear proved the skeptics were wrong. And, as it turns out, Lear was once again on the front edge of a trend: Democratic turnout throughout this primary season is running at record levels. A significant part of that increase is coming from young voters opposed to the war and energized by the prospect of helping to elect the nation's first black or woman president. In recent weeks, Lear's DeclareYourself.com -- working with Yahoo, MySpace, Comedy Central and others -- has become one of the top-visited voter information sites on the Internet. (The website's rate of registrations by young voters, particularly first-time voters, has increased by 575% since July, Lear noted.)
Four years ago, the group registered more than 1.2 million young people to vote. Lear hopes to double that number this time around.
In typical Hollywood fashion, he has a list of celebrities who are lending support.
Declare Yourself formally kicked off its 2008 effort with a party at the historic Beverly Hills Post Office last September. Some of those in attendance included actress Hayden Panettiere, singer Justin Timberlake and "Borat's" Sacha Baron Cohen. There were performances by Chester Bennington, lead singer for Linkin Park, Camp Freddy members Chris Chaney and Dave Navarro, Stephen Perkins of Jane's Addiction and Billy Morrison of the Cult.
The group has also packed its website with lively video clips, one of which is a telenovela featuring Rosario Dawson and Wilmer Valderrama, urging people to get involved.
"We are really catching a wave," said Marc Morgenstern, executive director of Declare Yourself. "It's a combination of the candidates, the races and the issues."
Recently, reggae-rapper Sean Kingston teamed up with Declare Yourself to produce a remake of Alice Cooper's song "I'm 18." "As young people, we face obstacles and events in life that we have to understand and make decisions about," said Kingston, who recently turned 18 and will be voting in his first presidential election this year. "The same is true with voting."
Andrew Kohut, director of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., said it remains unclear how much celebrity endorsements can actually help a candidate. But the simple act of registering people to vote is always more effective.
"What we do know about voting behavior, if you get them registered, they do vote at very high rates," Kohut said. And this year "there's no question that voting among young people on the Democratic side is up significantly."
Lear figured as much.
"That's where my life is: How are we going to make things right for the next generation?" Lear said. "I'm not sure we've done a very good job of that. They are the ones who are making things right for themselves."
It shouldn't surprise anyone that Lear was among the first to see it clearly. Norman Lear didn't get to be Norman Lear because he didn't understand the American public.