Opinion

Saluting Robin Williams as the American Flag

robin-williams-1280In the 1982 television special “I Love Liberty,” Robin Williams channeled the voice of the American flag. Created by writer Norman Lear and sponsored by the organization he founded, People for the American Way, the performance was aired to commemorate the 250th anniversary of George Washington’s birthday.

“I was born June 14, 1777 — that makes me a Gemini,” says Williams, dressed in blue pants and an American flag t-shirt (“I’m in my birthday suit!”). The Flag Act was passed just 17 months after US independence.

“I’m 204 years old. People ask, ‘Flag, how you stay so young? Is it jogging?’ No! ‘Is it tennis?’ No! It’s … waving.”

With his masterful skill for switching between voices, Williams embodies a proud, cheeky, and brave American flag. “I had a tough puberty. War, famine, invasion. And in 1861 I had a little skin problem that broke out into 34 stars. But now, well, with a little patience, look at what we’ve got now” — he pulls off a sleeve, revealing another layer of stars — “all 50! Everybody’s on here.”

At the time, right-wing conservatives attacked the two-hour television program for being promotional of Lear’s politics; he created People for the American Way in reaction to conservative televangelists. ”The flag belongs to all of us,” Lear told the New York Times. ”It moistens as many eyes on the left or the center as it does on the right. ‘I Love Liberty’ is an attempt to show that the country loves the flag, that it doesn’t belong to just a few.”

Williams’s skit embodies Lear’s optimistic, and ultimately naive, view of the country. While rainbow flags go up in more places, the confederate flag continues to “wave” in others, and the American flag isn’t exactly bringing tears to liberals’ eyes.

“I haven’t been getting out much lately. I guess it’s not chic to put up the flag anymore,” Williams playfully laments. “Don’t look at is as saluting me, look at it as saluting yourselves. I’m just a flag, a symbol. You’re the people, if I may say so from here,” he says, putting his hand to his heart. “Long may you wave.”

Correction: A previous version of this article quoted Robin Williams saying there are “60 states” on his sleeve. This has been fixed to 50. 

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