The Herald-Times

Be better Americans, Richard Dreyfuss tells O'Bannon Institute audience

By Mike Leonard
331-4368 |

April 9, 2011

Actor Richard Dreyfuss announced, “I am Frank Capra” at Ivy Tech Community College Friday afternoon and then spent most of an hour demonstrating that if he isn’t the late filmmaker literally, he could well be a character in a Capra movie.

The Academy Award-winning actor decried the decline of American values, civics and civility in featured “conversation” before a packed house at the O’Bannon Institute for Community Service in the Ivy Tech Commons.

At one point during his passionate but sometimes disjointed remarks, he paused, put his hands over his eyes and choked back tears. “When I was 11 years old, I told my mom I’m the luckiest guy in the world. I’m white, Jewish and American,” he said.

There wasn’t a lot of conversation between Dreyfuss and the moderator, Herald-Times editor Bob Zaltsberg, however. Despite his calls for civil discourse, the actor and activist was civil, but prone to lecture, rather than discussion.

After a warm and humorous introduction by Judy O’Bannon, the widow of former Indiana Gov. Frank O’Bannon, Dreyfuss talked about how modern film distorts history for no good reason. He said he cried when he watched the George Clooney film, “Good Night, and Good Luck,” because it so accurately captured the wisdom and perspective of the late television newsman Edward R. Murrow, who warned viewers of the dangers of journalists getting too cozy with political and corporate powers. “He had so brilliantly shown the end of America, which I love. What he showed us is how we will defeat ourselves,” Dreyfuss said.

He described the history of the United States as a singularly inspiring story spiraling toward a tragic ending. “We’re in the third act,” he said dramatically.

The latest example, he said, is Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s moves to remove civics education from that state’s educational curriculum. He complained, “We don’t teach America how to be Americans.”

Dreyfuss often returned to the theme that Americans don’t really learn how government should work, don’t participate in the political process and then demonize the government they have the power to shape and change.

He emphasized that the country’s founding fathers created the best system of government in the history of the world by creating a country that was not governed by a monarchy or ruling class — a place where every individual could rise up on merit.

Dreyfuss criticized journalists and politicians for not doing their jobs. The actor and activist said that during the subprime mortgage crisis, people were lured into loans they could not afford, and yet no bankers were punished. He decried the “Halliburton exemptions” under which the giant defense contractor could not be sued or held accountable for its actions or its execution of no-bid government contracts. And he lambasted the George W. Bush administration’s philosophy of “executive sovereignty,” which he said argued that the president was above the law. “It’s fundamentally antithetical to America, where no one is above the law,” Dreyfuss said.

Famous for his roles in movies including “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” Dreyfuss heads up his own Dreyfuss Initiative, which seeks to promote civics education and support democratic principles.

“The Bill of Rights is far more than a legal document,” he said. “It is in fact a picture of our future moral character. It is saying, in effect, this is who we wish to be.”

Actor Richard Dreyfuss speaks Friday at Ivy Tech’s O’Bannon Institute in Bloomington. David Snodgress | Herald-Times

Actor Richard Dreyfuss speaks Friday at Ivy Tech’s O’Bannon Institute in Bloomington. David Snodgress | Herald-Times

Copyright: 2011