The Washington Post

Big Bird will haunt Mitt Romney

Poor Big Bird.

The last thing he probably wanted was a mention in the first political debate between President Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. But that’s exactly what happened to the lovable eight-foot, two-inch feathery fellow Wednesday night.

Romney told moderator Jim Lehrer, “I’m sorry Jim. I’m gonna stop the subsidy to PBS. I’m gonna stop other things. I like PBS, I like Big Bird, I actually like you too.”

A collective stab pierced the heart of Generation X who grew up with Big Bird, Bert and Ernie and Oscar the Grouch as their best friends. I immediately thought, “Oh no, Big Bird will be unemployed if Romney wins.” I wasn’t alone.

As is normal these days, Big Bird started trending on Twitter. Memes magically appeared on Facebook showing Big Bird sitting on a stoop holding a sign “Will Work For Food.” But what we really needed at that moment was Count von Count appearing at the debate to explain Obama and Romney’s monologues about complex taxes and percentages.

 Obama was not his best Wednesday night, but he could leverage Big Bird. That is if the Obama campaign is smart. A survey in 2008 noted that 77 million Americans had watched “Sesame Street” as children. That’s a lot of potential voters to woo. Nostalgia runs deep, trust me.

Big Bird, an iconic image, could serve as a bright yellow reminder that the Romney administration is keen on deep cuts to beloved institutions.

In August, Romney said he would eliminate funding for PBS, Amtrak, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, PBS’s parent organization, receives $444 million a year from the government.

Maybe Romney doesn’t understand how vital PBS, which celebrates its 42nd anniversary on Friday, is for many Americans. For several years, polls have regularly placed PBS as America’s most-trusted national institution. Before the invention of cable television, PBS offered diversity when only three networks — ABC, NBC and CBS — dominated the airwaves. Educating America’s children with smart programming has remained a dutiful promise of the network.

On the PBS Web site, it states: “PBS and our member stations are America’s largest classroom, the nation’s largest stage for the arts and a trusted window to the world. In addition, PBS’s educational media helps prepare children for success in school and opens up the world to them in an age-appropriate way.

Sherrie Westin, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for Sesame Workshop, told CNN on Thursday morning that regardless of who is in the White House, the show will remain.

 “Sesame Workshop receives very, very little funding from PBS,” she said. “So, we are able to raise our funding through philanthropic, through our licensed product, which goes back into the educational programming, through corporate underwriting and sponsorship. So quite frankly, you can debate whether or not there should be funding of public broadcasting. But when they always try to tout out Big Bird, and say we’re going to kill Big Bird — that is actually misleading, because Sesame Street will be here.”

But still, Big Bird is the poster boy for PBS, a network that runs myriad shows including the popular British drama “Downton Abbey” and “NOVA.”  And yes, some people really do like “NOVA.”

For the last two decades, White House administrations have certainly paid attention to “Sesame Street.”

Barbara Bush ushered in first ladies appearing on the show in 1990 when she read to children on the show. She didn’t stop there. She also contributed the cookbook, “In the Kitchen with Miss Piggy.”

Next, Hillary Clinton showed up on Sesame Street in 1993 to talk about healthy living. She also once appeared with Oscar the Grouch on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.”

In 2003, Laura Bush appeared on “Sesame Street” and other international Sesame Street productions. In 2007, she was honored with an award at the Sesame Workshop Gala for promoting children’s literacy. Perhaps, her work with the program was to contrast her husband’s deep cuts to PBS.

In 2010, first lady Michelle Obama also visited “Sesame Street” to tell Elmo about healthy eating and growing gardens.

“It’s probably the best thing I’ve done so far in the White House,” she said at the time.

Cutting funds to the network has long been popular among conservative politicians. But it may not be well-liked by a voting bloc that Romney still lacks — moms.

On the Web site, Psychology Today, Amy Przeworski, an assistant professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University, wrote in July, “For me, the countless hours of watching ‘Sesame Street’ with my child are therapeutic and a big step towards remembering these values. They tame my inner Oscar the Grouch and bring out the Elmo who lurks within.”

Romney may have shined on Wednesday night, but Big Bird will haunt him.


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