Jennifer Garner has not given up on Donald Trump’s Washington.
The 44-year-old actress spent the weekend lobbying the town’s pillars of power to support early education for poor rural children. She spent Friday on Capitol Hill meeting dozens of top staff members. On Saturday, she delivered the keynote address before the annual National Governors Association winter meeting here. A potential sit-down with Ivanka Trump, who is advocating for more funding for child care, fell apart because of scheduling conflicts, but Garner remained optimistic about a face-to-face discussion soon.
Other Hollywood liberals have shunned the new commander in chief — notably during Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony, when many jokes were told at President Trump’s expense. But Garner, a true-blue Democrat who campaigned for Hillary Clinton last year and held a fundraiser for Barack Obama in 2008, is taking a unique approach: pushing a cause that would benefit the new administration’s political base.
The West Virginia native has long worked to bring assistance to poor, rural communities in desperate need of it. She has no plans to change that just because most of those communities went big for Trump in last year’s election. In fact, she sees an opportunity to hold the president accountable for the pledges he made to the country’s rural working class.
“I’m looking forward to helping him make good on what they saw as promises, a mandate from him, that he was going to make their lives better,” Garner said in a 45-minute interview with The Washington Post.
It’s another indication of how Trump has changed the rituals of Washington. For decades, Hollywood celebrities have used the glow of the Capitol dome to advance personal causes. Some may be less inclined to do so now, when legislative gains might help burnish Trump’s image.
That makes Trump’s presidency a psychological test of sorts for some members of the Hollywood elite, who can either demonstrate their true commitment to the causes they push — or expose their charity work here as more about bolstering themselves.
Very much in the former camp, Garner acknowledged that some of her friends “want to turn their back to this administration . . . [and] just wouldn’t even want to engage.”
Not her. “If he’s willing to help the poor kids who got him elected, then let’s do it. They certainly think he’s going to,” she said.
For nine years, Garner has been on the board of Save the Children, a nonprofit organization. Mark Shriver is president of its political advocacy arm, Save the Children Action Network. Save the Children is known primarily for its international projects, but it has also built out a niche focus on U.S. education programs, particularly in poor rural communities.
That’s Garner’s personal story. She grew up solidly middle class, but she knew plenty of poor children who started elementary school behind and never caught up. They lived in the same sort of communities that Robert F. Kennedy, Shriver’s uncle, visited in the mid-1960s along the Mississippi Delta, shaping the ideas of his 1968 presidential campaign.
Together, Garner and Shriver have urged Congress and state governments to fund reading and literacy programs that include all-day kindergarten. The organization has its own reading programs that it administers in schools and during in-home visits.
They found that children in rural areas are 60 percent more likely to be placed in special education programs when they start kindergarten. Garner has her own intuitive test when she meets small groups of rural children to determine which come from homes where parents have more time and resources to engage with them.
“Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,” she said, singing the nursery rhyme out loud. “Humpty Dumpty had a great . . .”
Some children shout “fall.” Others offer blank stares, because they’re from homes with less educational nourishment. “You just wouldn’t believe the number of kids who have never heard a nursery rhyme,” she said.
Garner and her allies aren’t asking for assistance only for rural America, they’re also pressing for a rewrite of the tax code. And they’re not shy about the approach: political shame.
If a tax package is going to cut rates and red tape for corporations and Trump’s fellow billionaires, the thinking goes, the president had better find a way to expand credits and deductions for the education needs of the families that formed the bedrock of his support.
“If there is tax reform and there’s nothing for poor, working families in this country, and families that are middle class and struggling, that’s not good,” Shriver said.
Garner calls their cause the “bobblehead issue,” because everyone loves to tell her that they support children, but in the end it sometimes seems as though they just enjoy being around a beautiful celebrity.
“Everyone’s nodding and couldn’t agree more, and shaking your hand and want their picture,” she said. “But when the vote is cast, nobody’s out there screaming and yelling for poor kids.”
Garner returned home to West Virginia last year to help raise money after devastating flooding in the state. Reliably Democratic during her childhood, West Virginia ended up giving Trump his largest margin of victory — something she could see coming by talking to people in economically depressed areas.
“People felt like Trump really understood them, that he was going to come in and create jobs for them,” she said. “They felt like they needed something to just turn everything upside down.”
It’s that level of despair that leaves Garner willing to deal with Trump when some of her friends want to offer nothing but resistance. She may even be willing to meet the president.
“Send me a ticket to Mar-a-Lago. I’m ready to go down and have a steak and a good chat,” she said, only half joking about the prospect. “I really think it’s great, if he’s willing to help the poor kids who got him elected.”