What Big Bird Means to the Presidential Debate

The tweets heard round the world

Posted Oct 05, 2012

The morning after the first Obama-Romney presidential debate, with the commentators having had a chance to sleep on it, we awoke to a flood of psychologizing. The president had looked tense and acted dismissive, they noted. This hopeful man who had once campaigned on the prospects of the bright future seemed worn down by the minute-to-minute demands of two wars, an economic collapse not of his own making, and a recalcitrant legislative branch. The challenger, an organizational man who seems plucked from the late 1950s and who sees social relations as transactional and facts as provisional, appeared confident and bushy-tailed, ready to deliver old ideas as current revelation. Almost to a pundit, the chattering classes declared that both debaters had been true to themselves, and that as a result the challenger had won the sprawling encounter.

But the night before, during the debate itself, the issue that seized the tweeting twitterers at a rate of 17,000 messages per minute had nothing to do with taxes or the economy or other technical issues that absorbed the debaters in detail; the issue that lit up social media instead turned on a remark about public television. “I’m sorry, Jim,” the challenger promised, “I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS… I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you, too. But I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it.” One tweeter responded, “Them’s fightin words. No one touches my Big Bird!” Another wrote, “Elmo is King. But they’d better not screw with Curious George, either.” Sesame Workshop reminded the citizenry that very little public money goes to financing their programs. For his own part, Big Bird tweeted, “My bed time is usually 7:45, but I was really tired yesterday and fell asleep at 7. Did I miss anything?”

He’d missed plenty. How did Big Bird get to be part of this debate? Sesame Street has come to be seen as part of the larger approach of the remedial Great Society programs and the War on Poverty launched in the 1960s under President Lyndon Johnson. After America’s urban neighborhoods had erupted into riot between 1964 and 1967, American legislators—Democrat and Republican—looked for ways to address the inequality that lay at the root of urban unrest. Policymakers became especially interested in closing the persistent achievement gap in literacy and numeracy that yawned between rich and poor and white and black children. Only a few were thinking of television as a teaching tool.

While I was developing and writing The Strong’s exhibit Can you Tell Me How to Get to Sesame Street?, staffers at the Children’s Television Workshop (now Sesame Workshop) told me that at a crucial point in 1967 it wasn’t Democrats who did the most to put the developing Sesame Street over. The program cleared a fateful funding hurdle when Arizona’s Senator Barry Goldwater, father of the conservative movement in the Republican Party, intervened. The show’s original writer-producer, Joan Ganz Cooney, had first approached Caspar Weinberger (Richard Nixon’s secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare) for support, but subsequently she found Goldwater, (an old friend of her father’s) more forthcoming. The senator wrote Weinberger a letter that Cooney summarized amusingly: “Dear Cappy, Give little Joanie Ganz anything she wants.” And so it wasn’t long before Sesame Street gained bipartisan support for its own line item in the federal budget. With $5 million in foundation and private funding, planning could proceed.

First Lady Pat Nixon meeting with Big Bird from Sesame Street in the White House

First Lady Pat Nixon meeting with Big Bird from Sesame Street in the White House on December 20, 1970

Cooney understood that preschool children were not just a captive audience to television for an average 27 hours per week in that era; they comprised a receptive audience as well. She noticed how closely they paid attention to commercials in forgettable shows like Batfink and Super President. And, because kids were paying attention so carefully, she posed a mischievous question: why couldn't a television program for kids entertain and educate?

Cooney signed on psychologist Edward Palmer to test children’s attention to the program’s colorful segments, and under his direction Sesame Street became the first television program guided by the insights of developmental psychology. Jim Henson’s Muppets helped Sesame Street transform curriculum into comedy, learning into play. Bert and Ernie and Oscar the Grouch seem like neighbors now. Big Bird helped the youngest viewers understand their feelings. The Count von Count, enlisted to help kids with numbers, counts everything in sight. “I vant to count your neck,” he says in his stagey Transylvanian accent, “vun neck!”

In this current mistrustful election season, one faction considers federal involvement in health care, economic policy, the arts, and education a doomed intrusion into economic and personal liberty. But in the late 1960s Barry Goldwater declined to portray government as an enemy of the private sector, and that position allowed him to endorse public television and a partnership with Sesame Street. In 1970, Children’s Television Workshop set up field offices in America's inner cities and rural poverty areas to coordinate outreach to parents and kids and recruit viewers. At about a penny invested in each pair of attentive eyeballs per program, the partnership paid off. By 1973, Sesame Street was reaching 97% of Chicago households with preschoolers. And, by 1978, the show was reaching more than 90% of inner-city preschoolers nationwide. Pollsters declared that Sesame Street had become "an institution with ghetto children" and research proved that the more children everywhere watched the playful program, the more they learned. After nearly four and a half decades, Sesame Street still remains playful, fresh, idealistic, kind, optimistic, stimulating, generous, measurably effective, funny, and fun.

Sixty million of us watched the presidential debate. Now, as therapy and penance each candidate should watch at least one hour of Sesame Street.