America’s civic avian trinity: Eagle, turkey and… Big Bird

America’s civic avian trinity: Eagle, turkey and… Big Bird

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney managed to undercut a strong debate performance with a budgetary attack on a sacred American institution. Not only is Sesame Street’s Big Bird deeply loved, the national treasure has essentially no impact on, well, the national treasure. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

Nearly three decades ago, this writer and his family lived in Northern Japan; an American diplomatic family in the very pleasant city of Sapporo, hundreds of kilometres from Tokyo, on the country’s northern island of Hokkaido. It was a lovely place, but we had two small children and we were anxious to keep them tuned into – at least in part – American society.

Although Japan was and is a wonderful place for small children, and although this is no knock on Japan, television aimed at children was naturally designed to reinforce Japanese cultural values rather than American ones. The best, most popular children’s program, Hiraki! Ponkikki, had magnificent graphics, stunning colours, lively music and lots of action and energy, but it didn’t help in the raising two American children.

This was in the pre-Internet, pre-satellite television era and so, increasingly desperate, we turned to a relative who agreed to record for us on video a full season’s worth of Sesame Street and mail the VCR tapes to us. Like all other American children, ours too could hear that famous signoff that an episode had been brought to viewers by one or another of the letters of the alphabet, see those short inserts that explored a child-centric universe with a sense of wonder and get to know Bert, Ernie, Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch, the Count, Snuffleupagus – and, of course, most important of all, Big Bird.

By the time we became the beneficiaries of a kind relative back in New Jersey, Sesame Street and Big Bird had been fixtures of the American television landscape for a decade and a half. The show was the brainchild of Joan Ganz Cooney of the Children’s Television Workshop and drew upon the inspired puppetry of Jim Henson (the man behind the Muppets – Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy and the rest – as well). Sesame Street, along with dozens of localized offshoots, including one in South Africa, now reaches well over a 120-million viewers in more than 140 nations.

The show has become a staple of the PBS network, as the American Public Broadcast System is usually called. PBS is funded, in part, by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), a private corporation created and funded by the US federal government.  CPB received a little over $444-million, about 0.012% (yes, 0.012%), of the federal government’s annual budget in the most recent fiscal year. That’s about $1.35 per American citizen. CPB disburses nearly three-fourths’ of its overall budget to individual television and radio stations and as grants to individual program producers. In the previous financial year, PBS received a little over $22-million of CPB’s total $429- million appropriation. 

CPB’s funding helps keep many local stations alive so they can broadcast throughout the country and its grants aid producers’ creation of such internationally lauded shows as PBS NewsHour

At this point, virtually none of this federal money actually goes to CTW to feather Big Bird’s tidy little nest. Corporate grants and product licensing and other fees cover the cost of making the program – and then some. 

Given this extremely modest total appropriation, in budgetary and policy terms it made absolutely no sense for Mitt Romney to launch into a full-on attack on the CPB, PBS and Big Bird in the recent presidential candidates’ debate, or to argue that arranging for Big Bird’s cushy nest egg forces the US government to borrow money from those sneaky and dastardly communist Chinese capitalist international bankers. 

Or as Romney himself said during Wednesday’s debate to moderator Jim Lehrer, the long-time news anchor on PBS, “I’m sorry, Jim, I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I’m going to stop other things. I like PBS. I love Big Bird. Actually, I like you too. But I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it.” 

Former candidate Rick Santorum piled on just a little bit further when he tried to explain Romney’s statement to Piers Morgan on CNN by saying, essentially, sometimes you just gotta kill the things you love. Oh good, that helped. Then Republican Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart dived right in to add that PBS and Big Bird would survive without federal funds that could be better spent elsewhere. Diaz-Balart said, “Big Bird will be fine, trust me. Big Bird is always going to be on TV, but the question is, should we be sending hard-earned taxpayer money to an entity that is a multimillion dollar entity that’s going to be there with or without taxpayer subsidy?”

Well, maybe this foolishness made no sense in wonkish, CEO-ish policy and steely-eyed Excel spreadsheet terms, but as the perfect political dog whistle it was probably scripted right out to the very last syllable. For more conservative Republican types who represent the base Romney must keep charged up for the rapidly approaching November election, the CPB and PBS have come to represent the avatar of all those godless, humanistic, communitarian, socialistic, immigrant-coddling values that underpin dangerous politicians like Barack Hussein Obama who are wrecking the country. 

Perhaps this became even more important when the Republican candidate made his now-well-explored pivot to the centre in search of that elusive, undecided voting block in the remaining, critical battleground states. The political dog whistle, of course, is a phrase or word that has a special hidden meaning for a particular political voting bloc – but is inaudible to everyone else. The phrase got its start in Australia, but has now spread to America as well. 

The irony, of course, is that the nexus of the CTW, PBS, CPB, plus Big Bird, actually represents a near-perfect public/private partnership, the kind that costs the taxpayer virtually nothing but has enormous international soft power impact abroad. Other things being equal, that should be the precise kind of thing a businessman-turned-politician like Romney would naturally want to embrace. Except for the fact Big Bird and his birds of a feather also represent a kind of gritty, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic urban landscape, the very 47% of the American landscape Romney said he was running against. At least until he suddenly decided on television on Wednesday night that those people voted too and that he just might need a few of them on his side if he wanted to become president of the rest.

Dig a little deeper and it becomes clear Big Bird is one key part of an American avian trinity that represents fundamental American values. Besides this giant yellow canary, the other two are the bald eagle and the North American turkey. 

The bald eagle is the national winged symbol of the US, but it nearly didn’t happen. Benjamin Franklin, one of the drafters of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, had famously written, “The turkey is a truly noble bird. Native American, a source of sustenance to our original settlers, and an incredibly brave fellow who wouldn’t flinch from attacking a whole regiment of Englishmen single-handedly!” 

By contrast, Franklin tried to head off enthusiasm the bald eagle, a dark horse for the position of national bird, arguing that the eagle “is a bird of bad moral character, he does not get his living honestly, you may have seen him perched on some dead tree, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labor of the fishing-hawk, and when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish, and is bearing it to its nest for the support of his mate and young ones, the bald eagle pursues him and takes it from him…. Besides he is a rank coward; the little kingbird, not bigger than a sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district. He is therefore by no means a proper emblem for the brave and honest… of America.” Regardless of Franklin’s predilections for the tastier turkey, the Continental Congress picked the bald eagle as the national symbol in 1782, once the British had been defeated in battle, and the turkey took up its pride of place on the national festive dinner table at Thanksgiving. 

Together, these three feathered friends are a secular trinity at the core of American society, helping Americans join in what anthropologist Benedict Anderson described as an “imagined community” – where symbols create and reinforce a sense of belonging to a constructed group. One, the eagle, is the preeminent symbol of national pride in American power; it is on the country’s Great Seal, currency and thousands of other civic illustrations. The second, the turkey, is the core of a near-sacred meal virtually every American (save strict vegetarians) partakes in communally on the fourth Thursday of November in recognition of the country’s erstwhile Pilgrim forebears. The third, of course, is Big Bird himself, the national caretaker and nurturer-in-chief of the country’s children. 

New York Times columnist Charles Blow angrily wrote after Mitt Romney had seriously ruffled some feathers in the debate  that, “Big Bird is the man. He’s 8 feet tall. He can sing and roller-skate and ride a unicycle and dance. Can you do that, Mr Romney? I’m not talking about your fox trot away from the facts. I’m talking about real dancing. Since 1969, Big Bird has been the king of the block on Sesame Street. When I was a child, he and his friends taught me the alphabet and the colours and how to do simple math. Do you know how to do simple math, Mr Romney? Maybe you and the Countess Von Backward could exchange numbers.”

Blow went even further in his outrage. “Big Bird and his friends also showed me what it meant to resolve conflicts with kindness and accept people’s differences and look out for the less fortunate. Do you know anything about looking out for the less fortunate, Mr Romney? Or do you think they’re all grouches scrounging around in trash cans?… Do you really believe that Pennsylvania Avenue is that far away from Sesame Street? It shouldn’t be. Let me make it simple for you, Mr Romney. I’m down with Big Bird. You pick on him, you answer to me.”

Mitt Romney’s attack on Big Bird has ruffled feathers across the country – frightening children and their terrified parents – generating millions of tweets by lovers of a 2.49-metre-tall yellow, singing canary. 

The deeper problem for political truth-in-labeling, of course, is that Romney has signaled he will somehow magically figure out how to produce a $5-trillion tax cut for the rich; a massive increase in military spending; confront the Chinese over their wicked trading ways; draw a red line in the sand (this writer didn’t mix the metaphor first) over Iran’s presumed nuclear ambitions; deal decisively with America’s No. 1 geo-political opponent, Russia; and simultaneously create 12-million new jobs all on the back of the only thing he has actually put on the chopping block – Big Bird. 

Cover the eyes of innocent children. DM

Read more:

  • “PBS: Romney does not understand,” on Politico
  • “Mitt Romney vows to fire Big Bird to save 0.00014% of the budget,” on Daily Kos
  • “Don’t Mess With Big Bird,” on The New York Times 
  • “Romney Goes On Offense, Pays For It In First Wave Of Fact Checks,” on NPR 

Photo: Photos by REUTERS.


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