The opening days of the U.S. House impeachment inquiry deepened the sharp political divisions that make our country more polarized than we once could have imagined. We seem unable to find common ground on even the most fundamental issues of law and evidence. On those same days, I saw commemorations of the 50th anniversary of “Sesame Street” and began to reflect about an unbelievable series of coincidences that led a bipartisan group to make the show possible. I got to see it happen from a front-row seat.
Just before Christmas in 1968, Dean Burch called me after President-elect Richard Nixon asked him to serve as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. I had held that position under President John Kennedy. Although Dean and I were of opposite political parties, we knew, liked and trusted each other, for we had served together on a bipartisan commission on access to television time by presidential candidates. Dean was chairman of the Republican National Committee and presidential campaign manager for Barry Goldwater, his fellow Arizonan. I encouraged him to take the FCC job.
Later, when he started work, he called again for advice. I told him I was with my college classmate Pete Peterson at a board meeting of NET, the predecessor to PBS, where Pete and I met Joan Ganz Cooney. She presented an idea of a television program for children that would be lively and imaginative, with a diverse cast. We had all seen how quickly our children memorized television commercials. On her show, the “commercials” would teach children numbers and letters, concepts like same and different, and demonstrate kindness and friendship.
She told us that she had funding from the Carnegie Foundation to produce the program but lacked funds to distribute it, so the project had stalled. I asked Dean to give her some guidance.
When he heard who had made the presentation, Dean said, “That must be Joanie Ganz. We went to the University of Arizona together, and I asked her to marry me!” He called her and asked how he could help. She told him she needed funding to distribute the program. At that time, there was no public broadcasting network, so films and videotapes had to be produced and distributed to each station. She said she had applied for a grant from what was then the Department of Health, Education and Welfare but had been turned down.
Goldwater ran the Senate committee that supervised the department’s budget. Dean suggested they ask for his help. When they got there, the senator asked, “Are you from Arizona? Do you know Harry Ganz?” Yes, Harry was her uncle. Goldwater said, “Harry urged me to run for public office and gave me $50 as my first contribution. How can I help you?” The senator called Caspar Weinberger, then secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, and told him about “Sesame Street.” The department provided a grant to distribute the program.
Everyone could see that helping young children get excited about learning was a good idea. Children are not Republicans or Democrats. With the help of a bipartisan effort and a couple of lucky Arizona coincidences, “Sesame Street” helped children learn letters and numbers, kindness, feelings, the ways we are different and the more important ways we are the same. To add to this story of coincidences, Pete Peterson, who heard Joan Cooney’s first presentation of “Sesame Street” with me, later married her.
I wish there was a “Sesame Street” for adults. I would love to see political candidates explaining their views to Ernie and Bert, or Big Bird and the Count checking over their economic projections. I’ll bet the Two-Headed Monster might even inspire a bipartisan ticket of presidential and vice presidential candidates from different parties and a commitment to an even split of Cabinet appointees. It is the grown-ups who need some lessons in cooperation these days, and that is what “Sesame Street” is all about. After all, Sen. Barry Goldwater was the spiritual father of Big Bird.
Newton N. Minow is a Chicago attorney and was chairman of the Federal Communications Commission from 1961 to 1963. He wrote this article for the Chicago Tribune.