Mr. Elmo goes to Washington

Published April 25, 2002|Updated Sept. 3, 2005

Tickle me, Congress.

In a small congressional hearing room crowded with health and education activists in search of government money, the supplicant with the star power was an oh-so-precious, 3-foot-tall, red fuzzy Muppet with a voice somewhere between syrup and helium.

Elmo had some things on his mind.

The cuddly cutie from Sesame Street made a splash, appearing before a House Appropriations subcommittee on Tuesday to request $2-million for children's music programs.

"Please, Congress, help Elmo's friends find the music inside them," Elmo said.

Washington's flirtation with the entertainment industry dates to the 1960s, when Gloria Swanson, married six times, sought a cut in income taxes paid by singles. She helped persuade Congress to pass what is now known as the "marriage penalty."

Policy-peddling stars have since become a common feature in the halls of Congress. Some have intensely personal causes, such as Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson's disease. Other stars' connections to issues are more tenuous. Actors Jessica Lange and Sissy Spacek testified in 1985 on behalf of bankrupt farmers, on the strength of their film roles as farmer's wives.

In the past few weeks, politicians in Washington have sidled up to Irish rocker Bono and pop star Elton John. Earlier this year actor and model Christie Brinkley testified about nuclear safety.

Celebrity puppets, though, mark a new milestone.

"This is Elmo's first-ever appearance before Congress," publicist James P. Doughty said, straight-faced.

"The circumstance of the United States today is that celebrities are opinion leaders," said Robin Bronk, executive director of the Creative Coalition, an organization of arts and entertainment figures who advocate social and political causes.

"It works when it makes sense," she said. "Whether it's Bono or Elmo, any celebrity has to be invested in that issue, personally, professionally, publicly."

Subcommittee Chairman Ralph Regula, R-Ohio, said that courting celebrities was not his style.

"We have not sought to find celebrities to testify," Regula said in a brief interview. "I didn't even know who Elmo was."

Bono, lead singer of the rock band U2, has emerged as one of the most influential celebrities in Washington. He has wowed the likes of Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., and Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill with his message of aid and debt relief to Third World countries.

Elmo's not quite there yet.

He doesn't exactly stride into a room and command it. Tuesday's hearing had to recess briefly to allow his puppeteer to slide under the witness table and bring him to life.

If Elmo was a publicity gimmick, the clicking cameras were a testament to its success. On a day when 24 interest groups testified about the need for greater government spending on health and education, a cute creature from a popular kids' show can help get that cause a little extra attention.

"Only in Washington would Elmo be a figure of credibility and legitimacy," said conservative political analyst Marshall Wittmann. "Elmo has higher poll ratings than most members of Congress. They like to be in his reflective glory."

Or, as Elmo himself said as he playfully sassed with Regula and Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif.: "Elmo is not making a mockery of this place."