LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Presidential candidates talk about a lot of boring stuff, "Missiles and throw-weights," said Rep. Patricia Schroeder, making her best "ugh" face for a press conference here this week.
What about day care? What about family medical leave, the Democratic congresswoman from Denver wanted to know. It's a dirty job, but somebody's got to talk about it.
So Schroeder swept through five primary states with a Hollywood producer (who told Arkansas teen mothers about Michael J. Fox's love life) and a famous pediatrician (who delighted a South Carolina crowd by imitating baby faces and uterine wall noises.)
Producer Gary David Goldberg of "Family Ties," pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton and Diana Meehan, director of USC's Institute for the Study of Women and Men, joined Schroeder in a journey they have dubbed "The Great American Family Tour." Brazelton, who is known among young parents for his books and television shows about parenting, capsulized the group's roving message when he told a Little Rock press conference, "All these wimped-out politicians who are running for President are not listening to what is going on with families."
Added Goldberg, "If any of these candidates were a TV show they'd be canceled by now."
Schroeder never hesitated to tell gatherings of several hundred people that her congressional colleagues are men with "Rambo" fixations, afraid to crusade for family issues because "they'll be accused of having lace on their underwear." The presidential candidates are not any better, responding to questions about family "by talking about how wonderful their own families are," she said.
For voters in Portsmouth, N.H., St. Petersburg, Fla., Atlanta, and Little Rock, Ark., the presentations were amusing, moving and most of all, unusual.
But for Schroeder, who abandoned her own presidential candidacy for lack of money, the unusual is commonplace. She is, after all, the member of Congress who wore a bunny suit in China, who set the American Legion swooning when she appeared on the February cover of Ms. magazine with an American flag draped around her shoulders like a fox stole. She is the presidential candidate who cried on her husband's shoulder when she withdrew from the race, who carried Pampers in her purse on the day she was sworn into Congress 16 years ago.
Schroeder knew her crowds would be bigger, her press coverage greater if she added Goldberg and Brazelton to the tour. After the forum in Little Rock the person whose picture appeared on the front page of the Arkansas Gazette was Goldberg's, with the headline "New Show to Focus on Family" referring readers to a story inside on a new television production, "Day by Day." Goldberg wrote the script based on the days in 1971 when he and his wife ran "The Organic Day Care Center" in their Berkeley home. The center's model, Goldberg told the crowds, was "Rain or Shine We Take Your Kid on a Trip Every Day." Another story in the Gazette dealt with the tour's issues and featured a large picture of Brazelton with a baby. At each stop, Brazelton was cornered by participants with questions about potty training and requests for autographs.
Goldberg told the audiences, "I'm on this tour because this is not a women's issue, this is a man's issue." Goldberg also related the story of how he negotiated in his contract with Paramount studios to have a day-care center on site. He had been bringing his new daughter, Cailin, to work in a playpen in his office, and he realized she needed playmates. He didn't want to come to work and leave her at home, he said.
"I want to tell other employers that in hardball economic terms, this will benefit your bottom line," Goldberg said, "in cutting down absenteeism and stress-related illnesses and problems."
Brazelton may have been the biggest drawing card of the tour. During the question-and-answer session at one of the forums, a woman choked back tears asking Brazelton if her going to work would harm her baby.
A woman in Atlanta asked Brazelton why he was trying to help these women who were looking for day care just so they could make money and buy themselves a Mercedes. Brazelton does feel that for women who have a choice, staying home with the baby "is the greatest gift you can give." But for the many women who must work, Brazelton wants to see the government do something to help with affordable quality day care.
Meehan proved to be an effective speaker as well. During a presentation to 25 teen mothers at a vocational school in Arkansas, it became clear that the speeches the group had been using throughout the tour were going over the heads of the teen-agers. Meehan jumped in and asked the mothers if they had a message they would like relayed to people in power. She explained that, if a TV network receives a letter, the network feels it represents the view of 10,000 people. She encouraged them to write to the networks and ask that their concerns about day care be brought up in interviews with the presidential candidates.