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The Power of One

The Education of Meathead

Three Years Ago, Rob Reiner Put Hollywood on a Back Burner and Plunged Into State Politics, Pushing an Initiative to Help Preschool Children. Turns Out the Director of 'Spinal Tap' Is a Bit of a Wonk.

January 20, 2002|ALLISON ADATO | Allison Adato last wrote for the magazine for the issue on growing up in L.A

The head of the California Children and Families Commission was playing tour guide. Proud as a new father, he crisscrossed Los Angeles County, showing off programs that receive money from a state tax on tobacco products.

He stopped at a Pacoima day-care center, where workers were learning how to enrich their program with an early literacy curriculum for toddlers. He visited an apartment in Long Beach, where a home health-care worker helped a recovered drug addict reconnect with her baby girl, who had been in foster care. In Cudahy, he stopped at the Elizabeth Learning Center, a pre-K to 12 school with a family medical clinic, day care and an adult education center on its campus. He strode across the blacktop, past beige bungalows, past the cafeteria and the aroma of steamed green beans, and stopped at the health clinic, where a prenatal class was in session.

"We're talking about body changes," the instructor said. Then she interrupted the lecture to ask this bearded, bearish man for an autograph. "My kids won't believe I met Meathead today," she exclaimed.

It isn't the most flattering epithet to trail a man for a quarter-century. But Rob Reiner isn't bothered by his association with the character Archie Bunker disparaged on the 1970s sitcom "All in the Family." A liberal foil to the bigoted Bunker, the role not only launched Reiner's career but allowed him to voice many of the views he shared with his on-screen alter ego. Both, for instance, believed that government should move more aggressively to correct social ills. But while Meathead's rants are consigned to rerun history, Reiner has taken his act to the real world. He no longer merely talks about government. He is government.

Since 1999 he has held an unpaid position chairing a state commission dedicated to helping young children. He's also now much wiser about what happens when an individual determined to ease social problems meets the reality of a government bureaucracy.

Reiner's role in California government began when he led the 1998 campaign for Proposition 10, a state ballot initiative calling for a 50-cent tax on tobacco products to be used to help preschool children. The measure passed, and soon he found himself appointed to the commission charged with overseeing the money. Since then, the director of "The Princess Bride," "When Harry Met Sally," "Misery" and "The American President" has stepped behind the camera only to produce educational videos for new parents. "Movies may affect people's lives," the 54-year-old director says, explaining the new priorities in his life. "But they don't have the long-lasting, profound effect of a home-visit program."

Reiner's interest in a child's early development dates back more than 20 years to when his sister, Annie, a psychoanalyst, encouraged him to examine his formative years in analysis. After completing therapy, he wondered about the upbringing of kids who turned up on the 11 o'clock news as criminals. "You always see the same report," he says. " 'He was a nice kid, so polite, I can't believe he would . . . .' I thought, 'Something's missing here.' " But it would be several more years before his interest led to action. In 1994, he asked his assistant to call the office of Tipper Gore, wife of then Vice President Al Gore. "I called her out of the blue, I had no idea what I was doing," says Reiner, sitting in the Beverly Hills offices of Castle Rock Entertainment, the production company he co-founded 14 years earlier. "They ask me, 'What is it regarding?' "

Tipper Gore knew Reiner as a celebrity and reliable contributor to the Democratic Party, but she knew nothing of his interest in early childhood development. The two met, and soon Reiner was in touch with a network of experts. He also read the Carnegie Corp.'s "Starting Points" report, which summarized new findings about how an inadequate environment between birth and age 3 can compromise a child's brain development, and about the costs to society of ignoring that truth.

The report, however, had drawn little attention. "It occurred to me: all this great information and nobody knows about it," Reiner says. "OK, there's my role: I'm a communicator." Inspired, he and his wife, Michele, a photographer, started the I Am Your Child foundation to spread the word. (Michele Reiner has joked that they had their daughter, now 4, to apply what they had learned. The couple's sons are 10 and 8.) Reiner produced a TV special on brain development and successfully lobbied the White House for a conference on the topic.

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