January 20, 2002

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.


photo by William Aidasson

The head of the California Children and Families Commission was playing tour guide. Proud as a new father, he crisscrossed Los Angeles 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 "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 Home 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.

In 1997, former state Assemblyman Mike Roos of L.A. saw Reiner address the National Governors Assn. and approached him with the idea for Prop. 10, which they jointly introduced. It was an ambitious measure. The initiative sought to provide for the physical, mental, emotional and developmental needs of the 500,000 children born in California annually. Proponents believe that if those needs are met in the first five years of life, children will be better prepared for school, which pays off not only by giving them better educational and work opportunities but also by diminishing the chance they will turn to crime, drug abuse or domestic violence.

Reiner felt confident. He had steeped himself in the literature of early childhood, and tapped experts in the field. Many of them, including Harvard emeritus professor of pediatrics T. Berry Brazelton, praise his grasp of the subject. "I saw how much he learned in order to push this through," Brazelton says. "I really didn't expect anything like it." Others, however, found the expectations unrealistic, as well as unscientific. "It's not as if early childhood isn't important. It is," says John Bruer, author of "The Myth of the First Three Years" and president of the James S. McDonnel Foundation, which funds research in brain science and education. "But it's really unfortunate that thinking about how we should spend resources for young children can go on, and really ignore or misrepresent early childhood development. For very commendable reasons, people think we should do more for children, but to do it they've created a scientific fiction.

"Brain science has nothing to say about what happens to babies' brains when parents read to them," Bruer continues. "There's nothing wrong with reading, but in other cultures they're not as concerned with it as we are. We have to be careful in our attempts to use biology to justify our values. Human children thrive under a great variety of social and cultural conditions. Yes, kids should be ready to read when they start school. But starting at age 7 is not a biological constraint."

On the other hand, research does show a lot about the irreversible effects of negative environments during the early years. Those who are most vulnerable--the children of drug addicts and alcoholics, the victims and witnesses of abuse, those born prematurely or with disabilities--are the most affected.

Pediatrician Robert Ross, who sat on the Prop. 10 state commission for a time, remembers talking to Reiner about making the leap from scientific theory to public policy. "Watching someone who is not from the public sector or professionally trained in early childhood, it was amazing to see how quickly Rob understood the system, and what it would take to improve it."

Pairing funding for children with a tax on tobacco may be the most legislatively elegant facet of Prop. 10. California had already established itself as hostile both to the tobacco industry--and to smokers. And who could argue with giving money to help kids?

But it is that source of funding that continues to rile critics. "They were basically saying [to voters]: 'Don't worry, smokers will pay for this, it won't cost you,' " says Jacob Sullum, author of "For Your Own Good: The Anti-Smoking Crusade and the Tyranny of Public Health." "It relieves the burden of having to make the case to the public. If they had to pick up the tab, people would have been a lot more skeptical. In this case people could feel, 'We're not paying for this, who cares what it costs?' "

Even Prop. 10's most ardent supporters acknowledge that because the law's goals are framed in terms of school readiness, the effects can't be seen for some time, at least until babies born during the Prop. 10 era start kindergarten. "I think you're not going to really know for 10 or 15 years, when you see lower teen pregnancy rates, lower crime rates and lower remedial educational costs," Reiner says.

If Reiner were an enthusiastic student of government, he might be perversely grateful for the education he received starting the day he decided to push Prop 10. By then, his child advocacy Rolodex had grown nearly as full as his Hollywood one. When he began flipping through both for money and support, he found a remarkable range of help.

Helen Mendel of the American Cancer Society recalls a dinner at Il Cielo restaurant that drew members of her organization, the Heart Assn., several of Reiner's like-minded liberal actor pals, as well as Arianna Huffington and conservatives Charlton Heston and Pat Boone. Reiner and his father, writer-director Carl Reiner, each put up $2 million of their own money.

Early polls predicted that 70% of voters favored Prop. 10. Then the tobacco industry juiced up its ad budget and began going after Reiner personally, asking voters if they wanted him, this creation of Hollywood, to raise their children. "I don't think Rob really realized when he got involved with a tobacco issue how they did things," says Alan Henderson, a professor of public health at Cal State Long Beach who wrote the ballot language endorsing Prop. 10 for the voter handbook. "The attacks on him were relentless."

Support for the proposition began to slip, and then to fall. By the time the campaign entered its last month, Reiner was fearful of losing, exhausted, and discouraged by the beating he was taking in the ads. Then Al Gore got involved and, as the former vice president remembers, "did everything I could do to help him pass it." Reiner was overjoyed by Gore's help. But the initiative was still in trouble. On Election Day, returns late into the night showed the measure failing. "It was horrible. Horrible!" Reiner remembers. But early in the morning, the tide turned. By 3 a.m., the "yes" votes held a narrow lead. It was only two weeks later, after absentee ballots had been counted, that Reiner could finally exhale. Prop. 10 passed by less than half a percentage point. Still, the battle wasn't over.

Four months later, the owners of a cigarette retail chain put Prop. 28 on the ballot, seeking to repeal the Prop. 10 tax. This time, however, 72% of voters endorsed the tax. The law has also survived a state Supreme Court challenge on the grounds that it funds programs from a tax on an unrelated product.

With victory finally assured, Reiner thought it was time to move on to something else. "The idea was just to pass this and let other people run the program," he says.

Governor-elect Gray Davis had other ideas and soon appointed Reiner to the state commission overseeing the program. Reiner was about to learn the difference between pushing for a $700-million program and running one.

As a piece of lawmaking, Prop. 10 is unusual. It does not earmark funds for specific groups or address a single social ill. Instead it channels the money to commissions in each of the state's 58 counties, depending on their birth rates, and gives those commissions the power to decide whether to spend it on abuse-prevention programs, early literacy, parenting classes or most any other effort to help prepare children for school. Los Angeles County gets the largest share of the funds, about $150 million a year. Orange County is second, at $45 million.

Money from the tax began accumulating immediately. "We came under a lot of fire for not getting money out quickly enough," Reiner admits. "We had terrible growing pains, just like any new program, fumbling and feeling our way for the first year."

The trouble was not only on the state level, which finally made the first funds available in October 1999. In the first year, only 12 counties were far enough along to submit plans for spending their share of the revenue. "These kinds of systemic reforms take time," Ross says. "You can see Rob exhibiting a fair amount of frustration with the pace of change."

As the Reiner family's longtime friend Mel Brooks would say: It's good to be the king. On a movie set, Reiner is king. In Sacramento, he is one of seven voting members of the commission. "You see his Hollywood modus operandi on a regular basis," says Mark Friedman, executive director of Alameda County's commission. "As a director, when he says, 'We're going to do the scene this way,' they do it that way. Government doesn't work that way. He isn't able to rule by fiat, so the potential [for friction] is there."

Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina sat on the county Prop. 10 commission's first meeting. She recalls early discussions with Reiner over whether the local commissions would be an adjunct of the county governments or independent entities. "When he came to the board, he said, 'I want it to be independent, so it will be.'

"Well, no, that's not how it works here," she said. Molina had sided with Reiner from the start. Even so, "We had to educate him how to do it, you know, we have to set up a structure so there's no liability.

"He said, 'It's got to be independent. If the county wants to apply for funds, they can.' "

Remarkably, the board eventually came around to Reiner's point of view, and Molina still marvels at the achievement. "For the Board of Supervisors to let go of power, especially when it's control of that amount of money . . . it's rare."

Soon after that initial meeting, Molina says she saw Reiner soften his auteur approach to leadership. "He let go of it. He's interested in what we're doing, and in getting the money out. He hasn't limited it by saying, 'This is what I want to fund.' He's let the commission blossom on its own."

Running monthly state commission meetings with gavel in hand, Reiner is required to follow Robert's Rules of Order. "He makes the meetings livelier," says Friedman. "He'll say, 'OK, conversation's over, let's move forward and get some action.' And then, oftentimes, Rob will make a motion. I've chaired a committee and I never made a motion. There's nothing in Robert's Rules that says the chair can't make a motion, but it's not done."

Some rules, however, are inflexible. "When you take the job, you get a tutorial from the attorney general's office," Reiner explains. "They take you aside and tell you about the Bagley-Keene [Open Meeting] Act," which requires state agencies to post their agendas 10 days before a meeting and then to keep to those agendas when they do gather. It also forbids more than two commissioners from discussing government business in private. In other words, the opposite of how negotiations are done in Hollywood.

A show business scion, Reiner wrested an enviable career as a movie director out of an early decision to leave television after "All in the Family." Currently on Nick at Nite, you can see a young, long-haired Reiner routinely blowing up at his TV father-in-law over politics. Taking nothing away from his acting ability, Reiner likely would agree that the role wasn't a stretch. He still punctuates statements that he believes should be apparent to anyone harboring a shred of sense with hand and facial gestures suggesting Borscht Belt Kabuki. His voice still soars and accelerates when he starts in on a topic about which he's passionate. It can be baby brain science or, as he explains the Ziploc bag of healthy snacks he was rarely without, Weight Watchers. "This sandwich, Allison, how many points do you think?" he asks as we sit in traffic during his guided tour.

"Uh, three?"

"No! Six points! Two slices of bread!" The man who brought forth the dimwit hilarity of "This Is Spinal Tap" turns out to be a wonk. He loves the details. Kristina Schake, his communications director, leans over the front seat to tell him about a focus group she attended the previous evening, which examined how parents respond to some new English- and Spanish-language educational videos to be included in new parent kits. Already he is eager to start talking about adapting the videos for Asian languages. She tells him the languages most spoken in the state are Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese.

"What about Hmong?" asks Reiner, concerned about leaving out some 75,000 immigrants living in California.

"They don't really have a written language," Schake says, visibly relieved she had recently learned the answer to that question. "Well, they do, but it's relatively new." Reiner considers the puzzle: Hmong subtitles are not an option, and producing a new video for one of the state's smallest minority groups is an impractical use of funds. Later they will decide that it might be best to work with Hmong-speaking community groups to disseminate information.

When we arrive at the central L.A. facility for Children's Institute International, a group that has received Prop. 10 funding for its work with victims of child abuse, Reiner easily joins a discussion with clinical psychologists and others who have devoted their lives to caring for traumatized children. The organization has been around since 1906 and, though Reiner calls it "the gold standard," he has a suggestion. Assessing their in-home program, he points out, "You're reactive. You're joining someone already in crisis. Have you thought of starting the home visits prenatally?" His eyebrows rise, and sit up there as he pauses.

"For instance, the David Olds model is more pro-active--you're not waiting for a referral to come in." He must be the only former sitcom star with a favorite home visitation program. As the chair of an agency with $700-million purse strings, his ideas command attention, even if he didn't have star power. But the latter never hurts.

In his car on another afternoon he calls his secretary and asks to speak with the agent for Orlando Magic forward Grant Hill. Moments later, the pitch begins. He's making some teaching videos. Going to every new family in California. Maria Shriver's in one, and Andy Garcia is in one and Jamie Lee Curtis. He goes in for the get: "And I know Grant's a good father and--oh? He doesn't have kids?" The conversation ends shortly thereafter. Mildly embarrassed by the gaffe, Reiner recovers. He smiles and shrugs. "Maybe we'll try Denzel Washington."

Reiner campaigned for Gore in 2000, making several appearances to leaven the candidate's humorless image. By November, when the election had ground to a deadlock, Gore and Reiner had become good friends. As luck would have it, Reiner was at the Gore home the next month, when the Supreme Court was considering whether to continue counting the Florida ballots. "We were eating dinner when the word came that the white smoke was about to come up over the Supreme Court building," Gore recalls. Then, sometime after the lemon tart, came what Reiner calls the Truman Show moment. "We literally run to turn on CNN and the guy on CNN is saying, 'The vice president is at his residence, now tuned to CNN trying to understand this ruling with the rest of us.'

"I can recall two times in my life when I had a complete loss of innocence," Reiner says. "The first was the Kennedy assassination. I was 16, and I remember thinking, 'This can happen in this country?'

"The second time was that Supreme Court decision."

Had Gore won, Reiner would have been well placed to further his goals on the national level. "It would have been easier for me," he says. Despite losing his inside track, Reiner tried a proven approach to reach the new administration: He called the vice president's wife. Later that month, he met with Lynne Cheney at her office at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "In the lobby were books by Robert Bork, so I was nervous," Reiner says. "But she was great, really smart. We differ politically, but philosophically, we agree. Where you get the core differences is how much money to put toward this."

For now, Reiner is comfortable with his limited role in government.

"I don't know that I'll ever be one of them," he says of his colleagues in Sacramento. "I'm a director and actor. But I don't think they view me as someone treading on their turf."

If the child advocacy world is thrilled to have a celebrity in its midst, the film world is mostly indifferent. "Nobody in L.A., in this industry, knows what I do," Reiner says. He's not complaining. In fact, he sounds bemused.

"Nobody knows about the meetings where I spend, eight, nine hours sitting in a room talking about policy, which I've done on a monthly basis for three years."

Reiner will hold his post until 2005. Already, supporters are concerned about his exit. "I am hopeful that he will continue to give of his time," Molina says. "But if he said tomorrow, 'I'm making an epic,' we would survive, because he has provided a lot of leadership."

His sabbatical from Hollywood does raise the issue of whether Reiner is more likely to return to movies or to pull a Reagan and commit to politics. "I kid him that he's kind of a politician now," Gore says. "He would put the emphasis on 'kind of,' so at least for now that stays in the kidding category. But if he ever wanted to do something [in politics], I'm sure he would have a lot of supporters. My sense is that he's sort of primarily focused on the results, and he's getting a lot of results this way."

Asked if anyone has suggested that he has been away from film too long, Reiner booms, "Anyone? How about every person that I meet? My wife is killing me to go back!" Right now, several scripts have his interest. He plans to start shooting one of them this year. There are other reasons to give more attention to his old job. Submerged in his Prop. 10 work, he was surprised and infuriated when he saw the Castle Rock release "Proof of Life."

"Meg Ryan smokes throughout that movie," he says, shaking his head. "There's no reason for it." While Commissioner Reiner can proudly point to a 35% drop in cigarette sales to minors in the first year after the passage of Prop. 10, filmmaker Reiner recognizes that cinema has done more to glamorize smoking than the tobacco industry can ever hope to.

Now if someone is to light up frivolously in a Castle Rock film, he wants the opportunity to talk the director or actor out of that choice. Not long ago he met with Ryan Gosling, 21, who is playing the role of a teenage murderer in a Castle Rock film directed by Barbet Schroeder. Reiner took a hard line with the young actor.

"Making this choice could conceivably get someone to start smoking, and ultimately kill them. I just wanted you to know that," he told Gosling. But the actor held his ground.

Reiner later reports, "He's a Mormon. He doesn't smoke, doesn't drink, doesn't swear. He's as clean-living as they come, and he did a tremendous amount of research into this character. So, we're not going to be censors, but if I were directing this film, I wouldn't let him smoke."

Soon Reiner will be the director again. He'll be back in control of a little world of his own making. There will be no smoking. And no committees. And no show of hands.

He's looking forward to it. "It's fun, first of all," he says without apology. But there also are no plans to abandon his other world, with its interminable meetings and red tape. "I didn't know what I was getting into," the commissioner admits. "But that's OK, because it's a tremendous opportunity to get things done. It's also a tremendous responsibility. You can't just walk away. I'm not going to."

Allison Adato last wrote for the magazine for the issue on growing up in L.A.

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 Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times