Children bring serious questions to White House

February 21, 1993|By BU David Zurawik | BU David Zurawik,Television Critic

"President Clinton: Answering Children's Questions" was certainly the best and brightest Saturday morning kids' TV any network has offered this year.

There were genuinely touching moments, lots of information, and an overall quality of production that made the two-hour ABC broadcast seem to fly by.

In fact, it all went so well, with Peter Jennings' deft touch as moderator and Mr. Clinton's ease with children, that the debate about whether the president was using ABC to sell his economic program will likely heat up even further.

In TV terms, Mr. Clinton was enormously effective in the face of some disarmingly tough and informed questions from the 40 children brought to the East Room of the White House by ABC and from others around the country.

A homeless girl who lives in a Los Angeles shelter asked what he was going to do about the homeless. A boy from Louisiana, who believes his 10-year-old brother died of a cancer caused by toxic wastes, asked what Mr. Clinton was going to do about the environment. A boy with HIV asked Mr. Clinton about money for AIDS research.

Part of Mr. Clinton's success with children on TV is that, like the great classroom teachers, he treats them with the respect that one would grant a peer.

He repeatedly prefaced his remarks yesterday by saying such things as, "If you don't agree, please correct me."

At times, the show was a bit overproduced. One segment -- featuring Jaleel White in character as Steve Urkel of "Family Matters" trying to get a bill through Congress -- made a viewer anxious to get back to the more spontaneous dialogue of Mr. Clinton and the kids.

But other taped mini-profiles showing the neighborhoods, homes and schools that some of questioners came from were successful in putting a real face on social problems, which are otherwise discussed only in the abstract all too often. ABC News, to its credit, managed literally to give voice to some of the children who are victims of problems ranging from unemployment to racism.

Parents, who watched with their kids, saw a president who seemed to care about children asking for their support. In the illogical way that TV images and emotions interact, for many in the audience, Mr. Clinton probably succeeded in forging a link between caring for kids and backing his proposals.

Not even the Great Communicator, Ronald Reagan, ever thought of using Saturday morning kids' TV to try and sell his programs that way.

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