This Hollywood star shines as ... a bureaucrat?

When celebrities test the political waters, as several are doing right now, they often eye positions that would keep them in the limelight: president, US senator, or maybe governor.

Few head for the subterranean world of government bureaucracy.

Yet that's exactly where famous funnyman Rob Reiner finds himself these days, when he's not opening a movie or being inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame, as he was last week.

With fervor, frustration, and lots of humor, Mr. Reiner has launched America's most ambitious state program for early childhood development, which kicks into gear today as millions of dollars begin flowing to 58 California counties.

The program itself is considered pioneering in its size and scope, and could significantly further the nation's knowledge of how to best help children in their formative years, from prenatal to age 5.

It's also an interesting case study of whether the good intentions of a government outsider can survive the maw of the public arena. In Reiner's case, the answer is yes.

"There have been moments. Lots of moments...," says Reiner, alluding to the tightly controlled and often-laborious world of government-institution building, versus his more freewheeling power as a Hollywood heavyweight. But overall, says Reiner, "It's terrific; I'm actually doing the thing I most care about."

He's no meathead

There are plenty of criticisms of Reiner's program, but one not heard is that it's the work of a dilettante with an eye for the limelight but no stomach for the hard stuff.

The successful actor, director, and producer has marched through endless public meetings across California for the past seven months. In Redding one month and Fresno the next, Reiner is slowly building from scratch the $700-million program authorized by a 1998 ballot initiative that imposes a new 50-cent tax on each pack of cigarettes and uses the proceeds for early childhood development.

Voters narrowly approved the controversial initiative last year, and tobacco interests are already gearing up to kill it with a vote in March 2000.

Opponents were on hand at Reiner's Walk of Fame induction, calling for repeal of the "meathead tax," a reference to Reiner's role in the television series "All in the Family."

Whatever happens, this program has already resulted in an unprecedented exploration of the needs of children across the nation's largest and most diverse state.

Under the program, each county establishes its own local commission, which through public hearings and an assessment of the local need devises a strategic plan.

The aim is to make sure all children "enter school healthy and ready to learn, and become productive, well-adjusted members of society."

It's a tall order, requiring integration of health care, child care, parent education, and intervention programs for families at risk, not to mention efforts to stop early smoking, according to Jane Henderson, state commission executive director.

Yet assessing local needs with extensive public involvement and having a substantial pot of new money to spend on children make this an extraordinary opportunity for California communities, say advocates.

"It's the opportunity we've never had to creatively design new ways of impacting every child," says Mark Friedman, executive director of the commission in Alameda County, east of San Francisco.

For many counties, the new funds will double and triple the money now available for children's services scattered across myriad programs.

Though Reiner himself is impatient for results, he has had to encourage the county commissions to build their programs slowly. As he reminds them, "this is not a sprint; it's a marathon."

Opponents are hoping to overturn the program either at the ballot box or in the courts.

Thomas Hiltachk, spokesman for the Cigarettes Cheaper! campaign, says the program violates the state constitution by using tax dollars in a way not controlled by the elected legislature.

Critics also find patently unfair the taxation of one industry just because it is politically unpopular.

Given the challenges still ahead for the vast program, Reiner and the rest of the California Children and Families State Commission he chairs are in for a stern test.

But one advantage proponents have is mounting evidence that early childhood intervention programs work.

As a 1998 study by the Rand Corp. concluded, programs aimed at the development of disadvantaged children during their early years "can provide measurable benefits for them and long-term savings for society as well."

Patti Siegel, a member of the state commission and executive director of the California Child Care Resources and Referral Network, says Reiner's inexperience with the ways of government is more than offset by his deep knowledge of the subject and the collegial yet demanding way he operates.

His style is lots of humor and very open. I know that when I invite someone to a commission hearing, theyre not going to find some celebrity figurehead who is doodling or half asleep, says Ms. Siegel.

Mystery of celebrity At times, Reiner makes effective use of his outsider status. As county representatives pressed him earlier this year about what would happen to the interest earned on the tax revenues as it accumulated in the bank, he became indignant. Youre so mistrustful of me that its very disturbing, he complained. But before the meeting ended, Reiner produced a letter from the state controller guaranteeing the money and the interest. And of course there is always the mystery of celebrity to keep people paying attention. As he opened a commission meeting in late May in San Francisco, Reiner told a full chamber, I was up late last night. You dont want to know why, or maybe you do? It prompted a woman in the audience from a child-service agency to lean over and whisper to a friend, I think hes a breath of fresh air.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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