In the battle over rightful possession of Winnie-the-Pooh and his fellow denizens of the 100-Acre Wood, we spectators are forced to choose between Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and a member of the British Parliament. This is something like asking us to express a preference for either bad breath or body odor.
Nevertheless, the sympathies of goodhearted people certainly must be directed eastward, to that sceptered isle whose claim on Pooh seems straightforward. A.A. Milne, the writer who dreamed up Pooh and his friends, was, after all, British. And any attentive video-age parent no doubt knows that the original child-actor who gave voice to the character of Christopher Robin sounded a bit like Prince Harry himself. Later versions of the story rendered Pooh’s friend as a redblooded American boy, but in the tale’s most recent Disney manifestation, young Christopher was a Brit again. This has been a cause for some confusion in certain homes, but curious minds have been satisfied-temporarily, no doubt-with the explanation that Christopher Robin has an identical twin cousin.
Ah, you say: Our Wise Guys columnist is a student of Winnie-the-Pooh! Who would have guessed? Indeed, I am such a scholar, although the knowledge has been gathered grudgingly, the result of repeated viewings enforced by certain sweet tyrants at home. Let it be noted, however, that this reluctant scholarship has come in handy at such a time when great and important issues are being distorted by those with personal agendas and dubious motives. Beware of politicians who profess their love for cuddly stuffed animals! In such people beat the hearts of professional vote-counters and publicity hounds!
The Mayor has declared that he will not part with the original stuffed dolls that inspired Milne more than a half-century ago. Pooh and pals currently are on display in the children’s section of the New York Public Library. That fact came as a bit of a surprise, even to this Pooh scholar-this sophisticated capital of the world seems an odd place for the heroes of a strictly exurban melodrama where the action takes place in woods, streams and various other rustic settings. Apparently, a member of Britain’s ruling Labor Party agrees that New York is too unlikely a place for a bear of very little brain-the M.P. therefore has declared that Pooh and Company ought to be shipped across the Atlantic forthwith, to be take their place with various other celebrated British artifacts of the past: Stonehenge, the Tower Bridge, the Spitfire.
The Mayor pledges that he will do all within his power to make sure that Pooh and pals remain on American soil, and he pointedly reminded his antagonists that America no longer is a British colony. (No doubt this came as news to several of S.I. Newhouse’s better-known employees, who regard Mr. Giuliani’s city as the same Tory outpost it was back in the days when a certain General Washington was slogging through the wilds of Pennsylvania.) The Mayor’s firm stand on Pooh makes it clear that he has his eyes on a prize far removed from the nitty-gritty of Chambers Street and its environs. He and his advisers no doubt figured a little Stars and Stripes chest-thumping would erase the heartland’s memories of his penchant for frilly outfits and makeup. How could conservative upstaters turn their back on the man who saved Winnie-the-Pooh?
Still, it would be slightly more edifying and infinitely more useful if the Mayor and his political equivalents of Tigger, Eeyore et al. devoted just a bit more of their famous energy and righteousness to the cause of childhood literacy and the availability of books in poorly served neighborhoods. Winnie-the-Pooh and friends, after all, found fame as characters in children’s books, but those books are hard to come by in communities far removed from the world of superstores. Although the Mayor remains committed to keeping public libraries open six days a week-a Dinkins administration initiative-poor neighborhoods remain ill served. Harvey Robins, the onetime Dinkins administration operations chief who implemented the six-day-a-week library initiative, points out that the local library branch in Jamaica, Queens, is open only 30 hours a week, while in affluent Forest Hills, the local branch is open seven days a week, 57 hours a week.
“Except in election years, in every Giuliani budget he has recommended a reduction in library funding, and the Council has had to restore the money,” Mr. Robins said. “Now, that’s part of the budget dance between the Mayor and the Council, but the uncertainty wreaks havoc with librarians, who are increasingly hard to hire. Given what’s going on in schools, libraries are a critical program for parents, especially for single working moms who want to spend time with their children in libraries on weekends.”
Of course, this sort of thing doesn’t make for fun headlines and jolly feuds with out-of-town politicians.