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Newt Gingrich is afraid of Big Bird.

Well, what else are we supposed to think? The Speaker of the House and his fellow Republicans have offered no rational, sensible, logical explanation for why they want to zero out government funding for PBS.The $286 million allotted to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is a tiny sum, comparatively speaking, and PBS's share of $186 million split between 350 public television stations is the definition of a drop in the bucket.

It must be fear, fear of Muppets, purple dinosaurs and kindly gentlemen in zip-up sweaters. Because it couldn't be plain old mean-spirited partisan politics or Christian Right vindictiveness that's driving the new Congress to threaten funding for the CPB, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, could it? These elected officials can't be planning a move that the president of PBS, Ervin Duggan, has said is tantamount to "killing" it, just because a few of them are still in a snit over "Tales of the City," can they?

Gingrich has characterized PBS as offering "elitist" and non-unique programming that viewers can easily find elsewhere on cable. But if "elitist" means appealing to a small, privileged, homogenous group, isn't PBS, with its programming for children, adults, gays, straights, capitalists, conspiracy theorists, senior citizens, feminists, African Americans, Anglophiles, Civil War buffs, handy men and on and on, exactly the opposite?

What Gingrich is really saying, in his divisive Newtspeak, is that people who watch and support PBS are elitist (code word for liberal), politically correct, feminazi Democrats. Hmmm - where does that leave fans of "Firing Line," "Wall Street Week" and "The McNeil-Lehrer Newshour," not to mention such sponsors as Mobil, Chevron and IBM, noted socialist collectives all?

As for the charge that PBS-type programming can be found elsewhere on cable, that may be true, but (and listen carefully, Newt) viewers have to pay for it. And that excludes people. More important, while it's possible to find some decent children's programming on cable channels like Nickelodeon (and even on the Big 4 broadcast networks), parents, educators and anyone who really cares about kids will tell you that it's not the programming per se that makes non-commercial TV so invaluable - it's the non-commercialism, stupid. Whether the show is worthwhile, like Nickelodeon's "Secret World of Alex Mack," or a blatant toy tie-in, like Fox's "Power Rangers," commercial programming for children remains, in the words of former FCC Chairman Newton Minow (writing in the New York Times Magazine on Dec. 4) "inhumanely poor, geared mostly to selling children to advertisers."

And a privatized PBS would, out of sheer necessity, be no different. What could be more elitist than the Republican attitude that education and enlightenment isn't free, not even for America's children?

Some have suggested that Gingrich is bluffing, that the Republican Congress has no intention of zeroing out PBS, it's merely trying to scare it into toeing a more conservative line. If that's the case, Gingrich's rank insincerity should make parents of little PBS watchers even angrier. How dare Gingrich play political games with childhood institutions like "Sesame Street" and "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood"?

The true test of any kids network is the kind of world it presents to its viewers. There's an ad for PBS's kids programming in which Hal Riney's toasty-oatmeal voice-over declares that a child's world is not like ours and innocence is fleeting and, as cornball as this ad may be, it's true. PBS is a child's safe haven from the hard sell (well, except during pledge breaks). Is that why Republicans are so threatened by it?

Or is there something else about the world of Big Bird and Barney and "The Magic School Bus" that they fear?

The PBS kidworld is a world where people of all races and family situations can be friends and money doesn't ever enter into it. In shows like "Ghostwriter," "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?" "Reading Rainbow" and "The Magic School Bus," it's a world where reading, writing, geography and science are adventures, and where women (like Lynne Thigpen's chief detective on "Carmen Sandiego" and Lily Tomlin's science teacher on the animated "Magic School Bus") or people of color (like LeVar Burton, host of "Reading Rainbow") are role models and authority figures.

It's a world where the very young are treated with respect for their intellect and individuality. It's a world where every child matters, every child is worthy of an equal chance, whether they're the children of parents who are rich, poor, married, unmarried, white, black - even parents who are Democrats. In short, the PBS kid world is a frightening place for white male conservative Republican politicians.

Every day for nearly 30 years, Fred Rogers (a true TV saint) has given his "television friends" the most important message a child can receive - "You are special" - without trying to sell them anything on the sly. Gingrich borrowed a page from Mister Rogers' book, or tried to anyway, when he hosted a showing of his beloved "Boys Town" on cable last month, talking about how government ought to be a "friend" to the welfare children he'd like to see sequestered in federal boys and girls towns. Yet Gingrich is threatening to take away the one true friend in government that American children have had through years of politicians slashing budgets for school breakfast programs, Head Start, child health care and public education itself.

Come on, Newt, all you have to do is keep the money coming to fund a lousy six hours of noncommercial children's television a day. Look at it this way - it's the least you can do.