BetteBack March 4, 1995: Bette Midler Raises Money For NPR

The Washington Post
March 4, 1995 | Roxanne Roberts



National Public Radio doesn’t have commercials as such. Instead, it raises millions of dollars through pledge weeks and challenge grants and 12 million devoted fans. Including one very important one.

“What can I tell you?” said Bill Clinton last night. “I’m just an NPR kind of president.”

What that means exactly is subject to interpretation, but Clinton likes NPR so much that he played host to a star-studded black-tie performance in the East Room launching the network’s 25th anniversary year.

Not only are the president and first lady members of both local NPR affiliates in Washington, but back in Arkansas they used to set their clock radio to the local NPR station. “Some days it was so soothing we didn’t wake up,” he told the 200 invited guests. “But still, it was a lot better than talk radio. And on those days when we did wake up, we were able to eat breakfast.”

That tasteful, moderate, oh-so-genteel tone was center stage as the NPR Playhouse presented “The Sound of the White House.” Jason Robards, Kathleen Turner, Michael Feinstein, Martin Sheen, Charles Dutton, Taj Mahal and Bette Midler joined NPR’s on-air stars for a collection of one-liners, history, aphorisms and observations about presidential life.

Tom and Ray Magliozzi, the “Car Talk” guys, injected a breath of life into the radio play, which proceeded with good humor despite the loose familiarity with the script. Partisan politics, especially that liberal elite kind, didn’t rear its head until the end of the program when Buck Henry, Jane Curtin, and Robert Krulwich presented “Backfire,” a spoof of the pundit round table. A rundown on 200 years of White House trivia was followed by a look at what would happen to the mansion in 2000.

Henry predicted it would be privatized. “If the NRA can be convinced not to use it for for target practice,” he said, “I suppose it could become a very beautiful, electrified orphanage.”

Even Midler, who ended the show with a charming, irreverent song and dance, couldn’t resist tiny jabs at Dan Quayle and Newt Gingrich.

“But I’m not going to get political,” she teased. “We don’t come to the White House for that. We come hoping that there will be embossed towels that we can take home to our family and friends. And there are! What a nation!”

Actually, they all came to the White House to throw a spotlight on NPR. “I think it serves a function that is really, really vital in this country,” said Midler. “I came, in a funny way, looking for a little pulpit because I hear some people would like to cut the funding for NPR and I really don’t think it’s a good idea. {It really is} another voice in the wilderness that I think is so necessary.”

Last night’s performance was part of a whirlwind weekend of schmoozing, lobbying and rainmaking for the NPR Foundation, the fund- raising arm of the nonprofit network. Contributors who had pledged at least $10,000 to the foundation were treated yesterday morning to a congressional breakfast hosted by Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) in the Rayburn House Office Building, the White House performance and buffet supper, breakfast this morning at the NPR studio, lunch at the National Press Club and a reception at the Embassy of Finland.

This was the Clinton administration’s second public boost this week in support of public broadcasting.

In a speech at American University Thursday, Vice President Gore attacked the “mean-spirited” Republican attempt to privatize public broadcasting. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which distributes federal funds to local television and radio stations around the country, gave NPR $1.5 million in 1994, about 3 percent of its annual operating revenue. NPR also receives federal money indirectly from member stations who pay for its programming.

Last night, Clinton said that NPR costs about 29 cents a year per citizen.

“I know it’s fashionable today to condemn everything public, but it seems to me that public radio has been a good deal for America,” he said.

Most of NPR’s personalities were on hand, but “Weekend Edition” host Scott Simon stayed away out of fear that a White House event could create a perception problem for NPR in the midst of the current battle for funding.

“I said I didn’t think it was a good idea,” Simon said earlier this week. “I don’t think there was anything wrong with it ethically, but I didn’t want there to be — at this particular point — any possibility of an appearance that I was participating in a partisan political event.”

But Supreme Court reporter Nina Totenberg had no qualms.

“I went to the Republican event this morning and the Democratic event tonight,” she said. “Anything to help NPR raise its visibility and raise money, I’m willing to do.”

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