Confessions of a Disinvited White House Bunny

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The Monday that follows Easter Sunday in Washington is many things. Six years ago, as an up-and-coming gallerist and sometime actor in need of extra cash, it was an opportunity to earn a few additional dollars on an otherwise dead day for work as a costumed extra at the White House Easter Egg Roll. Galleries are generally closed on Monday, plus here was a chance -- gosh darn it -- for a child of immigrants from Soviet Russia to be as patriotic as apple pie.

D.C. being D.C., my star turn as bunny at the White House involved a security background check, which I passed. But that's when politics began to turn its ugly head to truly sacred ground -- the presidential lawn.

I got up at the crack of dawn with a specific role to play -- Buster Baxter the Bunny from PBS' "Postcards from Buster" series. For young viewers in the know, Buster (who is animated) traveled around the country with his trusty video camera interviewing kids (who are not!) from unconventional family upbringings and various social classes.

On a particular visit to a Vermont farm in January 2005 to learn about the harvesting of maple syrup and the milking of cows, Buster met several children from a family with same-sex parents. "Boy, that's a lot of Moms," the rabbit said as one of them showed him her family photos.

And so began the great Lesbian Buster Bunny controversy.

Back in Washington, D.C., newly minted Bush administration Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings was hopping mad. She wrote a letter to the director of PBS objecting to the normalization of same-sex parents on public TV.

"Congress' and the Department's purpose in funding this programming certainly was not to introduce this kind of subject matter to children, particularly through the powerful and intimate medium of television," she objected. Spellings went on to ask for a "refund" of public monies, concluding, "Many parents would not want their young children exposed to the lifestyles portrayed in the episode."

In short, the culture war was back on, and I was soon to be in the middle of it.

The funding of PBS is appropriated biannually by Congress and by direct grants, including by the U.S. Department of Education, Viewers Like You, and lastly, by Viewers Like Me. On the White House lawn that Monday, well aware of the months-long brouhaha involving my character (I was Method!), I was already attentive to the need to put my best rabbit's foot forward.

In the interest of our nationally recognized Easter Egg Roll, I was to play the part of an engaging, photogenic rabbit before visitors of all ages, waving a hand in welcome to one and all and not speaking a word. Those were strict rules -- and besides, the Secret Service was watching.

To get to be Buster Baxter the Bunny for Easter at the White House didn't "just happen," either. I rose through the ranks. I started off as Grover of "Near and Far" fame from "Sesame Street" for the National Book Festival, the pride of our first lady, Laura Bush. This was followed by a "performance" as Clifford the Big Red Dog for a special White House Christmas party, honoring injured military officers coming home from war and their families. Buster was to be my swan song. To be a moonlighting bunny on Easter for George W. Bush, well, it just doesn't get any better than that for an actor in a fur suit.

But then Spellings showed up that year -- as the egg roll's host. And to my dismay, a young administration staffer whispered to a PBS staffer, who whispered to my boss. And just like that, Buster was busted and banished from the lawn.

Instead of entertaining kids and watching the annual egg roll, I spent the rest of the day in an East Wing dressing room adorned with large photographs of artists and performers from Texas -- Selina and Jessica Simpson -- eating sandwiches and lamenting the effective end of a budding secondary revenue stream. The show went on without Buster and me.

My Buster moment was just one small casualty in a long fight over tolerance and diversity in publicly funded media. By this Easter, there had been a major change in support for gay marriage and gay families, not to mention the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. But public broadcasting remains imperiled.

Sadly, the culture war is still on.

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Mark Kelner is a gallerist based in Washington, D.C., specializing in Russian art.

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