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It Takes a Village and Other Lessons Children Teach Us by Hillary Rodham Clinton

Hillarytown

It Takes a Village and Other Lessons Children Teach Us
by Hillary Rodham Clinton
Simon & Schuster. 319 pp. $20.00

In our assessment of this agreeably written and intermittently charming book, let us put aside the weighty and much-mulled matters of Hillary Clinton’s personal integrity and veracity, her role in sundry White House malefactions, and her legal and commodities-trading career in Little Rock. Let us not dwell on who wrote which pages of this volume—its “acknowledgments” are the vaguest I have ever seen. And let us even ignore the question of why she has published it at this moment.

Mrs. Clinton, after all, does not say that this book—issued with huge fanfare eight months before the voters pass judgment on her husband and, inevitably, on herself—is part of a careful strategy to change her image and reposition herself for the 1996 campaign. We find no hint here that she might be trying to deflect attention from her well-lit woes. Instead, she asserts that her sole purpose in writing is to “share . . . some of the convictions I’ve developed over a lifetime . . . about what our children need from us and what we owe to them. . . .”

It is precisely those “convictions,” held as they are by the tougher and more consistent half of the White House duo, that deserve our scrutiny.

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Certainly, there is some wisdom in the African proverb from which Mrs. Clinton derives her title: “It takes a whole village to raise a child.” We know that even exemplary parents are seldom solo practitioners of the art of child-rearing. They will have an easier time of it, and their progeny are apt to be better off, if the immediate family functions within a web of loving grandparents, attentive neighbors, preacher, teacher, scoutmaster, friendly postman, camp counselor, and cop on the beat.

That, indeed, is what “mediating structures” and “civil society”—terms invented or resuscitated in modern times by conservatives—are all about. It is what Jane Jacobs depicted as the heartbeat of neighborhood vitality in her memorable The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961). It is also a large part of what Tocqueville admired in the America he visited in the 183O’s. We know that village when we see it. We also know it is not as common as perhaps it once was or should be now.

Like most proverbs, however, “it takes a whole village to raise a child” contains the seeds of misinterpretation alongside its kernel of wisdom. Hillary Clinton, unfortunately, appears to have carefully tended the seed and cast the kernel aside. In her village, parents are often supplanted by other villagers—by the elected officials, expert professionals, and government bureaucrats whom she sees as fairer, more predictable, and more competent than parents in making decisions about children.

This peculiar vision is on display in each of the book’s eighteen chapters—one for almost every hot policy issue of our day. Each proceeds according to the same loose formula:

First, a title which recalls the uplifting epigrams and pregnant maxims that clergymen tend to affix to their sermons: “Security Takes More Than a Blanket”; “The Best Tool You Can Give a Child Is a Shovel”; “Every Business is a Family Business.”

Then, snippets from Hillary Rodham’s own childhood (in a rock-ribbed and happy Illinois Republican family), or from the (far stormier) household of Bill Clinton’s early days, or from her experience as a (seemingly swell) mother of one.

Next, a description of what Mrs. Clinton judges to be vital services and sound policy for children, be it day care, health care, or whatever, and a complaint about why many children do not have enough of those kinds of care today.

Finally, an explanation of how to provide what is missing through federal programs proposed by, created by, or protected (from villainous Republican assault) by the administration of William Jefferson and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

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To see how this works in practice, consider the chapter on health, “An Ounce of Prevention Is Worth a Pound of Intensive Care.” Here the opening anecdote is brief, consisting of a passing reference to an Arkansas doctor who helped look after Mrs. Clinton’s daughter Chelsea and “taught me many lessons,” mostly about the failure of adults to supervise children’s health. Then we read—observe the reasoning, and keep your eye on the dates—the following:

The effort to immunize children against preventable childhood diseases is a good illustration. . . . We’ve come a long way toward these goals [of immunizing all children] from where we were a few years ago. . . . Some of this improvement may be due to the increased funding for immunizations and the outreach and education campaigns we have embarked on since my husband took office. . . . In 1993, as part of a larger initiative to improve immunization rates, Congress adopted the Vaccines for Children program.

As it happens, the program Mrs. Clinton heralds in this passage has been far from a success. Paul Gigot, in the Wall Street Journal, points out that inasmuch as vaccination rates were already near 90 percent, the program to begin with “was sold to solve a problem that didn’t exist,” and then it “handed federal control to an agency that had never managed anything like it before.” Jeffrey Rosen in the New Republic describes it as a “bureaucratic nightmare” which has caused thousands upon thousands of doses of vaccine to pile up and go to waste in federal warehouses. Even Democratic Senator Dale Bumpers, from the Clintons’ own state of Arkansas, says the program “will not immunize one additional kid.”

Undaunted, the First Lady sees immunizations as just the start. Children also need sound nutrition. “It is critical,” she declares, “that we continue government programs like WIC [supplemental nutrition for Women, Infants, and Children], food stamps, and school lunches.” Children need exercise: “the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports is working hard.” Above all, children need “a reformed health-care system.” Her own plan for massive federal intervention may have gone down in flames in 1994, but she does not doubt that something like it will eventually come to pass.

As with health, so with education. On the one hand, Mrs. Clinton favors such uncontroversial measures as creating schools with high expectations and good discipline. She expresses a measure of support for the slightly more contested idea of allowing parents greater choice among schools—public schools, that is. (There is no mention here of Chelsea’s excellent progress at one of Washington’s toniest private schools.) But once again, Mrs. Clinton’s chimes ring loudest on behalf of federal programs initiated in the past three years, including Goals 2000 and the so-called Improving America’s Schools Act, a bill best known for expanding the reach of the Washington education bureaucracy into such matters as parent-teacher conferences and the “gender equity” of textbooks. Mrs. Clinton describes this law ingenuously—I mean, disingenuously—as providing support for “a wide range of grassroots reforms.”

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Tucked away in this stale pudding of big-government nostrums is, to be sure, an occasional welcome surprise. Thus, Mrs. Clinton takes a hard line on adolescent sex and parental divorce. She has a word of praise for William J. Bennett, and no word at all for Joycelyn Elders, the condom-in-every-classroom Surgeon General of the Clinton administration’s first two years. Mrs. Clinton records herself as strongly in favor of religion and the value of a spiritual life for children. And (shades of her husband’s 1996 State of the Union address) she stresses the important things parents can do directly for their children, like setting a good example, shielding them from worry, and reading to them before bedtime.

If Hillary Rodham Clinton has in fact practiced what she preaches in these particular passages of her book, I am quite prepared to believe that, whatever her failings, she is a pretty decent mother. I would not mind having her as a neighbor, and I am ready to think she might be an asset in my village. But I do not believe we ought to spend any more time in hers.

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