It Takes A Lot of Nerve

Book Review: It Takes a Village: And other lessons children teach us by Hillary Rodham Clinton (Simon & Schuster, 1996)

by Honoria Begone

I will begin by admitting that I am quite conservative politically, therefore I bring some strong biases to the work of Hillary Clinton. I also find it difficult to accept a rambling diatribe on the best way to raise children delivered from a high-powered lawyer who (according to an article in Insight magazine) left her toddler under the supervision of maids on the government payroll rather than expend her own funds to hire a nanny. As one essayist put it, "[The working mother] doesn't make it to Hillary's aerie by running out for quick trips to the pediatrician after lunch."

So while it is tempting to slam this work merely on the basis that my beliefs are the polar opposite of the Clintons', I really don't have to. This book is so bad that it fails entirely on its own (de)merits.

Most of the obvious, pedestrian, simplistic information in this book is heard everywhere--including the hackneyed admonitions to eat less and exercise more, and to "read to your children." Frankly, I'm sick and tired of being browbeaten with this. I read to my kids, already! It's impossible to escape the feeling that Hillary thinks parents are morons who have to be coerced into doing right by their kids, and it really galled me that on page 96 she states, "Another study found...mothers who stayed at home spent more time watching television with children than those who did not." This certainly isn't true in my house, nor is it true in the homes of most of my friends. And Mrs. Clinton spends an entire chapter decrying the terrible shows on television, violent video games, etc., etc., but she never calls any attention to how much time is spent watching tv in public schools or day-care centers!

Hillary (or, more likely, her ghostwriter) quotes Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, various "studies," and others, entirely without documentation. This book ought to be chock-full of footnotes, and there's nary a one. Could be she got a lot of this information from Parents' magazine.

There's a smattering of nice little domestic anecdotes, such as Chelsea's questions about God, chats around the dinner table, and the highly fanciful description of Hillary and her daughter, stretched out on a blanket in the back yard of the Governor's mansion, talking for "hours" about what the cloud formations look like. These strike one as cloying and sentimental, not to mention politically motivated. In fact, Hillary freely borrows from conservatives, exhorting parents to stick together rather than divorce and to spend time with their children, advising teens to put off sexual activity until after age 21, and devoting one entire chapter to religion. These remarks seem specifically crafted to humanize the Clintons, and to shut down the "family values" argument before it surfaces in the campaign. Also carefully engineered is Mrs. Clinton's picture on the dust cover. In soft focus, her wedding ring prominently displayed, Hillary sports a Donna Reed big-hair flip, ladylike pale green suit, and a three-strand pearl necklace!

It is also incongruous that someone occupying the White House, and sending her child to an exclusive private school, could make remarks such as, "I don't want [Chelsea] to grow up in an America sharply divided by income, race, or religion." When did this woman last cook a meal, do her own laundry, or vacuum the rug? She's had domestic help for the last decade, at least.

Also dubious is the frankly paternalistic attitude Mrs. Clinton takes toward "all of our children" -- by which she undoubtedly means those children deemed by some as "at risk" or "underprivileged." They're not her child, not my children, not children of "stable, dependable families," and certainly not the children who attend Sidwell Friends' School. I hardly think the parents of "those children" will be reading this book -- Hillary is, in essence, preaching to the choir. After all, who does she think is buying all the parenting books and magazines, and taking all those discipline classes? Certainly not the teen mothers, drug addicts, alcoholics, and abusers she targets with her little lectures.

A good bit of the book is devoted to anecdotes from Hillary's travels, and she actually advocates the wholesale importation of third-world health practices she has witnessed, such as informal outdoor clinics for mothers and children where the birth control methods of all the women are posted on a large chart. Where does Mrs. Clinton think this (government-sponsored, of course) program will fly, in the middle of the Ozarks? In East Los Angeles? Where health care is concerned, she seems entirely blind to the fact that in countries where cradle-to-grave health care is provided, taxes are crushingly high, forcing women into the work force and not allowing the choice for them to stay at home to give their kids the kind of custom-made care and love that only they can provide -- and Hillary herself proposes as the ideal. Then she reverses this position when she extolls the virtues of French preschools, which she characterizes as bright, cheerful, and caring (and very expensive for taxpayers). Does Hillary really think she is observing business as usual when she's out on these little junkets? She is a visiting dignitary. The citizenry have been planning for months just how to impress her. Of course everything appears to be hunky-dory -- she's a VIP, not an average tourist.

Her liberalism and long-held beliefs shine through in other places. For example, she hauls out the old feminist rhetoric: "Much of the fiction written by and about women over the centuries contains an undercurrent of disappointment, dissatisfaction, or simple wistfulness about roads not taken." And she tells us, "We can encourage girls to be active and dress them in comfortable, durable clothes that let them move freely. We can choose gifts that transcend gender stereotypes..." Somebody had better tell my virulently anti-feminist mother, who worked as a bookkeeper for fifty years and raised two Barbie-loving daughters, that she did it all wrong -- even though it never even entered my head that there might be some line of work I could not pursue because of my sex.

Mrs. Clinton even hauls out the "Goals 2000" project for perusal once again. Of course, it appears innocuous enough, and Hillary wonders why in the world anyone would be "against" such marvelous ideals. She forgets that this idea failed because parents don't want centralized federal control of the public school system. Hillary recounts the disturbing story of a school administrator who was convinced the kids in his district couldn't learn. We don't need a federal curriculum to throw jerks like that out of our schools -- just a lot of informed, irate parents.

The word "village," as Hillary uses it, is just a nice euphemism for "government." While she talks a good game of "tolerating others' differences," the overwhelming tone of this book is that of the well-educated elitist dispensing her limousine liberalism to the great unwashed, wrongheaded dopes comprising the masses. Hillary says she trusts Americans to do the right thing, but just in case we don't, she's all ready with a taxpayer-funded program to make us do it. Day care, education, the media, you name it, she has the answers. Then she steers a path right down the middle of the road, decrying "extremist views" on both the left and the right, a couple of pages after she hysterically asks, "Who benefits from the elimination of federal regulations that protect us from outbreaks of contaminated drinking water or cases of tainted meat? Who benefits from...massive deregulations that could allow companies to dump toxins into our nation's oceans, rivers, and lakes?"

Hillary Clinton has found the perfect cause. Nobody is going to argue with someone who claims to be saying all these things in order to help children and families. The great many people who talk about "strengthening families" and "empowering children" really are out to create more government bureaucracy. Often these programs themselves undermine parental authority by implying to children that their parents are not to be trusted, but that the government is. Okay, so children who are "sustained by government-subsidized school breakfasts and lunches" are not guilty of waste, fraud, or abuse. But by filling in for parents who shirk their responsibilities, the "village" only reinforces the idea that it's okay to do so, that "someone" will fill in.

The proverb from which the title of this book is taken can be interpreted in two ways. One is this: that we each have a responsibility to our fellow citizens to be honest, moral, consistent, and to support and uphold high standards for all children to emulate -- especially our own. Yet Hillary's appears subtly different: that the village knows best, and in fact is superior to the family in many cases.

It is difficult to draw any conclusion except that this book is an artless, purely political ploy to paint President and Mrs. Clinton in a favorable light for an election year.