It takes a village idiot

The latest book to come out of the Clinton administration is by the First Lady herself. It contains advice on entertaining toddlers (with a sock) and how girls should dress (comfortably). PJ O'Rourke wonders whether Mrs Clinton is really such a nitwit
April 19, 1996

It takes a village to raise a child. The village is Washington. You are the child. There, I've spared you from reading the worst book to come out of the Clinton administration since- let's be fair-the last one. Nearly everything about It Takes a Village is objectionable, from the title to the acknowledgments page, where Mrs Clinton fails to acknowledge that some poor journalism professor named Barbara Feinman did a lot of the work. Mrs Clinton thereby unwisely violates the first rule of literary collaboration: blame the co-author. And let us avert our eyes from the Kim Il-Sung-type dust jacket photograph showing Mrs Clinton surrounded by joyous-youth-of-many-nations.

The writing style is that familiar modern one so often adopted by harried public figures speaking into a tape recorder. The narrative voice is, I believe, intended to be that of an old family friend-an old family friend who is, perhaps, showing the first signs of Alzheimer's disease:

On summer nights, our parents sat together in one another's yards or on porches, chatting while the kids played. Sometimes a few of the fathers dressed up in sheets and told us ghost stories. We marched with our Scout troops or school groups or rode bikes in holiday parades through our town's small downtown, to a park where all the kids were given Popsicles.

Elsewhere the tone is xeroxed family newsletter, the kind enclosed in a Christmas card from people you hardly know:

One memorable night, Chelsea wanted us to go

buy a coconut... We walked to our neighbourhood store, brought the coconut home, and tried to open it, even pounding on it with a hammer, to no avail. Finally we went out to the parking lot of the governor's mansion, where we took turns throwing it on the ground until it cracked. The guards could not figure out what we were up to, and we laughed for hours afterwards.

Hours? However that may be, let us understand that we have here a Christmas card with ideas, "a reflection of my continuing meditation on children," as Mrs Clinton puts it. And we need only turn to the contents page to reap the benefits of her many lonely hours spent in contemplation of puerile ontology: "Kids Don't Come with Instructions," "Child Care Is Not a Spectator Sport," "Children Are Citizens Too."

Brave insights. "It is often said that children are our last and best hope for the future," claims Mrs Clinton. "Children," she ventures, "need to hear from authoritative voices that kindness and caring matter." And she flatly states: "The teenage years, we all know, pose a special challenge for parents."

The profound cogitations of Mrs Clinton cannot help but result in a treasure trove of useful advice on child rearing. "The village needs a town crier-and a town prodder," she says. I shall be certain to propose the creation of this novel office at the next town meeting in Sharon, New Hampshire. I'm sure my fellow residents will be as pleased as I am at the notion of a public servant going from door to door announcing, as Mrs Clinton does, "We can encourage girls to be active and dress them in comfortable, durable clothes that let them move freely."

Some of this needful counsel is gleaned from Mrs Clinton's own experience of partly raising one child with only a legion of household help courtesy of the taxpayers. Not that she always had it easy:

But for two years when Bill was not governor (and Chelsea was still very young) our only help was a woman who came during work hours on weekdays... My own version of every woman's worst nightmare happened one morning when I was due in court at nine-thirty for a trial. It was already seven-thirty, and two-year-old Chelsea was running a fever and throwing up after a sleepless night for both of us. My husband was out of town. The woman who normally took care of Chelsea called in sick with the same symptoms. No relatives lived nearby. My neighbours were not at home. Frantic, I called a trusted friend to my rescue.

Whew, that was a close call. Anyway, Mrs Clinton has swell tips on everything from entertaining toddlers ("Often... a sock turned into a hand puppet is enough to fascinate them for hours") to keeping older kiddies fit ("If your children need to lose weight, help them to set a reasonable goal and make a sensible plan for getting there"). And she is determined that every child should reach his or her full potential in mind and body ("One of my pet theories is that learning to tie shoelaces is a good way of developing hand-to-eye co-ordination").

But It Takes a Village is so much more than just a self-help book for idiots. Mrs Clinton also shares her many virtuous thoughts with us. "From the time I was a child I loved being around children." And she lets us in on her deep personal sorrows. "Watching one parent browbeat the other over child support or property division by threatening to fight for custody or withhold visitation, I often wished I could call in King Solomon to arbitrate." Though one shudders to think of the lawsuits the Children's Defense Fund would have brought against old Sol for bigamy, and what Mrs Clinton calls "the misuse of religion to further political, personal and commercial agendas."

Mrs Clinton explains, however, that church is good. "Our spiritual life as a family was spirited and constant. We talked with God, walked with God, ate, studied, and argued with God." And won, I'll warrant. "My father came from a long line of Methodists, while my mother, who had not been raised in any church, taught Sunday school." Interesting lessons they must have been. I myself am a Methodist. But Mrs Clinton apparently belongs to the synod from Mars. "Churches," she says, "are among the few places in the village where today's teenagers can let down their guard and let off steam." She says that in her Methodist youth group, "we argued over the meaning of war to a Christian after seeing for the first time works of art like Picasso's Guernica, and the words of poets like TS Eliot and e.e. cummings inspired us to debate other moral issues." I wonder if any of those words were from one times one by cummings: "a politician is an arse upon/which everything has sat except a man."

Until now the First Lady has had two media aspects or avatars. There was Hillary the zealous and committed, ideological wide-load, antithesis to that temporising flibbertigibbet and political roundheels, her husband. Then there was Hillary guile incarnate, swindling the widows and orphans of Arkansas in bank stock, real estate, and cattle trading deals, sending her minions to rifle the office of Vince Foster before his body had cooled and loudly touting the virtues of feminism while acquiring her own wealth and prestige by marriage to a promising lunk. But It Takes a Village contains evidence that we members of the press do not know the true woman. We have failed to penetrate the various masks of the public persona. We have neglected to learn who the real Hillary Rodham Clinton is. She's a nitwit.

But Mrs Clinton really can't be stupid. Can she? She has a big, long r?sum?. She's been to college. Several times. Very important intellectuals like Garry Wills consider her a very important intellectual like Garry Wills. Surely the imbecility of It Takes a Village is calculated, cynical, an attempt to soften the First Lady's image with ordinary Americans. Mrs Clinton chooses a thesis that can hardly be refuted: "Resolved: Kids-Aren't They Great?" Then she patronises her audience, talks down to them, lowers the level of discourse to where it may be understood by the average-let's be frank-Democrat. This is an interesting public relations gambit, repositioning the Dragon Lady to show how much she cares about all the little dragon eggs.

But it cannot be ruled out that the First Lady is authentically dim. In It Takes a Village, Mrs Clinton is highly critical of The Bell Curve by Richard J Herrnstein and Charles Murray. One whole chapter of her book is titled "The Bell Curve is a Curve Ball." Mrs Clinton shows no evidence of having read even the dust jacket of The Bell Curve, but never mind; let us take her underlying point that innate intelligence is hard to measure. Then let us postulate something we might call a "bell trough" and draw a conclusion from this that innate stupidity is hard to measure too. "Smart is not something you simply are, but something you can become," says Mrs Clinton. And ditto, my dear, for dumb.

There are times in It Takes a Village when Mrs Clinton seems to play at being a horse's ass, for example when she makes statements such as "some of the best theologians I have ever met were five-year-olds." But some kinds of stupidity cannot be faked. Says Mrs Clinton: "Less developed nations will be our best models for the home doctoring we will then need to master." And she tells us that in Bangladesh she met a Louisiana doctor "who was there to learn about low cost techniques he could use back home to treat some of his state's 240,000 uninsured children." A poultice of buffalo dung is helpful in many cases.

Mrs Clinton seems to possess the highly developed, finely attuned stupidity usually found in the upper reaches of academia. Hear her on the subject of nurseries and pre-schools: "From what experts tell us, there is a link between the cost and the quality of care." Then there is her introduction to the chapter titled "Kids Don't Come with Instructions":

There I was, lying in my hospital bed, trying desperately to figure out how to breast feed... As I looked on in horror, Chelsea started to foam at the nose. I thought she was strangling or having convulsions. Frantically, I pushed every buzzer there was to push. A nurse appeared promptly. She assessed the situation calmly... Chelsea was taking in my milk, but because of the awkward way I held her, she was breathing it out of her nose!

The woman was holding her baby upside down. But let us not confuse stupid with feeble or pointless. Stupidity is an excellent medium for the vigorous conveyance of certain political ideas. Mrs Clinton is, for instance, doggedly pro-Clinton. Anyone who makes the least demur to the Clinton administration agenda (whatever it may be this week) is an extremist: "As soon as Goals 2000 passed, it was attacked by extremists." And she says the "extreme case against government, often including intense personal attacks on government officials and political leaders [italics added by an extremist, me], is designed not just to restrain government but to advance narrow religious, political, and economic agendas."

Nor does Mrs Clinton miss a chance to swipe at family values, often putting the phrase in quotation marks to signify ironic scorn. "This is real 'family values' legislation," she says of the Family and Medical Leave Act, a law she calls "a major step toward a national commitment to allowing good workers to be good family members"-something workers never were, of course, until the government made them so. Poverty, injustice, the need to take a couple of days off work-in the Mrs Clinton world view there is no social problem that's not an occasion for increased political involvement in private life.

There is no form of social spending that Mrs Clinton won't buy into (with your money). But she is oblivious to the idea that the government programmes she advocates may have caused the problems the government programmes she advocates are supposed to solve. "Whatever the reasons for the apparent increase in physical and sexual abuse of children, it demands our intervention," she says. But what if the reason is our intervention?

Yet, at bottom, Mrs Clinton cannot really be called a commie or a pinko or even a liberal. Like her husband she spends too much time arguing both sides of the social, if not political, issues. And she endorses the Department of Education guidelines on religious activities in the public schools, which state: "Schools may not provide religious instruction, but they may teach about the Bible." It's real old. It's real long. There are Jews in it.

Mrs Clinton frames herself as wife, mother, and Christian, favours making divorces harder to get, mentions responsibility about every third page, and goes as far as to tell this bald-faced lie: "We reject the utopian view that government can or should protect people from the consequences of personal decisions."

If a name must be put to these stupid politics, we can consult the Columbia Encyclopedia under the heading of that enormous stupidity, fascism: "totalitarian philosophy that glorifies state and nation and assigns to the state control over every aspect of national life." True, the fascism in It Takes a Village is of a namby-pamby, eat-your-vegetables kind that doesn't so much glorify the state and nation as pester the dickens out of them. Ethnic groups don't suffer persecution except in so far as a positive self-image is required among women and minorities at all times. And there will be no uniforms other than comfortable, durable clothes on girls. And no concentration camps either-just lots and lots of day care.
It takes a village
HIlary Clilnton
Simon & Schuster $20.00