Katha Pollitt’s review of It Takes A Village

Katha Pollitt is now a big fan of Hillary Clinton, but she wasn’t always one, as this review of her dreadful book It Takes A Village shows (although the opening is a portent of the future). In the spirit of my earlier reposting of Katha’s polemic on the repeal of welfare, here’s her view of HRC’s pieties from twenty years ago. Clarification: the business with the ghostwriter, Barbara Feinman is serious; Hillary and the White House tried to stiff her out of her last payment, and she wasn’t acknowledged in the book. For more, see Carl Bernstein’s A Woman In Charge.

The Nation — February 5, 1996

Village Idiot
Katha Pollitt

“Saint or Sinner?” asks the cover of Newsweek about Hillary Clinton. On the New York Times Op-Ed page, Maureen Dowd calls her a hybrid of Earth Mother and Mommie Dearest. I must say, I don’t see what all the fuss is about. Don’t countless politicians (and their relatives) use their positions to make profitable contacts and advance their friends? And don’t they all talk about family, morals, responsibility, children and God? Even if the First Lady is guilty of the worst that is alleged against her—and if you can explain exactly what that is, you’ve probably been up to no good yourself—there’s nothing new or exceptional about it: See the careers of Newt Gingrich, Al D’Amato, Bob Dole et al. This is what politics is all about, especially in places like Arkansas, a k a The Heartland. “The people you read about in the papers? They all live next door to each other,” an Italian journalist told me after a visit to Little Rock. “It’s just like Italy!”

Well, there is one new thing: the gender issue. A lot of people still expect the wives of politicians to concentrate on the Kinder-Kirche-Küche side of life, while their husbands go after the bright lights and boodle. H.R.C. has failed to observe this division of labor in her own marriage, for which tradition-minded folk like William Safire cannot forgive her. Now the First Lady has written a book, It Takes a Village—And Other Lessons Children Teach Us, only to land herself in more hot water. In yet another column criticizing H.R.C., Maureen Dowd took her to task for not acknowledging the ghostly pen of Barbara Feinman, a former researcher and editor for Ben Bradlee, Bob Woodward and Sally Quinn, all now apparently up in arms at this slight to their beloved assistant. Between Whitewater, Madison Guaranty, Travelgate and now Thankyougate, H.R.C. isn’t likely to get much time to talk about her book, and since I know how painful that can be, I sat down and read the whole thing. Who knows? I may be the only columnist in America who can make that claim.

The ostensible thesis of It Takes a Village is that the well-being of children depends on the whole society. The real message is that H.R.C. is for family values. She prays a lot, alone and en famille. She’s a good mom. She thinks young people should abstain from sex until they are 21. She opposes divorce: “My strong feelings about divorce and its effects on children have caused me to bite my tongue more than a few times during my own marriage”—I’ll bet—“and to think instead about what I could do to be a better wife and partner. My husband has done the same.”

I know I’m not supposed to take these notions seriously, any more than I’m meant to gag at the weirdly Pollyannaish tone of the prose, or wonder if Sunday school could really have been her formative intellectual experience. Like her disapproval of television talk shows—thanks to which “we are saturated with stories about priests who molest children” and have become “skeptical of organized religion”—they’re just campaign theater, nods to the cultural conservatives that are balanced by other nods, to flexible gender roles, legal abortion (a very small nod), a “modest” rise in the minimum wage. There’s no attempt to think anything through: the damage to organized religion versus the damage to children left at risk of molestation, for example, or the kinds of social pressures that would be necessary to produce that bumper crop of 21-year-old virgins. Her opposition to divorce is left characteristically vague: She’s “ambivalent” about no-fault divorce (the pet peeve of former White House aide and communitarian William Galston, who proposed abolishing it for couples with children recently on the Times Op-Ed page), but she says nothing about what it would really mean to return to the old system, in which spouses, lawyers and judges colluded in perjury, and wives who strayed could be denied custody and support. It’s easy for her to talk: Her husband has obligingly provided her with grounds that would withstand even the most Savonarolaesque reforms.

What else? The First Lady is for sex ed that has both an abstinence and, for those youths determined to ruin their lives, a birth-control component; a free market that’s also socially responsible; government that’s both smaller and more social-worky. For every problem she identifies, a study, a foundation, a church, a business or a government-funded pilot project is already on the case: teaching poor young mothers how to improve their babies’ cognitive abilities, encouraging fathers to spend time with their families, involving parents in their children’s school. Some of these programs sound terrific, but none of them are on remotely the same scale as the problems they confront. If parents are too poor to afford school uniforms, they’ve got problems much graver than the community recycling of hand-me-downs can solve. The First Lady is thus a kind of center-liberal version of Arianna Huffington, who claims that “spirituality” and volunteerism can replace the welfare state. For H:R.C. the state itself becomes a kind of pilot project, full of innovation but short on cash, and ever on the lookout for spongers.

The real irony, of course, is that at the same time H.R.C. is conceptualizing society as a “village” united in its concern for and responsibility toward children, her husband is panting to sign the original Senate welfare bill, which his own Administration’s figures say would plunge 1.2 million more children into poverty and render more desperate the condition of those already poor. How can a self-described child advocate, who goes on and on about the importance of providing children with enriched parental attention and quality care from their earliest moments of life, square herself with policies that would force low-skilled mothers of small children into full-time subminimum-wage jobs, with warehouse care for their kids? Exactly how will permitting states to deny benefits to children born on welfare further those kids’ development? And what about the kids at the end of the line when the block grants runout?

After the media figure out Whitewater and insure proper recognition of Ms. Feinman’s labors, some enterprising reporter might consider asking the First Lady about that.

One Comment on “Katha Pollitt’s review of It Takes A Village

  1. So Doug — what do you think happened that made Ms. Pollitt make such a sharp turn to the right?

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