Hillary Clinton's family manifesto

This book was first
published in 1996, three years into Bill Clinton’s first term as
President. It was reissued, with a new introduction, in 2006 -–
just in time for Hillary to launch her own bid for the Democratic
nomination in the forthcoming Presidential elections. So it is hard
not to see it as her "political manifesto" ("vision"
is too elevated a word), precisely calculated to aid her campaign.

Having already
formed my own, somewhat prejudiced, opinion of Mrs Clinton I will
confess that I did not read it with an open mind.
Yet if
not exactly open, I was curious: curious to see how much of herself
she would reveal and what might lie behind the formidable public
persona she projects to the media.

Having read it I am
none the wiser. This is not because she does not talk about herself;
she does, for 300 pages –- which itself is a little indigestible.
It is because the book is a continuous and polished performance. She
is never off-stage, weary, wiping the grease-paint off her face; she
is always facing the spotlights, facing her audience, facing down
those who might put up their hand to ask a question and thereby
obstruct the flow. My question would be: “Will the real Hillary
Clinton please step forward?”

The title of the
book comes from an African proverb: It takes a village to raise a
child. As Hillary points out, the village she refers to is no longer
so much a geographical place as “the network of values and
relationships that support and affect our lives”. The title might
suggest that she does not rate the work of parents as highly as she
does this wider network, but this would not be true. She tries to be
even-handed, valuing all parents, whether single, married, working or
at home, though she does add that “Every society requires a
critical mass of families that fit the traditional ideal.” This is
quickly qualified by a description of Bill’s dysfunctional
background and how he surmounted it with the love of his
strong-willed mother and the help of others, the teachers and mentors
in his “village”. In general she assumes that it is best for
children to enter this “village” early in life: “Imagine a
country in which nearly all children between the ages of three and
five attend preschool in sparkling classrooms...” The focus is less
on home care as on good childcare; why isn’t childcare in America
as good as it should be, she frets.

As a consummate
political animal, Hillary knows how to hedge her bets so as to please
everyone. One is not surprised to learn that nature and nurture “work
hand in hand.” Indeed, every statement is followed by the kind of
high-flown bromides that politicians excel at, but which, when
examined, dissolve into this air, such as: “As long as we face our
challenges and never give up on our children, we can re-build a world
where justice and hope and peace can overcome the forces of terror
and fear”; or again, “Children who get the early attention they
need, from the family and from the village, will repay our efforts a
1000-fold”; finally, “We must make childcare a priority and begin
to value the important of raising strong, healthy and happy
children”. You get the idea. The author is either bent on a
one-woman mission to make the whole world a safer place for children
or she is in love with the sound of her own rhetoric.

Reading between the
lines (which is difficult because Hillary’s voice imposes itself
between the lines as well as on the lines), we learn something of
what made this woman who she is today. Coming from a close,
traditional, Methodist family, she had parents who spared no effort
to stimulate, discipline, educate and form their daughter’s
character. When faced with a problem, her father would say, “Hillary,
how are you going to dig yourself out of this one?” No doubt these
early lessons in problem-solving have helped her later on, when
facing the ordeal of allegations about her husband’s private life
and his possible impeachment. Her mother used to ask her, “Do you
want to be the lead actor in your life or a minor player?” a
further question that is not without significance when one looks at
her determined bid for centre-stage position in later life.

As a mother herself,
Hillary did not follow her own mother’s traditional role. She spent
four months bonding with her baby daughter, Chelsea, before returning
to her law practice full-time. The child-minding arrangements for
Chelsea are deliberately not spelt out, but it is safe to guess they
ran along the same professionally organised lines as everything else.
Yet I do not want to sound churlish here; Chelsea seems to have
developed into a poised and balanced adult; she is not a spoilt
celebrity or neurotic wreck and tribute must be paid to her parents
for this outcome. She was certainly precocious: aged four and at a
church service on Mothering Sunday, she was asked by the minister
what gift she would give her mother. She replied, “Life insurance”.

Much of the book
eks to highlight and promote husband
Bill’s legislation on behalf of children; the rest draws attention
to her own valiant efforts to promote children’s welfare, as she
restlessly travelled America and the world, visiting clinics, youth
groups and play-schemes around the globe. “As I said in my speech
at the United Nation’s Fourth World Conference in Beijing...” or
“when I worked on education reform in Arkansas...” are typical
preambles to set-piece sermons. Hillary has done that, been there and
bought the T-shirt –- and the sharp suit, the slacks and the
swim-wear for every photo-opportunity.

Political journalist
John O’
Sullivan has described her public
performances in the recent Democratic primaries as “wooden and
wonkish”. This is not true of her book. In keeping with her legal
training, she demonstrates here that she has mastered her brief with
comprehensive fluency. What is this brief? Not so much to work for
child welfare as to win friends and influence people so as to achieve
the highest power. She may still achieve it.

Francis Phillips writes
from Bucks, in the UK.


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