May 30, 1996 in City

Clintons’ Baby Talk Breeds Cynicism

Marianne Means Hearst Newspapers

What a coincidence.

President Clinton was taking a drubbing from his Republican opponents over those old charges of womanizing, his support for abortion rights and what the GOP claims is his lack of proper family values.

Suddenly, Hillary Clinton confesses a burning desire to have a second child at the age of 48, either by conception or adoption.

Is this fortuitous timing or what?

Republicans are already laughing so hard at this latest twist in the first lady’s crusade to make herself over into national mother hen that they can hardly contain themselves. And who can blame them? Democrats think it all a bit much, too.

The Clinton partnership is a synchronized political machine, and nothing’s wrong with that. So is the marriage between Bob and Elizabeth Dole.

But there is a time and a place for everything. A middle-aged couple in the White House who have devoted their lives to politics yet yearn, in the middle of a high-pressure campaign, for a child is bound to be suspect.

The Clintons may well have vaguely thought of enlarging their family, during romantic moments - and in spite of all their problems I believe they have such moments. But to raise the subject now insults public intelligence and common sense. It is stupefyingly cynical.

The Clintons have neither conceived nor adopted a child since the birth of Chelsea 16 years ago. The prospect of the first lady bearing a child at nearly 50 years of age is not only highly remote but potentially dangerous. Even adoption at that age has traditionally been frowned on by many adoption agencies because of the huge generation gap, including the fact aging parents might be retired before the child is out of school.

Nor has word gotten out in four years in the White House that the dream of changing diapers has been Topic A in the Clinton family quarters. We could have sworn they were both preoccupied with the intricacies of governing, pushing administration policies, defending themselves against legal and political attack and enjoying the perks of office.

A baby is a natural crowd-pleaser. Nobody can resist. Besides, loving children says nice things about you, too, as a caring and decent person.

That’s why male politicians through the ages have kissed babies, put their own tots on display, mouthed all the right things about the little darlings and even occasionally espoused causes meant to protect children. And why their wives have done their best to appear motherly.

After Hillary Clinton developed a dragon lady image, she shifted tactics to emphasize an interest in traditional female pursuits, particularly children’s rights. Her best-selling book, “It Takes a Village,” is about family values, her own difficulty conceiving after her 1975 marriage and her concern about abused and neglected children.

All of this is supposed to reinforce the president’s appeal to women, soften her own hard-edged reputation as a tough policymaker and project a sense of family solidarity and love.

And talk is cheap. There was no suggestion of rushing into the baby business. The first lady told Time magazine it would be “terrific” to have another child and had discussed adoption with her husband. But she added, “We’d obviously wait to get serious about it until after the election. … There’s just too much going on in our lives right now.”

The baby idea happens to be a political card the Doles are in no position to play. Elizabeth Dole, who will be 60 this summer, has never borne a child. The senator, 72, has a grown daughter by his former wife but is of grandfatherly vintage now.

It’s just as well. We’ve never had a baby sweepstakes between presidential candidates.

Most people realize that although babies are cute, bouncing one in the nursery has nothing to do with the philosophical competition that frames the great national debate between the leaders of the two major parties as they strive for the White House.

In any case, the Clintons are not likely to get very far with a cuddly image of pending new parents-tobe. They will be lucky if the whole nonsense doesn’t backfire, as another example of their willingness to say anything - if not actually do it - to win.


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email