A QUESTION FIRST ABOUT parental rights. Nancy Reagan claims that Foster Grandparents, the federally funded program that brings together a few of the nation's elderly poor in person-to-person helping relationships with handicapped children, is "my baby."
In fact, the true parent of Foster Grandparents, at least in the federal birthing room, is Sargent Shriver, the energetic sire of at least a half-dozen Great Society programs that are still serving the poor and which Ronald Reagan consistently attacks in both his budgets and speeches. Thanks to Shriver, who named the program himself, Foster Grandparents was already established on the national scene some two years before Nancy Reagan visited a center in California in 1967. She was then the wife of the state's governor.
Reagan's calling Foster Grandparents "my baby" may spring from a trait she picked up from her husband, who is something of a kidnapper himself. The president has trumpeted his programs as "the New Federalism," as though the phrase were his. In 1973, a hearings book put out by the Senate Subcommittee on Intergovernmental Relations on such War on Poverty programs as Foster Grandparents was titled "the New Federalism."
In 17 years of budgetary battles, occasional bureaucratic indifference and programmatic difficulties, Foster Grandparents has survived well. After all that, it can survive Nancy Reagan's book, too. Not much is here, beyond creating an excuse for a White House book party extravaganza for Nancy Reagan and Frank Sinatra. The language is a double-depressant of numbing, cliche-ridden prose that ranges from Lady Bountiful pitter-patter to tea room philosophizing. "It seems a fact of nature," Reagan writes in her foreword, "that the very young and the very old cannot resist the warmth offered each to the other. In a way, it restores the family unit that is the strength of our country. I often think how sad it is for all of us that the splintering of family has been on the increase in America. Offspring leave home after completing their education, often to marry and establish a life far from their loved ones."
Reagan shouldn't be held to standards of deep sociological analysis. She is a former actress married to a politician, not a think-tank research assistant. But she shouldn't be allowed either to get away with filling up page after page with gobbets of platitudes that, by comparison, make the articles in Family Circle magazine read like John Updike essays. The Foster Grandparents program deserves better.
Reagan devotes 33 chapters to profiles of the elderly poor. "These are people I love," she says. It appears, though, it is love at a distance. During the book's preparation Reagan met only two of the subjects. The rest were on the itinerary of Jane Wilkie, a California free- lancer paid a flat no-royalty fee for her legwork and writing.
Nothing is said about how many people Wilkie talked with but who were culled because their stories were not sufficiently upbeat for inclusion here. Reagan presents only "the continuing successes." "The stories in this book are those I've found so touching, so inspiring that they are sealed into my memory."
The sealing affects the reader, too. After a dozen or so of the profiles, airlessness sets in. There is no breathing room for serious suggestions that the original intention of Foster Grandparents was to serve the elderly poor by putting a few dollars into their pockets and involving them in the community. The profiles here -- under chapter titles of first names like Nelle, Oscar, Marge, Dot, John, Bertha, Joe, Ruth, "The Captain," Concha and Helen -- are of people who might as well be upper-class dabblers in poverty for all we know of their financial dependency on the meager $2 an hour stipend paid to the grandparent volunteers.
Dollars are not mentioned. Reagan's profiles appear to be ideal fits for the right-wing mold that the poor would be happy if only the government would get off their cases. Nancy Reagan's mission here is to show the poor at their happiest. She writes: "Their impetus for spending hours with 'their' children is love, pure and simple." Foster Grandparents "encourages the spirit of volunteerism. Our country has reached its heights in great part because of the willingness of Americans to contribute. I shall never fail to be amazed at the innate goodness of Americans."
If any of the elderly poor are marring their goodness by joining Foster Grandparents because that $2 an hour might be all that's between them and destitution, because they have lost out in the cuts on food and housing programs, we aren't told. Nothing messy like the current policy assaults on the elderly poor are mentioned. Instead Foster Grandparent "Ruth" is quoted: "I'm a happy person now. I've never been truly happy in my life until now. I have love now for others and for myself." Or Oscar, who on Foster Grandparents Recognition Day in 1981 at the White House came up to the author and said, in her quote of his words, "I've been praying to the Lord, Mrs. Reagan, that you'd shake my hand, so I could tell you that you have the devotion of all the grandparents." And Dot who feels "that my landing in the Foster Grandparent program was an act of God."
Surely it was. And surely the program is as valuable and needed today as it was on opening day in 1965. But who is Nancy Reagan to be latching on to it in this public way? She didn't bother to get to know the poor people she was writing about and gives no indication in these pages that she is remotely familiar with poverty or its causes. The literary standard that applies to every other author of nonfiction should be imposed on her: does she know the subject, has she done the research?
Both times, it's a trickle-down, "no."