Hillary Clinton felt misunderstood.
It was late 1994, Republican revolutionaries had stormed the House, and the first lady worried that it was her fault. Had she pushed too hard on health-care reform? Did voters resent her influence in her husband’s administration? During a meeting with confidantes in the White House residence, Clinton held back tears and contemplated stepping back from a visible role in politics and policy.
Instead, she decided to reintroduce herself to America. “I realized I needed to tell my own story and define my own values in a format that could be evaluated directly by people without being distorted or mischaracterized,” she later explained. The result was her 1996 book, “It Takes a Village,” a meditation on the needs of children in the United States — and the closest thing we’ve ever had to a fully formed political manifesto from Hillary Clinton. After the humiliating failure of Hillarycare and her party’s midterm debacle, the book became a bestseller, her comeback.
In the decades since, it has also become her touchstone, the argument she still reaches for when explaining her vision. “I believe the idea of the village and its shared responsibility for our children is even more essential today than it was in 1996,” Clinton wrote in the book’s 10th anniversary edition. She drew on it again during her first run at the Democratic presidential nomination, in 2008. “After all these years, I still believe it takes a village to raise a child,” she said in remarks before the Urban League, where she pledged, “as your president, to build that village.” And Clinton returned to it in the speech launching her 2016 presidential campaign, calling for “an inclusive society” — or, she added, “what I once called ‘a village’ that has a place for everyone.” As if we didn’t remember.
In her debates with Sen. Bernie Sanders, Clinton has labeled herself “a progressive who likes to get things done,” suggesting ideology leavened by pragmatism. Though some of her views have no doubt shifted since she wrote the book — “evolved,” as politicians prefer to say — “It Takes a Village” shows Clinton striving, sometimes struggling, to reconcile those two impulses. The Clinton in these pages is a self-described moderate, but one who wants an activist government to drive social policy transformations. She is an advocate for equal rights, with a surprising streak of social conservatism. And in a preview of one of her current campaign’s big challenges, she dismisses cross-generational nostalgia for a bygone America yet fears that young Americans don’t recognize the sacrifices their elders once made for them.
Clinton today frequently hails the country’s economic performance during her husband’s presidency, but “It Takes a Village” begins with a bleak view of the 1990s. “Everywhere we look,” she writes, “children are under assault: from violence and neglect, from the breakup of families, from the temptations of alcohol, tobacco, sex, and drug abuse, from greed, materialism, and spiritual emptiness.”
Parents are the first line of defense for their kids — feeding, teaching, nurturing, encouraging — but children “exist in the world as well as in the family,” Clinton explains. They depend on grandparents, neighbors, teachers, ministers, doctors, employers and, yes, politicians. “It takes a village to raise a child,” she writes. “I chose that old African proverb to title this book because it offers a timeless reminder that children will thrive only if their families thrive and if the whole of society cares enough to provide for them.”
The whole of society — that’s where Clinton’s vision quickly expands. Although she highlights the importance of nonprofits, faith communities, businesses, and international nongovernmental groups, “it takes a village” often becomes code for “it takes Washington.” Clinton writes passionately about the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, the Brady Bill, immunization campaigns, and other federal initiatives, deeming them essential to village life. “Let us stop stereotyping government or individuals as absolute villains or absolute saviors, and recognize that each must be part of the solution,” she writes. “Let us use government, as we have in the past, to further the common good.”
So what is the proper role for that government? Clinton identifies competing strands in American history — a collective “gratitude” for a government that promotes the common good, alongside a deep skepticism of authority evident in constitutional checks and balances and the Bill of Rights — and then claims the center. “Most of us would describe ourselves as ‘middle of the road’ — liberal in some areas, conservative in others, moderate in most, neither exclusively pro- nor anti-government,” she writes. It may not be the vision of 2016 primary voters seduced by Sanders’s calls for political revolution, but it’s entirely consistent with Bill Clinton’s presidency, which, two weeks after the book’s publication, declared the era of big government over.
On the economy, Hillary Clinton reflects the ambivalence that still dogs her as today’s Democratic voters consider her Wall Street ties. She emphasizes the importance of regulations for strong financial markets and job growth, yet she brags about how the Clinton administration eliminated 16,000 pages of them. She blasts companies that lay off workers in the name of efficiency but adds that, “to be fair, while corporate restructuring is eliminating many jobs, the economy is also creating millions of new jobs, with small businesses starting at a record pace.”
Still, centrist rhetoric doesn’t stop Clinton from continuing the fight for her recently defeated cause of universal health care. “Many people believe that we cannot guarantee health care to all because of cost,” she writes. “In fact, a sensible universal system would, as in other countries, end up costing us less.” But she laments the nation’s unwillingness to “commit ourselves to make affordable care available to every American.” Today Clinton looks back with pride on her battles with the insurance industry, telling audiences that she fought hard and has “the scars to prove it.” In her book, she appears defensive at times, the wounds still fresh.
Though her push for reform, like Obamacare after it, was assailed as a paternalistic, Washington-knows-best approach to social policy, in “It Takes a Village” Clinton also stresses the role of personal agency in staying healthy. Take the stairs instead of the elevator, she says. Teach kids to feel responsible for their own weight. Shut the refrigerator door and open the front door instead. “There’s probably no area of our lives that better illustrates the connection between the village and the individual and between mutual and personal responsibility than health care,” Clinton writes.
This emphasis on personal responsibility is consistent with one of the more unexpected aspects of “It Takes a Village” — its socially conservative views of family, sex and popular culture.
Though Clinton writes that children can thrive in multiple family structures, she argues that “the nuclear family, consisting of an adult mother and father and the children to whom they are biologically related, has proved to be the most durable and effective means of meeting children’s needs over time.” She endorses uniforms in schools, calls for stricter codes for violence in movies and praises Tipper Gore’s efforts on warning labels for explicit music. Clinton also encourages sexual abstinence and wishes that young people would postpone decisions about sex until age 21 — all views that may feel anachronistic in her party today but that placed Clinton near the center in the 1990s culture wars.
She laments abortion among young people and says it’s a “national shame that many Americans are more thoughtful about planning their weekend entertainment than they are about planning their families.” Clinton calls for more research into family planning and wider access to contraception, and she asserts that “women and men should have the right to make this most intimate of all decisions free of discrimination or coercion.” But then, in odd phrasing for the pro-abortion rights politician, she contends that “once a pregnancy occurs . . . we all have a stake in working to ensure that it turns out well.”
Perhaps most fraught in an America that has awakened to racial disparities in policing and criminal justice, “It Takes a Village” praises the 1994 crime bill for stopping “the revolving door for career criminals,” hails the presence of more cops on the streets and points approvingly to the rise of neighborhood watch groups. “It is realistic, not racist, to be cautious when walking through a high-crime neighborhood, or to want to avoid a corner where a drive-by shooting has taken place,” Clinton writes. “Such judgments become biased only when they are motivated by negative stereotypes rather than common sense.”
Finally, Clinton decries widespread divorce, characterizing it as a personal failing of couples who don’t try hard enough. “For a high proportion of marriages,” she writes, “ ‘till death do us part’ means ‘until the going gets rough.’ ” Clinton mentions her own efforts to keep her marriage together: “My strong feelings about divorce and its effect on children have caused me to bite my tongue more than a few times during my own marriage and to think instead about what I could do to be a better wife and partner,” she acknowledges.
In her speech at the 1996 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Clinton drew heavily from “It Takes a Village,” linking its arguments to her family and, most important, to her husband’s reelection bid:
For Bill and me, there has been no experience more challenging, more rewarding and more humbling than raising our daughter. And we have learned that to raise a happy, healthy and hopeful child, it takes a family. It takes teachers. It takes clergy. It takes businesspeople. It takes community leaders. It takes those who protect our health and safety. It takes all of us.
Yes, it takes a village.
And it takes a president. . . . It takes Bill Clinton.
Today, she is making that case for a different Clinton, in a different time. It’s a tough balance, embracing elements of that past presidency, discarding others and casting herself forward as her own person.
Even in “It Takes a Village,” Clinton is conflicted about the past. She dismisses the “nostalgia merchants” who would like to take us back to a Norman Rockwell-style America, but she worries that young people don’t appreciate the hard-earned gains of those who came before. “When I look back on my childhood,” she writes, “I see how my mother and my girlfriends’ mothers worked to push open doors of opportunity for us.” By contrast, she notes, younger Americans “don’t remember that many of the most important advances grew out of controversy and were achieved only after great effort.”
But others do remember, and Clinton’s recitation of those who have benefited from the village almost resembles a Democratic electoral coalition. “Our children may not remember, but older African Americans who could not eat in restaurants or sleep in hotels or vote in elections surely do. Women who were not admitted into certain professions remember. . . . Asian Americans who were told not even to apply for some jobs and Jewish Americans who were prohibited from buying homes in certain neighborhoods remember. Hispanic Americans who had no legal recourse against exploitative employers remember. Native Americans who lacked access to medical services before the expansion of the Indian Health Service remember. Men who went off to fight in World War II and were welcomed home by a grateful nation and the GI Bill of Rights remember.”
The dust jacket of “It Takes a Village” features a smiling Clinton, bathed in sunlight, surrounded by adorable children. They look 6 or 7 years old. They’re of all different colors, and they’re all laughing. The message is clear: These are the children Clinton fights for; the village she is building is for them.
Two decades later, those kids are in their 20s. They’re the millennial generation. And they’re feeling the Bern.
Read more from Book Party, including: