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Clinton can talk about kids, at least

The president has been whirling around the landscape, ministering to the dispossessed. He has strewn grants for the homeless around Baltimore and Washington; he has communed with seniors about Social Security; and before departing for the hot air of the Renaissance Weekend, he announced new plans to protect the nation's children.

He has always engaged in such activities, but as Doomsday in the Senate looms, they have a particular edge. It's as if he is saying to the country, "Don't believe all you hear about me _ my heart is in the right place." The polls since his impeachment have climbed. Conversely, his reputation is blackened beyond repair. It has reached the point where even in church, from the holiday pulpit, you hear sermons that begin, "There's something good in everyone _ even in our president."

Like his other initiatives, his program to reduce mayhem in the lives of children has a lot of tomorrow in it. He spoke of a Justice Department summit in May on children exposed to violence. He left the strong impression in the Roosevelt Room that he expects to be there. Stiffening penalties for those who abuse or neglect children is a beginning; so is strengthening prevention and intervention. But the fact that has to be faced is that 80 percent of the people who abuse or neglect children are their parents. We consider ourselves a child-centered country, but you would hardly know it from what happens in U.S. courts, where light sentences are meted out to child-killers, and judges routinely send children back to abusive parents.

The president could have mentioned the notorious case of Latrena Pixley. She is the District of Columbia mother who smothered her 6-week-old daughter in 1992, for which she was sentenced to three years in prison for weekends only. The judge accepted her defense of postpartum depression.

Now Pixley is seeking to reclaim custody of another of her children, 2-year-old Cornilous. He has been in the care of a police officer, Laura Blankman, since he was 3 months old. Blankman's petition for adoption was turned down by a three-judge panel that awarded custody to Pixley, who lives in a halfway house. Blankman appealed recently, with the help of the National Council for Adoption, to the Supreme Court of Maryland. Her side was much heartened by the fact that one of the nine judges called Pixley's infanticide "extraordinary" and worthy of gravest consideration.

Both the president and the first lady consider themselves ardent advocates of children's causes. Clinton lost much standing with liberals with his hard-nosed welfare reform bill. Hillary Rodham Clinton has a longer record of championing change in the Family Reunification Act _ responsible for so many grotesque "family" reunions. The president needs to make much more use of the bully pulpit to bring one of the great scandals of our time to the public's attention: the silly theories about the efficacy of "parenting" classes as a deterrent to abusive and murderous parents.

People are perhaps willing to listen to Clinton on the subject of children because of his undisputable success in bringing up his own child. Maybe her mother did it all, but Chelsea is an almost heartbreakingly satisfactory daughter. She came to town with braces on her teeth and was unkindly called an ugly duckling. She has emerged as a swan, and she loves her parents.

Through the teenage years, a nightmare of rage and tears for so many families, she has been willing to appear with her parents _ between them, if necessary _ in public. By contrast, a colleague's Christmas newsletter tells of an adolescent daughter who treats him like a pariah in the way of her contemporaries. Her edicts have the force and cruelty of similar emanations from Catherine the Great. A sample: "When accompanying your teenager and her friends to the movies, take a back seat, way back. Do not acknowledge any relationship (unless she needs money)."

But Chelsea Clinton, the day after impeachment, when the whole world was dumping on her dad, went to church with him. She carried her Bible and a smile. She may have known that she was being used, but she didn't seem to mind.

Maybe she is just following her mother's example in standing by the man in her family. Maybe she has a religious sense of duty and pardon, or maybe she just loves him. Whatever, she is a little island of mercy and grace in the heaving seas of squalor, spin, slime, hypocrisy and treachery that are her father's doing.

The president can't speak with much authority about morals and ethics these days. But as long as Chelsea is around, he may get a hearing on the subject of children.

Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.

Universal Press Syndicate

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