Hillary Clinton's agenda was perfectly clear: family first

ALICE STEINBACH

April 15, 1993|By ALICE STEINBACH

She has been called a cold-hearted careerist who puts work ahead of family, but when Hillary Rodham Clinton's father suffered a massive stroke, the first lady dropped everything to go to his side.

Leaving behind her urgent work as head of the president's task force on health care reform, Mrs. Clinton immediately flew to Little Rock and remained at her hospitalized father's bedside for 16 days.

During this time, there was little news reported about the condition of Mrs. Clinton's father, Hugh Rodham, or about the first lady herself.

The entire Rodham family, it seems -- including Mrs. Clinton's two younger brothers -- gathered in Little Rock and did what most families do at such a painful time: withdraw into the grief that can be shared only with other family members.

It's been difficult for many women to identify with Hillary Clinton. She has been cast by the Religious Right -- and anti-feminists, too -- as an enemy of the family. And such a distortion of her politics and beliefs has made some women -- and men -- suspicious of this precedent-setting first lady.

But it's hard to imagine that even the most ardent Hillary detractors would not soften their views somewhat in the face of her obvious devotion to her father -- and respect her for the way she honored this important figure in her life.

Surely, many of those who have been unable to identify with this forceful, high-powered attorney will find themselves empathizing with the grief felt by Mrs. Clinton at the loss of a parent.

Eventually, all of us must face the same deep grief.

And it's likely that many of us may also face some of the ethical dilemmas regarding prolonging life that have resulted from the advances in high-tech medicine. It seems clear from the one public speech given by Mrs. Clinton during her father's illness that she was confronting some of these wrenching questions.

"Our ancestors did not have to think about many of the issues we are now confronted with," she said during a talk at the University of Texas in Austin days before her father's death. "When does life start? When does life end? Who makes these decisions? How do we dare to infringe upon these areas of such delicate, difficult questions? And yet, every day in hospitals and homes and hospices all over this country, people are struggling with those very profound issues."

There is no small degree of irony, of course, in the timing of Mrs. Clinton's personal confrontation with a health crisis. It has intersected with the public task she has assumed of trying to overhaul the nation's health care system.

One can't help but wonder what impact, if any, this firsthand experience will have on the recommendations presented by her task force regarding the costs of end-of-life treatment.

Clearly, as more and more baby boomers enter middle age -- and their parents enter old age -- it's an issue that will become increasingly dominant in our society.

If you need verification, consider the following:

Of the 76 million American baby boomers, fewer than 25 percent have experienced the death of a parent, according to Andrew Scharlach, an authority on aging at the University of California at PTC Berkeley. His figures also show there's a 90 percent chance that today's 50-year-old has two parents still living.

But financial costs are not the only price to be paid when an elderly parent dies. There's an emotional price as well. And it may be more costly -- emotionally speaking -- when the "child" surviving the dying parent is middle-aged or older, as in the case of 45-year-old Hillary Clinton.

Younger adults, of course, grieve a parent's death. But because life in your 20s and 30s is so geared to the future, to looking ahead, some younger adults are able to find closure for their grief more quickly than older adults.

What makes the grief at a parent's death more difficult for the older adult, I think, is this: If you're lucky, time has deepened the ties between parent and child. And if you're really lucky, you may be able to see past the words "parent" and "child" and get a glimpse of the authentic person who exists inside that role.

No one but Mrs. Clinton will ever know what thoughts went through her mind as she sat next to her dying father. But we do know that she was there, close to him at the end.

She was, you might say, a traditional, loving daughter.

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