Hillary's raw deal, and the feds' appetite for social tinkering

By Jayson Jacoby January 14, 2011 12:19 pm

Hillary Clinton had the worst luck of any First Lady in the past 40 years.

Oh sure, she’s had a pretty good run since she moved out of the White House, racking up an impressive record of First Lady firsts.

U.S. Senator.

Presidential candidate.

Her current job has a certain prominence as well.

But Hillary had a bad time of it back in the ’90s.

And not merely because of her husband’s high-profile philandering.

I suspect Hillary, who’s clearly no dolt, had a fairly keen sense of Bill’s extramarital predilections well before they moved up north from Little Rock.

They’d already been married for 17 years, after all.

What I’m talking about, rather, is the nature of the pet projects which each First Lady adopts, as it were.

On that account, Hillary ought to sue for breach of contract.

(She is a lawyer, after all.)

Consider the public service campaigns to which other First Ladies have devoted themselves, noting in particular how innocuous, wholesome and empathetic each one is.

Nancy Reagan told American kids what to say to any shady character who offers them a joint at a Def Leppard concert.

(“No,” in case you’ve forgotten the ads.)

Rosalynn Carter spoke up for Laotian and Cambodian refugees, and she endorsed legislation designed to help people with mental health problems.

Both of the Bushes, Barbara and Laura, were advocates for improving America’s schools. And Laura talked often about the dangers of heart disease in women.

Which brings us back to Hillary and her signature initiative.

Before there was Obamacare there was Hillarycare.

Instead of taking on a politically trivial but publicly popular cause, Hillary, before she even had a chance to learn her way around the White House, took charge of the effort to overhaul the country’s healthcare system.

And in case you’ve forgotten, this task was just as fraught with peril — and as vulnerable to Rush Limbaugh’s lampoons — in 1993 as it was in 2010.

(I’ve long wondered what Al Gore was up to back then. Perhaps he was already so distressed about global warming that he couldn’t be bothered. If we’re all destined to drown or to die of heat stroke, who cares whether we have a low deductible.)

The legislation that the Hillary-led task force came up with — in common with Obama’s bill, each copy consumed a couple reams of paper — failed spectacularly. It was the most prominent of a series of missteps that plagued the first two years of Clinton’s presidency and contributed to the historic Republican takeover of Congress in the 1994 election.

(Remember Zoe Baird? Kimba Wood? Middle-class tax cut?)

As I said, I think Hillary got a raw deal.

(Although I suppose she deserves some of the blame — I doubt Bill had much trouble convincing her to take on the task.)

Not only was her job vastly more complicated than those assigned to other First Ladies, but Hillary was denied those corny but heart-warming photo ops that endeared her predecessors to millions of Americans.

I mean who wants to watch Hillary pore over inch-thick position papers or chide George Stephanopolous for talking without raising his hand first?

Current First Lady Michelle Obama has much more in common with the Bushes and Reagan than with Hillary.

Mrs. Obama’s cause is combating childhood obesity.

Much like giving drugs to kids and killing lots of Cambodians, this is an easy thing to be against.

Certainly the pro-childhood obesity movement is a pathetic and disorganized lot these days.

Yet when I read Mrs. Obama’s statements, and poke around in the “Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act” that the president signed into law last month, I detect a trace of that benevolent-government-to-our-rescue dogma that informed, and in large measure doomed, Hillarycare.

Mrs. Obama rightly points out that the problem is actually two-fold: many American kids eat too much bad food, and some American kids don’t eat enough food, regardless of its nutritional value.

I’m not convinced, though, as are the First Lady, the president and a majority in Congress, that creating a federal law to deal with these dilemmas is called for.

More to the point, I have little confidence the law will have any meaningful effect.

“We can all agree that in the wealthiest nation on earth, all children should have the basic nutrition they need to learn and grow,” Mrs. Obama said on the occasion when her husband signed the bill.

Of course she’s right.

But she’s also implying, it seems to me, that the reason some children go around with empty stomachs is because the federal government has failed them.

I’m not so sure about that.

Quite a few of those unfortunate kids have parents who already receive regular checks from the government, ostensibly to help them keep the larder stocked.

But unless the government intends to hand-deliver those checks, and then accompany the recipients to the grocery store, follow them home and pitch in with cooking dinner, I’m skeptical that any law, no matter how many millions of dollars it diverts into existing subsidies, will accomplish much.

The other aim of the new law is to make meals served in public schools less like fast food and more like what they serve in health spas that grow their own bean sprouts.

But I don’t believe school lunches are quite the caloric scourge they’ve been made out to be.

Baker schools’ menus, for instance, regularly include all sorts of fruits and vegetables that would satisfy even the most obnoxious nutritional nannies.

Of course schools can’t force kids to eat that stuff — any more than they’ll be able to make them gulp down the nourishing items their beneficent government has whipped up.

In any case, many kids eat only one meal per day at school, five days per week for nine months of the year. It seems to me a mathematical certainty that even if the new law does indeed purge pupils’ plates of the worst arterial offenders, that this can have only a marginal effect on students’ overall nutrition.

More significantly, school lunches are if anything more healthful now than they were decades ago, yet even the zealots acknowledge that the childhood obesity epidemic is a relatively recent phenomenon.

The bottom line is that healthy eating is largely a matter of choice.

Government officials have a childlike faith in their ability to influence our decisions through legislation.

But I think the more effective — and cheaper — tactic is advertising.

Rather than spend money to further tinker with school lunch menus, I’d prefer the government hire the firm that came up with those anti-drug spots back during Mrs. Reagan’s era.

Probably you’ve seen the ones I mean. A stern-faced guy cracks a raw egg into a hot skillet to demonstrate, in dramatic if not physiologically accurate fashion, what drugs do to your brain.

Mrs. Obama’s laudable goal is to convince kids to pass up the Twinkie in favor of a carrot stick.

Just imagine what Madison Avenue could do with, say, a defibrillator instead of that frying pan.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.