Mrs. Clinton's Undoubtable Zeal for Children

'CHILDREN depend on the adults they know,'' and they need to be raised in a ''nation that doesn't just espouse family values, but values families.'' So writes Hillary Rodham Clinton, who says she has spent much of the past 25 years trying to improve the lives of children, in her new book, ''It Takes a Village, and Other Lessons Children Teach Us.''

But Mrs. Clinton has not been lucky with her timing. Because of the snowstorm, the first excerpt in Newsweek reached many readers late. And because of the political storm over newly released Whitewater and White House Travel Office documents, her views on raising children may not get much attention.

Whitewater-Travelgate is sure to come up in the many interviews scheduled for her book tour. If the first Newsweek interview is any indication, the interrogators will not become much wiser. To Newsweek she simply denied any wrongdoing, minimized her role, pleaded lack of memory, and changed the subject back to saving children.

But, with congressional investigating committees champing at the bit, the subject is not likely to go away. Clinton has been a subject of controversy from her first day in the White House. In a republic that has no royal family, the first family is the closest we get to the kind of scandal that holds the British public spellbound.

A pity, because Clinton's book is interesting for what it tells both about herself and about her policy prescriptions. Those who consider her a liberal may be surprised to find that she applauds dress codes in schools, thinks everyone should abstain from sex until the age of 21, and thinks divorce should be made less easy because couples should stay together for the sake of the kids. She herself, she says, at times had to ''bite my tongue'' to stay married.

Where her liberal advocacy comes through is in her argument for a government role in protecting children. The right wing, she says, argues against the excesses of government, but not the excesses of the marketplace, ''where there is a great power to disrupt the lives of workers and families.'' Both personal and mutual responsibility are essential, she says.

You may not believe Clinton when she tries to explain away her lawyer's activities in Arkansas and her interventions in White House business. But you cannot listen to her or read her on the subject of children and doubt her missionary zeal on behalf of those she calls the vulnerable beings in need of love and care.

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