Norwegian Good

What stories this woman could tell! How did she ever manage to combine all of her accomplishments with the responsibilities of a large family? Just exactly how did the progressive social policies of which she is so proud come about? After all, Norway has a strong conservative party. How was the country persuaded to accept a progressive welfare state, including, in 1993, a paid maternity leave of one year, with four weeks reserved for the father? And in 1994, the right of parents to take six months of that leave in the form of six-hour days on full pay until the child is almost three years old?

Readers looking for thoughtful reflection on these and other issues will be disappointed. Brundtland’s autobiography is like those of so many other dignitaries, particularly those who are still in public positions and have every reason not to burn any bridges. The book is a compendium of “I did this, I did that; I flew here, I flew there; I worked on this commission, then that one, and we received accolades for our report.” The author provides ample details on the ins and outs of her ups and downs in Norwegian politics from the 1970s to the 1990s, which may be of great interest to her Norwegian readers, but are as gripping to most Americans as reading the phone book. One has to wonder if this is what we can expect from the memoirs of Hillary Clinton, another consummately public woman whose similarities are striking. (The two met in Washington in 1993, during Hillary’s attempt to reform American health care. Brundtland reports that “her attitudes in many respects echoed my own social-democratic approach.”)

The book’s lack of analysis may be a reflection of Brundtland’s personality. She presents herself–convincingly–as a forthright straight-shooter, blessedly self-assured. Her self-portrait borders on self-righteousness. She is always on the side of truth and justice; readers will search in vain for the usual excruciating compromises and lesser evils that more mortal politicians are forced to accept. For feminists, this persona does have its charms. She quotes her own state secretary for public relations’ observation on her “complete lack of veneration for the older, wise gentlemen’ who were used to deference from younger women.” But for lovers of irony and complexity, her character is less than compelling.

Brundtland’s personal life is depicted as an idyll in the beginning, with idealistic and politically active parents, and continuing with supportive husband and family, who share a spacious old house and two modest vacation homes, one for winter amidst snowy cross-country ski trails, and another summer cottage on a lake (not to mention a seafaring sailboat).

Readers are forced to piece together the reality behind this picture postcard, although Brundtland is quite frank about her domestic division of labor. She tells us that she was able to play the leading role in her children’s lives while her oldest two children were small, by working a flexible schedule as a public health doctor. Then, when her career began to soar (she became minister of the environment at 35, and prime minister only six years later) her husband became the primary caregiver. We learn that he got home from work at 5 p.m., and had dinner with the kids while she worked late or traveled two or three weekdays out of five, and many weekends as well. We discover that he was a man “who was used to cleaning the house on Saturdays because both of his parents worked.” He organized the children to make scrapbooks of their mother’s accomplishments, and most astonishing, to this reporter, he ironed her dress on the morning of her swearing-in as prime minister in 1986, while she washed her hair.

Brundtland is clear that to succeed, this arrangement required more than concessions and support from her husband. It required her to give up what many other ambitious women cannot part with: the satisfaction of being the boss at home.

But this was the least of her life’s losses. The darkness that stalks the human condition finally claimed its place in this family as well. The Brundtlands’ youngest child, Jorgen, committed suicide in 1992 at the age of 25, after a long bout with manic-depressive illness. Brundtland struggles to make sense of this tragedy, and it is painful to read her agonizing, finally inevitable self-doubts: “Why didn’t I do this; maybe we could have done that . . . ” She seems to have alleviated her torment the same way she has tackled every other challenge: through hard work and good works, based on a belief in better social policy. She ends a chapter on Jorgen’s death with this sentence: “We must work to improve our understanding and treatment of mental illnesses, and take much more seriously the task of actively defusing the risks of suicide in such cases.”

Brundtland’s pragmatic, enlightened approach to humanity’s ills appears to have found a perfect home at the WHO. Her book concludes with an optimistic call to action against the major health scourges of tobacco and tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and malaria. She writes that she has found the answer to the question she has asked herself all her life: Am I a doctor or a politician? She is clearly both, and given her power to influence improvements in world health, we shall all probably gain for that. But what Brundtland is not is also clear from this autobiography: a writer.