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The Mommy Track--Take II : Parenting: At 71, Liz Carpenter thought she'd done it all. But when her brother died, she answered the challenge of raising kids--again.

October 26, 1994|BARBARA SLAVIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WASHINGTON — It was the sort of plug a publisher could die for.

There into the midst of Liz Carpenter's lunchtime talk about her new book, "Unplanned Parenthood: The Confessions of a Seventysomething Surrogate Mother" (Random House), strolled Hillary Rodham Clinton.

As a much-moved Carpenter choked back tears and the small audience at a downtown bookstore controlled its excitement, the First Lady effusively complimented the book and even read aloud her favorite passage, about the time Carpenter brought the wrong dog home from the vet.

"I was laughing so hard I couldn't breathe," Clinton said. When Carpenter started to praise her back, Clinton cut her off gently.

"I came here to brag on you and tell people all you've done and all you can do if you put your heart and mind in the right place," she said.

What Carpenter, a former press secretary to Lady Bird Johnson and longtime women's rights advocate, has done is take responsibility for the three teen-age children of her brother, Tom, who died of cancer in 1991.

At the time, she thought she was simply fulfilling a duty. There was no one else who could care for the kids properly and besides, she said, she lived in the "best school district in Texas."

Then "I realized I was a figure in a national trend," she said in an interview.

"In the bookstores, everybody who comes up tells me, 'I know somebody who is in your circumstances.' "

Told that a recent study showed that only 50% of American children live in traditional nuclear families, Carpenter quoted her nephew, Tommy, as confirmation.

"Mine is an orphan generation," he told her. "I have only two friends who live with both their natural parents."

Carpenter's book, a breezy 231 pages, recounts her efforts to overcome a generation gap the "size of the Grand Canyon" in providing love and discipline to Tom and his sisters, Liz and Mary.

Along the way, it gives an engaging portrait of Carpenter, a feisty exemplar of Texas womanhood in a colorful line that extends to Gov. Ann Richards--not surprisingly, among Carpenter's legion of friends.

"We're pretty close to our frontier pioneer mothers and grandmothers who were sturdy types," explained Carpenter, whose own sturdy frame was draped in unabashed red down to her socks and orthopedic sandals.

"They crossed the Red River with a rifle on their shoulder and a baby in the back. They didn't worry about their femininity, which bothers Phyllis Schlafly."

A fifth-generation Texan whose great-great-grandfather fought alongside Sam Houston, Carpenter went to Washington during World War II.

Married to another reporter, Les Carpenter, she covered the capital while raising two children--Scott and Christy--the latter conceived on the couch in their National Press Building office.

"It was a slow news day, as I recall," Carpenter said dryly.

*

Such wit and audacity got her through her subsequent days in the White House, where she talked back to LBJ, penned the words Johnson spoke after President John F. Kennedy's assassination and was the "greatest press secretary ever," said veteran reporter Helen Thomas. "It was more damn fun traveling with her and Lady Bird," agreed Nan Robertson, a longtime reporter for the New York Times. "The men (who covered President Johnson in that era of reportorial sexual segregation) all envied us terribly."

Then Johnson decided not to run again, the Republicans won the White House and Carpenter's husband died suddenly in 1974. A decade later, Carpenter survived cancer.

She took on the challenge of raising teen-agers a second time at a very ripe 71, when she needed a nap every day and had "one bosom gone, one deaf ear, a swollen arthritic ankle and the weakest bladder in Travis County," she wrote.

But if slightly the worse for wear, this Texan Auntie Mame also has more than the average surrogate mom's share of emotional and other resources.

How many other kids get hand-me-down clothes from Lady Bird Johnson's grandchildren, chicken and rice casseroles from her niece, and stayed with her daughter, Lynda Byrd Robb, wife of Sen. Chuck Robb (D-Va), on a summer jaunt to Washington (where they also ate pizza on White House china with Chelsea Clinton)?

When her eldest charge and namesake, Liz, was in danger of not graduating from high school, Carpenter called on two other old buddies for research on term papers--feminist icon Betty Friedan and Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo).

"I didn't feel guilty because everybody helps their kids. We just kind of did it in a Liz Carpenter way," she said.

But the most influential friends could not fend off the worst horrors of teen-agehood, like the time Mary, then 13, was stopped by the police driving Carpenter's car the wrong way on a one-way street in downtown Austin at 1:30 a.m.

"Thirteen is the worst age going," Carpenter told the bookstore crowd. "They've got to break one rule a day and you're lucky if they break just one."

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