She's a fishwife and a bit of a kook, a woman given to comically dramatic changes of heart and habit, but Dr. Laura gives some of the best advice about marriage and family life available on the radio, or perhaps anywhere in popular American culture. I say this somewhat wearily, for it is no easy task defending this woman. To begin with there is her manner, which is famously off-putting; she is by turns cloyingly sentimental and caustically pragmatic. She can be primly shocked by her callers' most unremarkable revelations about their sex lives (anyone having sex outside of marriage just sends her around the bend), yet she is quick to give a conversation about almost anything at all a salacious—sometimes obscene—twist (to a caller who complimented her intelligence: "Ooh, lubricate me"). I recently heard her heave a loud, irritated, and impatient sigh after a grieving widower committed no greater transgression than asking her to repeat her advice on whether he should take his small children to their mother's funeral. ("She's a wretched bitch!" a friend of mine told me during kindergarten drop-off the other day, and after hearing that call, I was inclined to agree with him.) She is a person who has had to weather an extraordinary number of humiliating revelations about her personal life, and who has evinced a Clintonian ability to soldier on through the most embarrassing episodes you can imagine; when nude photographs of her showed up on the Web, I thought she'd have to fold up her tent, but it was only onward and upward.
In a nutshell, Dr. Laura believes that many of the aspects of adult life that I had always considered complicated and messy and finely nuanced are in fact simple and clear-cut; that life ought to be neatly fitted around duty and responsibility rather than around the pursuit of that elusive old dog, happiness. This is what makes her the most compelling advocate for children I have thus far encountered, because the well-being of children often depends upon the commitment and obligation of the adults who created them. If you want to know whether the divorce culture has been a disaster for children, tune in to the Dr. Laura show one day. The mainstream media have a cheery name for families rent asunder and then patched together by divorce and remarriage: they are "blended families." But the day-to-day reality of what such blending wreaks upon children is often harsh. The number of children who are being shuttled back and forth between households, and the heartrending problems that this engenders in their lives, is a sin. Every June, Dr. Laura fields multiple calls having to do with transporting reluctant children across vast distances so that court-ordered visitation agreements can be honored. Whereas an article in Parents magazine or the relentlessly upbeat family-life columns in Time might list some mild and generally useless tips for dealing with such a situation (have the child bring along a "transitional object," plan regular phone calls home, and so forth), Laura throws out the whole premise. What in the world are the parents doing living so far away from each other? One of them needs to pick up stakes and move. "I can't do that," the caller always says. "Yes, you can," Laura always replies, and when you think about it, she's right.