Dr. Spock In Despair

He is, arguably, the most influential American alive today. The first edition of ""Baby and Child Care'' appeared in 1946, which means that babies who were raised on it are now almost grandparents. For years it sold about 750,000 copies annually, roughly one for every two marriages in America. Conservatives still blame the book, unfairly, for subverting the discipline and patriotism of American youth, but would even they want to go back to the days when parents weren't allowed to feed a crying baby until precisely four hours after his last bottle? We are what Dr. Benjamin Spock made us, which is why he -- at an age when people usually assume that if the worst happens, they won't be around to see it anyway -- is so troubled by the miserable mess Americans have made of their society.

It was inevitable that, at 91, Spock would begin to lose the optimism that sustained him through his astonishingly productive life. ""Baby and Child Care'' reflected a basically positive view of human nature, grounded in the belief that good intentions and common sense were more important attributes for a parent than a strong right arm and the will to use it. But his new book, ""A Better World for Our Children'' (207 pages. National Press Books. $22.95), is a jeremiad, albeit one written in Spock's characteristic tone of understated reasonableness. The very generation raised by his precepts has let Dr. Spock down. Sexual openness has led to casual divorce and the coarsening of popular culture. Gender equality has meant that women compete for career advancement as ferociously as men, so that neither parent has time for the children, who spend all day watching TV and getting fat. Men don't even wear neckties to the office. ""When I look at our society and think of the millions of children exposed every day to its harmful effects, I am near despair,'' he writes.

This is a critique that transcends orthodox political categories. Spock says he crossed out the publisher's subtitle on a draft of the book -- ""Rebuilding American Family Values'' -- only for it to reappear on the jacket. """Family values' suggests the fanatical religious right,'' he says. ""I certainly don't want anyone to get that idea.'' Certainly Spock will never share a platform with Pat Robertson. But they might find agreement on passages like this one: ""Objections to . . . violence, brutality and casual sex in television and movies are met with protestations by civil rights advocates about the chilling effects of censorship, as if that were the only issue.'' Spock has spent much of the last 25 years apologizing for writing, in the early editions of ""Baby and Child Care,'' that working women should consider staying home with their children for the first few years. Feminists even jeered at him when he ran for president in 1972 as the antiwar candidate of the People's Party. So he resolved never to write anything so inflammatory again, and he couches his latest advice to parents in tentative abstractions about ""priorities.'' But, he says, he still believes it to be true.

Spock worked for five years on the book, which he views as his political testament. ""I felt the situation was getting worse and worse,'' he says. ""I couldn't keep putting it off, because pretty soon I'll be dead.'' It is not about ""issues'' as most people construe them. He mentions abortion only twice, in passing, but freely vents opinions on marginalia like blue jeans at the office (a sign of diminished self-respect, he thinks) and organized college sports, which he regards as a prime cause of America's unhealthy obsession with competition. (He recommends Frisbee instead.) He endorses meditation, massage and a macrobiotic diet of whole grains and herbal teas. He practices this regimen with his wife, Mary Morgan, in their house overlooking the harbor of Camden, Maine, and says he feels better than he has in years -- although he appears frail and, at 145 pounds on a frame that once measured 6 feet 4, distinctly gaunt. Morgan is 41 years younger than Spock, who divorced his first wife, Jane, in 1975, after 48 years of marriage. He is quick to point out that their two sons were grown by then. Michael, 60, is a museum consultant in Chicago and John, 49, is an architect. ""I'm sure,'' he says tartly, ""a lot of people didn't want them to turn out so well.'' But nobody expected the rest of us to turn out so badly, either: money-grubbing, oversexed, selfish and spiritually defunct, just like all the previous generations. Dr. Spock did his best for us, and we've let him down.