Norway's Radical Daughter

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It had been a long day of campaigning, and the Prime Minister had a cold. Wrapped in a violet overcoat, she leafed through stump speeches as the 1953 Convair turboprop plane bounced around over the stubby mountains of the Norwegian coastline.

Toward the back of the plane, one of the press photographers was sliding lower in his seat, clutching his stomach, turning gray. His worried colleagues were at a loss to help him until someone remembered there was a doctor on board -- and summoned the Prime Minister.

Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland dropped her paperwork, moved to the back of the plane, and for the next 45 minutes tended the victim. She swaddled him in blankets on the floor of the narrow aisle, administering oxygen, monitoring his pulse, ordering the pilots to radio Oslo for an ambulance. When another photographer tried to shoot the scene, her aides waved him off. This was not a photo op.

"I didn't want to overdramatize things," she told the patient gently, once she had settled him into the ambulance, "but you showed signs of going into shock." The following day, as he prepared to undergo surgery for gallstones, a bouquet arrived from the Prime Minister's office. Red roses. The symbol of her Labor Party.

"There is a very close connection between being a doctor and being a politician," Brundtland observed the next day, speaking in the earnest, faintly academic style that betrays both her Harvard degree and her Calvinist roots. "The doctor first tries to prevent illness, then tries to treat it if it comes. It's exactly the same as what you try to do as a politician, but with regard to society." Which may help explain why this physician offers such a radical prescription for running a country and restoring its health, and why last week's national elections, in which her Labor Party dropped 6.5%, stirred such interest.

During her three years in office, Gro Brundtland has succeeded in creating the most feminine, not to say feminist, state anywhere in the world. After a decade in power, the more conspicuous Mrs. Thatcher has named not a single woman to her Cabinets. In Norway it is scarcely newsworthy anymore that every other member of the Cabinet is a woman, and more than a third of the parliament. Brundtland even toys with the idea of changing the country's system of hereditary monarchy to allow princesses as well as princes to inherit the throne. And in the privacy of her own home, this socialist crusader is married to a prominent conservative scholar and columnist, who raised their four children while she sat in the Cabinet.

"It was very tough in 1981," recalls Brundtland of her first brief eight- month stint as Prime Minister, when it seemed sometimes that the entire country was waiting for her to fail. "In the worst times I always thought, If you get through this, it will be much better for the next woman." As it turned out, she was the next woman, and by 1986, when she returned to power, her gender was no longer much of an issue. The collapse of oil prices had left Norway high and dry and deep in debt: Brundtland dazzled both friends and foes with a perilous high-wire act. On one hand she capped wages, devalued the krone and clamped down on consumer credit in an effort to restore Norway's export markets. But at the same time she kept her promise to shorten the workweek to 37 1/2 hours, extend paid maternity leave to 24 weeks, and maintain generally Norway's fine-weave "safety net."

Her domestic policies guaranteed her a larger audience than Norway's 4.2 million people. But what really hurled her center stage was her appointment as chairman of the U.N. commission on the environment in October 1984. Nine hundred days later, the commission released what has come to be known as the Brundtland Report, a document so blunt and sobering that it abruptly forced the issue of global responsibility onto the international agenda. Since then she has shuttled around the world, addressing conferences, accepting prizes, chastising polluters, cheering reformers and establishing her potential to become one day the first woman ever to serve as U.N. Secretary-General.

Her international triumphs have not protected her from some searing reviews at home. "Norway has some of the most polluted fjords in the world," charges Geir Wang-Andersen, a toxic-waste activist for Greenpeace. "People abroad see her as this great environmentalist -- but we just laugh a little, because we don't see her that way."

"Lies," retorts Gro. "I do not know of any environmental group in any country that does not view its government as an adversary." She realizes that her policies are being watched and copied, but argues that it won't do any good for Norway to act alone. "The climate will not change just because Norway changes its policies. We must search for common agreements in order to help carry others along."

Some criticize the machinery of her welfare state, with its lengthy waits for elective surgery and its vibrant black market manned by people dodging heavy taxes. Voters who are struggling under her austere economic policies complain of her largesse to Third World countries -- one of the highest per capita foreign aid budgets in the world. "We are world champions at solving other countries' problems," charges the right-wing Progress Party leader Carl Hagen. "We behave as though we are a superpower."

Her fans overseas do not share these views, and anyway, she refuses to pander when voters challenge her judgment. She is, by temperament, uncomfortable with easy promises or hand-knit populism. Instead her rhetoric rings with noblesse oblige. "If you are born strong, with parents who give you the best, you have an even stronger responsibility for the people who didn't get the same start."

When the great experiment came up for inspection in the elections, it was her countrymen -- not her disciples worldwide, just her neighbors -- who went to the polls to decide whether to let her continue. In the end she managed to pull in 34% of the vote, down from 40% four years ago but possibly enough to let her form another minority government.

Mother Gro is truly Norway's daughter, a product of the society she is busy transforming. Perhaps it takes an innocent country, rich, safe and peaceable, to provide a cushion for radical change. From the din of New York or the haze of Los Angeles, Norway looks very much like the invention of a hopeful imagination. It has one of Europe's smallest police forces and its longest life expectancy. The glassy northern air is clean, and Cabinet ministers bicycle to work. Very few people are rich, but few poor. Until last spring, skateboards were illegal. They were considered too dangerous.

Brundtland draws from this landscape some valuable raw materials. In a land of taciturn people she learned to contain, if not quite control, a mighty temper. In a country of outdoorspeople she used to ski the 25 miles from her house to her mountain cottage. In a seafaring nation she proved her mettle by saving her husband's life when he was swept overboard from their sailboat into the frigid North Sea. And in a society devout in its faith in the family, she managed to raise four children -- a diplomat, a lawyer, a law student and an engineering student -- while setting an example of just what people can accomplish when they set their minds to it.

It is little wonder that Brundtland has such faith in social engineering, since she is so much a product of it. The daughter of a doctor who also served as a Laborite Defense Minister, she still echoes the starchy conversations of a social-democratic dinner table: "I was always asking, Why are things so? Why can't we do more? There were always political and intellectual challenges." And the challenges were apportioned equally, whether debating policy or chopping wood or playing football with the boys. "My parents conveyed a kind of obvious and natural atmosphere of equality," she says, observing with gratitude how they let her be a tomboy, and then let her outgrow it. "I think many girls find that they are asked to be so equal," she says, "they are not allowed to develop those feminine traits which all of us have." When she made up her mind early on that she wanted a family and a medical career, no one told her that she couldn't have both. Seven months after she married Arne Olav Brundtland, she bore her first child and nursed him between classes in medical school. A year later, when Arne Olav got his degree, he took over most of the parenting: dropping the baby off at day care and bringing him home in the afternoon, along with a briefcase full of work.

As her family grew, her rise to political power had an exquisite logic to it. She took a feminist, family issue -- abortion -- and applied her medical experience to bring about political change. Her outspoken pro-choice lobbying brought her into the public eye in the early '70s, and the Labor Party welcomed the attractive young activist with open arms. She was named Environment Minister in 1974, party leader in 1981. And as her political career outran the medical one, the domestic experiments in role reversal kept pace.

"When she called me and told me about the appointment to the Cabinet," Arne Olav recalls, "I made a deal with her. I said O.K., you do it, and I'll take care of the home front. But on one condition. We do it my way." In the downstairs hall of their comfortable four-bedroom suburban home he hung a sign that he picked up in a Virginia airport. A HOUSE MUST BE CLEAN ENOUGH TO BE HEALTHY AND DIRTY ENOUGH TO BE HAPPY.

From time to time, opponents have pointed to her conservative husband and tried to use this domestic detente against her. DO AS GRO DID, said one ; campaign poster, CHOOSE A CONSERVATIVE. Gro wasn't having any. "Do as Arne Olav did," she shot back. "Choose Gro." Arne Olav himself discounts this as a political issue. "My field is analysis of international relations," he says. "Her field is doing international relations. That makes for very good morning seminars." It also made for an unlikely endorsement this time around. A week before election day, Arne Olav announced his intention to vote for his wife -- for the first time ever.

Others have needled her about leading the Labor Party while living the good life in a swanky suburb. When, like her predecessors, she used a military plane on a state trip to Finland, some voters let her know they did not approve. In recent months, Arne Olav reports, she has become handy with the cement mixer and toolbox, as the family remodels the cottage in the woods. "She still will do things out of sight," says Geir Salvesen, a political writer for the conservative daily Aftenposten. "We were together in New York at the U.N. session on disarmament, and she sneaked away to Saks to buy a cocktail dress. She said she had overslept and hadn't had time to pack. But she was guilty about that. It hurts her proletarian image."

What is debated now, heatedly, is the vision she brings of the country's future. Like its social-democratic cousins, Norway has had to re-evaluate the effects on ingenuity and investment of a top tax rate of 62% and a state that spends more than half of the GNP. From birth to death, the bureaucracy is attentive to needs and forgiving of failure. How to avoid spoiling people into indolence? How to save compassion from complacency? "This is a dilemma of any society," admits Gro. "The issue is deciding how much effort the state should make to support the rights of all, and what to require from each person to show that they are using the benefits in a good way."

That decision may not be hers if the conservatives manage to improvise an alternative government in the weeks to come. But no one imagines that her influence will be erased just because she is back to leading the opposition. Her stage is too wide and well lighted, her performances too gripping for her audience at home and abroad to leave her lingering long in the wings.