Driving Miss Zoe

January 19, 1993

Cokie Roberts of ABC said Sunday that Zoe Baird could hav afforded to hire Mary Poppins to be her son's nanny. She almost could have hired Julie Andrews. Ms. Baird is general counsel at Aetna Life & Casualty Co., and her husband is a Yale law professor. They made $660,345 last year.

To some critics of the couple's hiring of two illegal immigrants to be nanny and chauffeur, the issue is that they could have afforded to hire domestic help from the ample pool of such workers in Hartford or New Haven, paid them decent wages and contributed to Social Security.

But more central to her nomination to be attorney general in the view of most critics is this: Ms. Baird either chose not to obey the laws or never took the trouble to understand what the laws were. Those who attack her on either point do so with some justification. The American people expect the attorney general -- the top legal officer in the land -- to respect the laws and to understand them.

Some critics of the nomination merely see Ms. Baird as a target of opportunity. There are always those who at the beginning of a new president's term want to welcome him to office with a reminder that presidents come and go, but Washington's special interests abide forever -- and he had better take them seriously. Knocking out a Cabinet nominee is a dramatic reminder. It is also potentially a damaging one. Because we want this president -- as we would any president -- to succeed, we would hate to see him hurt this way.

Not having heard from Ms. Baird, we are not prepared yet to say that she is or is not fit to be attorney general. She goes before the Senate Judiciary Committee today, where she has an opportunity and her questioners the responsibility to make clear exactly what she did and why she did it. There is a line between willful disobedience of a law and misunderstanding it. It is a hard line to ascertain sometimes, but the Judiciary Committee's members must try to determine on which side of that line Ms. Baird's illegal act fell. If she flouted the law -- a big if -- she is certainly not the best choice to lead a Justice Department whose reputation has been battered by political and ethical lapses for -- the better part of a decade.

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