Breaking the law should mean Baird doesn't get the job

ALICE STEINBACH

January 21, 1993|By ALICE STEINBACH

Here's what Zoe Baird told Sen. Joseph Biden Jr. and his Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this week:

She said she and her law professor husband knew they were breaking the law in 1990 by hiring illegal aliens as domestic workers and by not paying their Social Security taxes.

She said that what she had done was wrong and that she deeply regrets it.

She said she hoped the committee would understand that when she broke the law she "was acting at that moment more as a mother than as a person who would be sitting here before you to be attorney general."

And she said that if confirmed as attorney general she would do better.

To recap: Zoe Baird told the Senate Judiciary Committee (1) she broke the law, (2) she's sorry and (3) she'll do better in the future.

Which leads me to this conclusion: Zoe Baird just doesn't get it.

She doesn't get it that the basic issue here is a simple one: That someone who knowingly broke the law should not become the nation's top law enforcement officer.

It doesn't matter that, as Baird's defenders correctly point out, there are many other working couples who do exactly what she did: Who break the laws on the books by hiring illegal aliens. Or that few of those who violate the laws on the books are ever prosecuted for breaking them.

It doesn't matter because, unlike Zoe Baird, they are not in line to be attorney general of the United States. A job which, by the way, requires oversight of the Immigration and Naturalization Service -- an agency to which Baird recently was required to pay a fine.

What does matter is the message sent to an American public already quite cynical about the ethics of those who govern us and, specifically, whether they see themselves as above the law.

Zoe Baird confronted such a perception with an excuse: "I was forced into this dilemma to care for my child," she told the Judiciary Committee.

But she also paid lip service to the idea that such a perception might be justifiable, saying: "People are fairly questioning if there are classes of individuals who hold themselves above the law. I do not."

But that's not how it looks to the millions of working parents who live on a lot less than the roughly $660,000 a year earned by Baird and her husband. They are not sympathetic to the explanation that, despite her ability to pay top dollar, Zoe Baird could not find American domestic help or immigrants with green cards.

What they see is further evidence that there are two sets of laws in this country. One for those who have power and money and another for those who don't.

And after years of enduring attorneys-general with less-than-impeccable ethics, what we need -- and what President Clinton promised us -- is an attorney general who is above reproach. Unfortunately, Zoe Baird does not fall into that category.

In fact, confirming Baird as head of the Justice Department might also be construed as confirming what some already suspect: that equal justice in this country is not so equal.

It's ironic, of course, that the first woman nominated to the position of attorney general should be caught up in -- and perhaps brought down by -- what is essentially a woman's issue: The issue of finding good child-care so that women are free to combine work with parenting.

It's not a new issue. Far from it. Mothers who work outside the home have always had to laboriously patch together some semblance of a child-care plan. And the less money the mother has to spend on child-care, the harder it gets.

But despite all the talk about providing good child-care at a reasonable cost, there's not nearly enough of it to go around. And for mothers who work, the lack of good child-care remains the most thorny problem of all.

It's been pointed out that Zoe Baird is the first mother of a pre-school child to be nominated to a Cabinet position. Until now, the issue of child-care has not affected directly those occupying the highest seats of power in our government.

But one senses that's about to end. Soon the corridors of power in Washington will be flooded with young parents -- parents who will demand solutions to the problem that won't go away.

It's a problem that a savvy, smart lawyer -- and mother -- such as Zoe Baird could be very helpful in solving. But not as attorney general. By breaking the law she has forfeited her right to occupy such a position.

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