Baird learned to grovel, but it wasn't enough


January 22, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

WASHINGTON -- You could see the emotions race across Zoe Baird's face the moment she walked into the Senate hearing room.

On Tuesday, when Bill Clinton's choice for attorney general had to face the Judiciary Committee for the first time, she was nervous, but that was understandable.

Everybody knew she had broken the law by hiring illegal aliens and she knew she would be questioned about it.

But by yesterday, the second day of the hearings, Baird's nervousness had been replaced by other emotions: fear, depression and a small amount of combativeness.

The fear was that Bill Clinton would desert her.

"Stick a fork in her," some were saying yesterday, "because Zoe Baird is done."

The depression came from the confirmation process itself.

Though the White House briefers and handlers had told Baird that she would have to eat some crow, nobody told her she would have to grovel.

Zoe Baird is a shaker and a mover. She, like all the people Clinton named to the top tier of his Cabinet, is a member of America's power elite.

And she has not had to grovel in years.

"I've said that I believe that what I did was wrong, and I apologized for it," Baird said yesterday with just a hint of weariness in her voice.

But, before her withdrawal early this morning, it looked like she was going to have to say it several more times if the senators were to be satisfied.

Asked during a break in the hearing whether Baird's nomination was in trouble, Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., said: "I think it could be in trouble, yes."

Simon hastened to add that he was still prepared to vote for her, but when your supporters think you could be in trouble, you probably are in trouble.

Nor did the the White House do much to help Baird out yesterday. George Stephanopoulos, Clinton's director of communications, seemed, instead, to be preparing a way for the president to abandon Baird.

Asked if Clinton knew that Baird had knowingly broken the law before Clinton nominated her, Stephanopoulos said he thought not.

"I do not think she had a discussion of this matter with the president," Stephanopoulos said.

Translation: If Bill Clinton needs an escape hatch, he just got one.

Sure, for the record, the president still backs her, Stephanopoulos was saying. Sure, for the record, the president still wants her.

But, well, there were all these phone calls the members of the Judiciary Committee were getting.

During one break in yesterday's hearing, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., was asked how her calls were running.

"Fifteen hundred no and 33 yes," Feinstein said instantly. And no matter how much senators talk about voting their own consciences, they all keep careful track of their phone calls.

And when we asked Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., how many calls he had received in support of Baird, Leahy responded dryly: "If she has supporters in Vermont, they have preserved their anonymity."

The longer the Baird hearing would have dragged on, the worse the situation would have been for her. Which means that if her nomination was to be saved, Bill Clinton was going to have to get on the phone to senators and save it personally.

Even before Baird's announce this morning, some thought that he would not.

"He's not going to waste his support in Congress on Zoe Baird," one seasoned Capitol Hill source told me. "He's got more important things on his agenda."

If Clinton does not establish himself as a strong president early in the game, the Senate may try to steamroller him later in the game. Making a strong effort for the Baird nomination would have been a way to assert himself.

This issue was never just about Zoe Baird and her live-in nanny. It was not even just about Baird's honesty.

Nobody really believes Baird would have broken the law again, just as nobody really believes that she couldn't have hired a U.S. citizen with a master's degree in child psychology for $50,000 a year to care for her child if she had wanted to.

From the beginning, the issue was really Bill Clinton and how sound his judgment was, not just Zoe Baird's.

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