Bumblebee Law and Gnat Law

CARL T. ROWAN

January 22, 1993|By CARL T. ROWAN

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- I was on a national radio talk show Tuesday, expecting to plug a new book and engage in a bit of punditry about where President Clinton is going in his first 100 days. I found that people calling in from across the land wanted to talk almost exclusively about Zoe E. Baird, the nominee to serve as Mr. Clinton's attorney general.

''She broke the law,'' I heard over and over from people screaming that she is thus unfit to serve as the top law-enforcement officer in America.

I was shocked, because I had been downplaying the fact that Ms. Baird did break a rarely enforced law by hiring two illegal immigrants to work for her as babysitter and part-time driver. After all, I've known many Americans who've paid cash to ''foreigners,'' in the U.S. legally or illegally, with everyone trying to avoid the paperwork and taxes required by law.

But the public isn't buying the ''technical violation,'' ''almost everybody does it'' excuse. When Ms. Baird, whose salary at Aetna Life & Casualty last year was $507,000, and her husband, Paul Gewirtz, a well-paid professor at the Yale Law School, say they made a mistake only in their anxiety of seeking good care for their son, the public is saying ''nonsense.'' It looks as though Ms. Baird and hubby exploited two foreigners while stiffing Uncle Sam -- especially when they rushed to pay $12,000 in back Social Security withholding taxes, interest and penalties, plus a $2,900 fine to the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Even as I tried to convince callers on that talk show that Ms. Baird's egregious mistake was ''not totally disqualifying,'' the callers made me understand why they think it is. They simply long for a Justice Department that is run by someone that all citizens of all classes can trust. They think we've had too many attorneys general who were political hacks and sycophants, which is why we have come to rely on special prosecutors to ferret out crime and corruption within the ruling power structure.

Eisenhower had a couple of honorable attorneys general in Herbert Brownell Jr. and William P. Rogers; The public isn't buying the 'technical violation' excuse; the public is saying 'nonsense.'

John F. Kennedy was and is still criticized for giving that post to his brother, Robert; Richard Nixon gave the office a terrible black eye in naming John N. Mitchell attorney general, because Mitchell proved during the Watergate scandal that the American people could not count on him and his politically run Justice Department to prosecute crime that reached into the White House, right to Mr. Nixon himself.

High-level affronts to ''law and order'' became even more disgusting in the 1980s. Ronald Reagan first named a weak social butterfly, William French Smith, as attorney general. Then he replaced Mr. Smith with Edwin Meese 3d, who during the Iran-contra scandal behaved so atrociously in his ''see no evil'' posturing that he made special prosecutors a permanent fixture in American life.

Mr. Meese so politicized and polarized the Justice Department that some members of the Supreme Court privately accused him of trying to undermine that institution. His successor, Richard Thornburgh, made the Justice Department even more a cesspool of political intrigue and cover-ups.

Millions of people voted for Mr. Clinton in high expectations that he would choose an attorney general who stood for ''simple justice,'' showing no favoritism on grounds of wealth, political preference, race or anything else. The Clinton people were so sure that picking a woman would be a shining symbol of a new day of justice in America that they forgot to look at all the record of Zoe Baird's respect for the law.

Now comes the deep political wound of Ms. Baird having to tell the nation that she broke the law, but expects no severe punishment -- just confirmation on the basis of her ''total record.''

She'll probably be confirmed. But she will have a gargantuan task of convincing the people that she is different from the recent attorneys general who believed that the laws were meant to ensnare gnats and fruit flies, but to allow the big bumblebees to fly through.

Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

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