WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Just when everyone had finished poking through the carry-on baggage the baby boomers were bringing to Washington, just when we exhausted the subjects of the draft, sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll, along comes an extra steamer trunk full of generational issues. This one is labeled child care.
On Tuesday, the first mother of a pre-school child ever nominated to the Cabinet came up to Capitol Hill for hearings. And for the first time in American history, the central ethical question about her confirmation was child care. Never before has a group of prospective employers cared so deeply about one woman's baby-sitting arrangements.
For the past 20 years, the best-tracked aspect of social change has been the emergence of the two-worker family as the norm. The least publicized story is precisely how these families care for their children. What corners are cut, what compromises are made in attempts to take care of the kids while we are taking care of business?
In the early 1970s, feminists liked to say that every housewife was one man away from welfare. In the early '90s, many a working mother of a small child is one baby sitter away from unemployment.
So the tale of Zoe Baird struck at the baby boomers' Achilles heel. On one level, the revelation that she and her husband had hired illegal aliens to care for their son produced one of those sinking feelings. Oh no, the next attorney general broke the law?
On another level, it produced a separate sinking sensation. Oh no, a mother making half a million bucks a year still couldn't find child care?
In the years from my daughter's birth to her 13th birthday I had three and a half baby sitters -- the half is a story for another day -- which puts me in line for the Guinness record for having the longest-lasting caregivers. Nevertheless, some of my life's worst moments of panic were ''between'' sitters.
I never hired an illegal alien, but I have more than a modicum of empathy for a woman like Ms. Baird, who had an 8-month-old baby, a new job and a working husband when she finally found a couple who were trustworthy, maybe even caring. If my lawyer, as did hers, had called their immigration status a mere ''technical violation'' I would have attached myself to that thought like Velcro.
Ms. Baird told the committee, ''I was acting more as a mother than as someone who would be sitting here designated to be attorney general.''
In the underground child-care system in America, nannies-without-papers is just the upper crust. The other layers include the child caregivers paid off the books and under the table, the providers operating without a license and the little kids being left home alone -- not by parents vacationing in Mexico. Add them all together and you get a pretty good picture of child care in America. It's a mess for parents. It's a mess for caregivers who are underpaid, unprotected and overworked.
This is not to say that what Zoe Baird did was as meaningless as a parking ticket. Moreover, the story adds to the perception that there are rules for the rich and rules for the rest. As Ms. Baird said at the hearing, ''People are fairly questioning whether there are classes of individuals who hold themselves above the law.'' She added, ''And I assure you I do not.''
Coming right after the announcement that Chelsea Clinton is headed for private school, it also heightens the cynicism about Yuppies among the new populists. It highlights class divisions within the ranks of the would-be sisterhood. Half-a-million-dollar insurance executives don't get many tears when they talk about their troubles with ''help.''
When all is said and done, this is another issue that comes with the new generation of two-worker families. We didn't see it in Senate hearing rooms before; we didn't see mothers of young children facing confirmation before. The men who held those offices had the sort of child care that came with the marriage license.
But Zoe Baird didn't commit an offense that should taint the title of attorney general. Hiring an illegal nanny in the '90s is a crime on par with smoking dope in the '60s. The fact that she treated the couple well, filed papers for them, and sponsored them for citizenship, reduces even that charge.
She is guilty, yes. But guilty of smoking without inhaling.
Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.