Zoe Baird: Feminist legal titan

Michael Kernan

January 22, 1993|By Robert Kuttner

THE Zoe Baird affair is not mainly about technical violations of immigration and Social Security laws. It is about social class; it reminds us that the rich continue to be judged by a kinder and gentler set of standards, even in a Democratic administration. And it threatens to rain on Bill Clinton's populist parade.

The official explanations don't wash. Supposedly, Ms. Baird and her husband, a renowned Yale law professor, had relied on "competent legal counsel" to assure them that hiring two undocumented workers and then not paying their Social Security taxes was not legally risky.

She further claimed that she and her husband had been unable to find suitable domestic help elsewhere. Perhaps this was because Mr. Baird and her husband, who earned $660,345 last year, were paying at a rate of $5.97 an hour. It is amazing how qualified workers emerge from the woodwork when you offer, say $10 or $12.

As Sen. Joseph Biden, the liberal chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said indignantly, "There are tens of thousands, millions of Americans out there who have trouble taking care of their children . . . with one-fiftieth of the income that you and your husband have, who did not violate the law."

But how big a deal is this, really? Most of the elite press seems to think not a very big deal at all. The Wall Street Journal account quoted a Washington tax lawyer comparing the offense to smoking marijuana. "If having illegal immigrants were the standard," according to this expert, "there are very few people who would be eligible [for high public office]."

Consider, however, the difference in the treatment of Zoe Baird, who paid some $10,000 in back Social Security taxes and a small fine, and the treatment of illegal migrant workers who are deported and often languish for weeks or months in jail where they have no effective legal rights. Contrast her with, say, the Haitian boat people.

The "everybody does it" defense also makes a mockery of the 1986 immigration reform law, which Ms. Baird as attorney general would enforce. That law, the Simpson-Mazzoli Act, traded liberalized immigration quotas for tougher enforcement of immigration laws, and for the first time held employers criminally liable for hiring illegals. How can the new attorney general ever prosecute a factory owner who knowingly hired illegals?

The elite of this country seems to believe that getting good household help is, you know, so difficult these days that immigration laws and Social Security taxes shouldn't get in the way. That attitude is obnoxious enough if you happen to be an ordinary yuppie couple. It is totally unconvincing if you are a Yale law professor and the U.S. attorney general.

Of course, only a tiny fraction of the American public even enjoys the luxury of being able to break the law in this fashion, for only a small fraction of us can afford one personal domestic worker, let alone two. Most working families put their kids in group day care centers, or get relatives to mind them.

Zoe Baird epitomizes the double-edged character of the feminist revolution of which Hillary Clinton is now the national symbol. At the epicenter of Hillary Clinton's several circles is the Children's Defense Fund. And a top priority for that worthy organization is universal child care. But ironically, one of the main political reasons why socially financed day care has stayed off the political agenda is that society's richest and most powerful people are doing fine without it.

One had hoped that the coming of age of feminist legal titans like Hillary Clinton and Zoe Baird signaled a new agenda of concern for women's issues and children's issues -- and not just the equal right of women to become yuppie power-lawyers alongside men. Ms. Baird has been a feminist and Democratic party activist during her off-hours, while pursuing a fast track corporate career -- such a fast track that she needed two helpers to keep up a three-person household.

For the past two years as general counsel of Aetna, Ms. Baird has been one of the leaders of an insurance industry crusade to weaken product liability laws, so that consumers have less recourse if products maim or kill them. It may be, of course, that Zoe Baird was simply doing her job and using her formidable intellect to advocate the case of her client, and that she will be liberal and public-minded once in office.

But for the moment, Ms. Baird -- along with the limousines and corporate-sponsored galas clogging Washington this week -- signifies that money talks just as loudly under the Democrats as it did under George Bush and Ronald Reagan.

During her first day of interrogation by the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, that charming anachronism, asked Ms. Baird to say that she "repented" for her mistake. Now that she has withdrawn, she can repent in "private life" by working to assure that high quality child care is available to all American families, and not just to those who can afford to hire household help.

Robert Kuttner writes a syndicated column on economic matters.

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