Clinton blunder ends as it began: quickly Baird nomination misjudged outrage of resentful public

January 23, 1993|By Susan Baer and Lyle Denniston | Susan Baer and Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau Karen Hosler, John Fairhall and Paul West of The Sun's Washington bureau contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- On Christmas Eve, when Bill Clinton proudly introduced Zoe Baird as the nation's next attorney general, her downfall -- and the first blunder of his presidency -- had already been sealed.

To the relief of the Senate, which did not want to cross swords with President Clinton in the dawn of his administration -- but which had been deluged with calls opposing the nomination -- Ms. Baird's nomination was withdrawn by the president early yesterday.

In many ways, the Baird controversy is a typical Washington tale of good intentions gone awry, of high-level decisions made in haste, of a president-to-be who became the prisoner -- and ultimately a victim -- of his lavish promises.

But it is also a story of political miscalculation. How could a president who promised to be a champion for people "who play by the rules" appoint as the nation's top law enforcement official a woman who knowingly broke the law?

Perhaps most remarkably, how did a shrewd politician who rode to power as a voice for the "forgotten middle class" fail to anticipate the firestorm of public protest over his choice: a corporate lawyer earning more than a half-million dollars a year who hired an illegal alien couple at $500 a week to care for her infant son and failed to pay their Social Security taxes?

Mr. Clinton accepted the blame yesterday for having rushed to nominate the 40-year-old Aetna Life & Casualty vice president and general counsel, only hours after he accepted her withdrawal in a letter that was forced by White House pressure.

Zoe Baird's rise and fall was recounted to The Sun by roughly two dozen people actively involved in the nomination and the hearings.

The selection

In many ways, the collapse of the Baird appointment can be traced not to this week's dramatic Senate hearings but to the scrambling that went on in Little Rock, Ark., before Christmas.

The choice of Ms. Baird was not so much the culmination of a thorough search process with all signs pointing her way as much as a last-minute settlement that enabled Mr. Clinton to meet all the arbitrary restrictions he had imposed on himself.

First, there was the deadline. He had said he would pick his Cabinet by Christmas and did not want to break one of his first postelection pledges. Already, there had been reports that he was stumbling, moving too slowly.

Even yesterday, in explaining what he knew of Ms. Baird's situation, he admitted he acted hastily: "In retrospect, what I should have done is to basically delay the whole thing for a couple of days and look into it in greater depth."

Mr. Clinton had privately assured women's groups that they'd be happy with the final makeup of the Cabinet, that one of the power positions would go to a woman. It was increasingly clear that would be the attorney general's slot, as a short list of women -- with Judge Patricia M. Wald and Washington lawyer Brooksley Born at the top -- was assembled.

But when Ms. Wald took herself out of the running, all signs pointed to the appointment of Ms. Born, a seasoned, respected liberal lawyer, one of the founders of the Women's Legal Defense Fund and, not surprisingly, the favorite of women's groups.

But at the same time, women's groups were pressing Mr. Clinton over what they saw as the low number of female appointments. '' At a news conference, Mr. Clinton lashed out at those "bean counters."

In private, sources said, he was determined to find an attorney general who would appear to be the product of his search, rather than pressure from any outside interests. Ms. Born was dropped, and suddenly, with Christmas Eve fast approaching, Ms. Baird became a last-minute entry into the attorney general's search.

Ms. Baird had been under heavy consideration for the position of White House counsel, a staff job that does not require Senate confirmation. She had many friends and admirers in high places, chief among them the transition director, and now secretary of state, Warren M. Christopher, with whom she had worked in the Carter administration.

"Various names kept getting removed, and Zoe's kept staying on the list," said a source close to Ms. Baird. "Eventually, [the transition directors Warren] Christopher and [Vernon] Jordan said, 'Why not her?' "

Mr. Clinton knew her only "superficially," said one transition source, but, as Mr. Clinton said last week, "Everybody that I called about her who I knew well raved about her."

During Mr. Christopher's meeting with Ms. Baird early last month, she disclosed to her former mentor that she had hired an undocumented alien from Peru in 1990 to care for her 1-year-old son.

Baird defenders and Clinton administration officials differed yesterday on how full her disclosure had been.

"She told Christopher all the details," said a Baird adviser. But one senior administration official said full details were not disclosed until after the nomination, including the hiring of the Peruvian nanny's husband as a part-time driver and the failure to pay Social Security taxes.

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