To start off clean, Clinton had to tell Baird goodbye ON THE POLITICAL SCENE

JACK GERMOND AND JULES WITCOVER

January 23, 1993|By JACK GERMOND AND JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Whether President Clinton's attorney general-designate, Zoe Baird, jumped or was pushed, the withdrawal of her name was inevitable in a new administration that is making such a big deal about ethical standards.

Clinton could not afford to start out, after all he has said about changing Washington, with somebody running the Justice Department who had knowingly broken laws she would have been entrusted to uphold.

Baird may deserve Brownie points for coming clean on the way she hired illegal immigrants to care for her child and then didn't pay the required Social Security taxes.

But permitting her to sit in the president's Cabinet would have sent all the wrong signals to everyday Americans who heard Clinton the candidate promise no one would be above the law in his administration.

It is particularly important that someone with an unblemished record for obeying the law sit in the chair so discredited in recent administrations by the likes of John Mitchell and Richard Kleindienst (under Richard Nixon), Edwin Meese (under Ronald Reagan) and William Barr (under George Bush), all of whom served as presidential more than public protectors.

A lot of explanations are going around Washington about how the political pitfalls of Baird's child-care decisions could have eluded, or been brushed aside, by such a savvy politician as Bill Clinton. One is that he never really knew the details; another is that the transition team did not have a smart enough political operative involved in screening the top-level job applicants.

There is also the matter of the "bean counters" of whom Clinton complained so strenuously in Little Rock, Ark., as he went about assembling a Cabinet that, in his campaign promise, "looks like America." Women's groups particularly complained of a shortage females.

When a female judge turned down his offer to be attorney general, he is said to have pointedly rejected the prime choices of the female "bean counters" and settled on Baird -- thus accepting their complaint but not permitting them to dictate a single choice to him.

Once the nomination was made and the facts of Baird's knowing violation of the immigration laws gained attention and generated senatorial opposition, Baird was a gone goose.

Clinton chose to say she had resigned, which is how these things in Washington almost always are handled. How much more refreshing, if not as kindly, it would have been had he said Baird had been found not to meet the high standards he intended for his new administration and had to go.

This is not the first time that a new president without Washington credentials has stubbed his toe coming out of the starting gate. Jimmy Carter greeted the Congress he ran against in 1976 with an assault on their favorite pork-barrel irrigation projects, got hammered and had to retreat.

Early troubles for a new president are commonplace, visiting even experienced Washington hands.

In 1961, John Kennedy had the Bay of Pigs fiasco to take the bloom off his beginnings, and even that quintessential Washington creature, George Bush, stumbled at the outset with his failed nomination of John Tower in 1989 to be secretary of defense. Bush recovered quickly by naming someone certain to receive quick Senate confirmation, Rep. Dick Cheney, a popular member of the House Republican leadership.

How Clinton responds to this self-inflicted wound should tell much about him. Conventional wisdom, plus his "looking like America" standard, would seem to dictate nomination of another woman. But he should not be stampeded into making a hasty choice.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll out just before Baird went over the side found only 32 percent of those surveyed saying it was somewhat or very important that Clinton nominate another woman if Baird had to go, to 67 percent who said it was not too important or not important at all that he do so.

The whole matter is an object lesson to Clinton that the voices out in the country that rebelled against politics as usual in November are looking for more than just talk about change in how Washington does business.

Only three days ago, in taking his oath of office, Clinton said: "Let us resolve to reform our politics, so that power and privilege no longer shout down the voice of the people." He has just heard that voice.

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