If it were Mr. Baird

Anthony Lewis

January 26, 1993|By Anthony Lewis

LOOK at the Zoe Baird nomination story and imagine that the genders had been reversed: The nominee for attorney general was a man, Aetna's general counsel, earning $500,000 a year. His wife was a Yale law professor; she made the child care arrangements, hiring illegal aliens after discussing it with immigration lawyers. Would the nominee have been swamped by a storm of public indignation?

I am not sure, but I doubt it. I think many who protested in Ms. Baird's case would have said to themselves that child care was the woman's concern. I think a male nominee, with all the other facts the same, might well have been confirmed as attorney general.

To say that, even to consider the possibility, is to understand that something more was going on here than a healthy upwelling of popular outrage at the idea of appointing an attorney general who had violated the law. The something was that Zoe Baird was a woman -- and a very successful one.

Part of the public feeling was class resentment of Ms. Baird's $500,000 salary: resentment among women as well as men. Would anyone have complained, or noticed, if a male lawyer earning that kind of money had been the nominee? Not bloody likely.

Think about the moment in the hearings when Sen. Joseph Biden, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, asked Ms. Baird to state how many hours she was away from her child: when she left at home in the morning and returned at night. Would he have asked that of any male nominee, for any job?

Or consider Sen. Dianne Feinstein's hectoring of Ms. Baird about not resting on her laurels as a magna cum laude graduate but knowing the streets. Would Senator Feinstein have said that to Edward Levi, a reserved intellectual who was the one outstanding attorney general in the last 20 years?

Apart from the gender element, there were heavy ironies in the Baird episode.

If we are going to demand absolute purity in the attorney general from now on, that is a fine thing. But it was odd that in coming down so hard on Ms. Baird, critics failed to mention the lawless attorneys general of recent years, who politicized a once great Department of Justice.

A sense of proportion was lacking, too, in discussion of the wrong that Ms. Baird admitted. Millions of Americans have used illegal aliens for child care. The Immigration Service has hardly tried to enforce the employment bar in households. For the press to speak of a grave mistake was grotesque hyperbole.

Then there was the complaint that Ms. Baird was not sufficiently committed to this cause and that. Women's and civil rights groups failed to back her. Ralph Nader uttered whining pieties.

What all that added up to was that Zoe Baird was a moderate, a lawyer who was not wrapped in ideology. And that is exactly the kind of person, a lawyer like Edward Levi, that the Justice Department desperately needs.

I know Zoe Baird, and I think I understand why Bill Clinton chose her: a 40-year-old woman not much known in political circles. She is a wonderfully talented lawyer with the backbone to do the toughest jobs. When she was 27, a Justice Department lawyer, she resisted plans of the Carter White House to use the Census Bureau for political appointees; and she won.

The final irony is that Zoe Baird underwent public humiliation because of the political mistakes of others. She did not campaign to be attorney general. She was under consideration for the job of White House counsel when President-elect Clinton, annoyed at women's groups and candidates they were pushing, suddenly picked her for attorney general.

Ms. Baird told the transition team about her family's use of illegal aliens for child care. They were the political experts, and they said it would not be a problem. They were wrong. And for their misjudgment, she suffered.

The proposition that someone who has violated the law should not be attorney general, once pressed, could not be resisted. In the end there was no alternative to Ms. Baird's withdrawal.

But I hope that in time people will come to understand the injustice done to a woman of outstanding character and ability -- and recognize the unacknowledged feelings in this episode.

Anthony Lewis is a New York Times columnist.

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