The Pursuit of Perfection

ELLEN GOODMAN

February 10, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON. — Boston -- When Zoe Baird streaked across the national sky from anonymity to ignominy in two weeks, I was one of her few defenders. I didn't think that hiring an undocumented nanny was a career-ending injury. Illegal child care is as common in the '90s as smoking dope was in the '60s.

Well, if Zoe Baird was judged and convicted of smoking without inhaling, Kimba Wood was just found guilty of getting a contact high. She didn't break any law, she was just standing around breathing in the atmospheric fumes.

Back in 1986, when Judge Wood and her husband hired a nanny from Trinidad whose papers had expired, it was legal to do so. They filed all the requisite papers and forms. If the judge committed any misdemeanor at all, it was thinking like a lawyer instead of a politician. When the Clinton teams asked if she had a ''Zoe Baird'' problem, the answer was, technically, no. But she had the whiff of it in her hair.

The words ''illegal alien'' are now enough to make strong men and women run screaming in horror. They transform the most sedate resume into a tabloid headline: ''Aliens Invade Earthling, Destroy Future!''

The administration was damned if they did appoint her. Deja Zoe all over again. And damned because they didn't. The judge got a bad rap and working mothers got a bad vibe. But we are all now damned to another chapter in the pursuit of perfection in public life.

Over the weekend, the list of offenders began to grow. On the equal-opportunity circuit, Charles Ruff was apparently also disqualified on account of his household hiring. A squirming Ron Brown admitted to paying taxes for his weekly cleaning lady as soon as he found out that he should: last month.

The search through the household-help accounts is going to make the search through Henry Kissinger's trash cans look relatively clean. If you think there are a lot of illegal-alien nannies and housekeepers, you should see how many all-American neighbors and relatives are being paid off the books.

One of the many things that makes me squeamish about all this is not just the way child care has become the whipping girl of the moment. It's the way we get the ethical blemish of the moment. We seem to deal with character issues as if they were a grab bag. We reach in, pull out the latest one in no particular order and use it to judge anybody in public life. For a while, it's all that we see of that person. It blots out everything in a person's life.

In one brief searing moment, Zoe Baird was reduced to one line: She was the $500,000-a-year-lawyer-who-hired-illegal-aliens. It didn't matter whether she was capable of the job or kind to her baby sitter. When life becomes a one-liner, nobody reads between the lines.

Now Kimba Wood, the judge who helped put Michael Milken in jail, may go down in history for her household hiring practices, not to mention her brief training as a Playboy bunny. A career becomes a cartoon. Character becomes caricature.

Private ethics are important. How we behave in our personal lives should count in public. It would be fascinating if we decided to judge character by how people treat those who work for them, whether the worker were a secretary, a hamburger flipper or a housekeeper. Whether the issue was sexual harassment or economic exploitation.

That's not really what's happening. Rather, we lurch from one lethal ''sin'' to another. Wiping out one person after another. Every time we appear to come to some more balanced perspective of character and its flaws, life and its complexity, Clinton and infidelity, something else comes out of the grab bag.

On the night the judge withdrew her name from consideration, I was not the only one who found herself in the middle of an informal Kimba Wood seminar. A clatch of good friends with decent resumes and serious moral convictions went through a joking-but-real review of our own personal histories.

We could find enough blemishes in our lives to make for a collective case of acne. Not one of us would be thrilled to see videotapes of the three worst moments and four worst decisions of our lives.

Is there a Zoe Baird problem? You bet. It's the problem you hear when people think about public service life and say, ''Not me.'' It's the problem when they think about the spotlight, and say, ''It's not worth it.''

Oh, by the way. Dear Kimba: I once played a Hot Box Girl in ''Guys and Dolls.'' If the White House ever calls, I'm out.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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