Only a year ago, Gov. Bill Clinton was trying to push a one-percentage-point increase in the Arkansas sales tax through a balky state legislature. Last week, only two days after being sworn in as the 42nd President of the United States, Clinton may well have felt some nostalgia for the easy familiarity of down-home politics. In the midst of confirmation hearings before an increasingly skeptical Senate judiciary committee, Zoë Baird suddenly withdrew as Clinton’s nominee for attorney general. The reason: mounting public and political hostility to her candidacy, set off by the Jan. 13 disclosure that she knowingly hired two illegal aliens from Peru as domestic help. For several days, a succession of conflicting briefings by rattled White House spokesmen failed to establish whether Clinton had been aware of Baird’s actions when he nominated her. But in the end, the President supplied the answer himself and took full responsibility for his administration’s first misstep. He said he knew when he nominated Baird that she had broken the law, adding that he probably should have given the matter more thought. Said Clinton: “I’m sorry about this.”
The controversy surrounding the forceful 40-year-old Baird, a $600,000-a-year senior vice-president and general counsel for the Aetna Life and Casualty insurance company of Hartford, Conn., demonstrated the fact that in politics, surprises are bigger news than substance. In a hectic, clamorous inauguration week, Baird’s decline and fall dominated front pages and TV newscasts. The episode raised doubts about Clinton’s judgment and focused renewed attention on his repeated pledge during the presidential election campaign to lift ethical standards in government.
Murder: On Friday afternoon, after Baird had capitulated in the face of a marginally negative public opinion poll and hundreds of protesting phone calls to congressmen, Clinton spoke up. During a ceremony in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, he said that Baird’s nomination was a mistake made under the pressure of trying to meet a self-imposed Christmas deadline for naming cabinet nominees. "Just before she was announced but after I had discussed the appointment with her, I was told that this matter [hiring the illegal aliens] had come up,” Clinton said. “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. I take full responsibility for that. This process is in no way a reflection on her.” However, legal and political specialists were
divided on how that process may have reflected on Clinton. Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan Washington thinktank, said that by most accounts Baird had been candid throughout. Added Hess: “She told the transition team that she had broken the law. The transition team probably said, ‘OK, so what?’ and that it was not important.” But although Baird’s offence “isn’t like murder or arson and is something that is widely done and winked at,” Hess said, “for the chief law enforcement officer it is not all right, and for Bill Clinton to know about it and still appoint her is a shocking example of political insensitivity. Now he has to come forth with a very good appointment and then all that will be behind him.”
Other analysts said that the whole affair was largely a result of two factors: the pressure Clinton created for himself by trying to pick his cabinet quickly, and the failure of the President and those around him to accurately gauge the
impact that Baird’s actions would have on Americans struggling to pay for legal child care. Georgetown University law professor Paul Rothstein said that “Baird’s withdrawal doesn’t say anything broad or grand about Clinton’s methods of operating. It says that he or someone in the transition made a mistake in estimating the importance of the issue. It is probably just a function of the fact that he is overwhelmed—making the transition and taking over the presidency.” Still, Rothstein said, “It does remind Bill Clinton that he came in with great rhetoric on the high ethical implications of his administration.” As well, the incident seemed certain to ignite a nationwide debate about the broad issues of day care and the need for changes in immigration policies and procedures.
Goofed: At the same time, there was speculation about the role that Secretary of State Warren Christopher may have played. Patricia King, a colleague of Rothstein’s at George^ town, said that Baird had been highly § recommended by Christopher, her § mentor when they worked together a w decade ago for the highly regarded E Los Angeles law firm O’Melveny & z Myers. That recommendation, to^ gether with the transition team’s failure to assess the consequences of adopting it, is what got Clinton in trouble, King said. She added: “The message that I take from the election is that the country is fed up with those of us in Washington who they see living by different rules. The transition team just goofed.” Washington lawyer Stuart Eizenstat, domestic policy adviser to president Jimmy Carter, said that Baird’s transgression “hit a populist nerve that no one could have anticipated.” Added Eizenstat: “It is not a happy moment for Zoë but it is not by any stretch of the imagination a major problem for Clinton because it was so adroitly handled.” As for the Peruvian couple, they faced an immigration hearing in Hartford this week, and the possibility of deportation. For Baird, there was a softer landing: a spokesman for Aetna Life and Casualty said the company looked forward to her return.
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