By Richard S. Dunham
New Administration, old complaint. Or should it be: same old whine in a brand-new bottle? No matter. George W. Bush's first choice for Labor Secretary, Linda Chavez, bowed out on Jan. 9 with a bitter condemnation of "the politics of personal destruction" in the nation's capital. Now where have we heard that before?
During the campaign, Bush said he would run a different kind of White House that didn't countenance shading the truth or lying. To quote the President-elect, his White House would know what the meaning of the word "is" is. Then, in the first brushfire of his nascent Administration, it emerges that one of his Cabinet picks knowingly harbored for three years a person she suspected was an illegal immigrant. What's more, Chavez didn't think it was important enough to tell Bush about when he interviewed her for the job.
The entire Chavez controversy invites parallels to the Nannygate problems that derailed President Clinton's first two choices for Attorney General in early 1993, Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood. Chavez, who worked as a political commentator and columnist, had some strong things to say about Baird's alleged transgressions back then. "I think most of the American people were upset during the Zoe Baird nomination that she had hired an illegal alien," Chavez intoned on the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour in 1993. "That's what upset them more than the fact that she did not pay Social Security taxes."
In a final twist of irony, Chavez said on Jan. 9 she now believes Baird "was treated unfairly." She said the public turned against Baird "because of talk on talk radio." To paraphrase Shakespeare: Hypocrisy, thy name is Chavez.
Americans learned some important lessons from this fiasco. No. 1, no Bush employee will last long if she lies to the boss or plays games with the truth. Chavez admitted at her Jan. 9 press conference that she "did not volunteer" the damaging information. Bush says he first learned about it on Jan. 7. Fatal error. In the Bush family, it's loyalty über alles. The episode provides a revealing glimpse into the mind of George W. Bush the Manager.
TOLD, NOT ASKED.
Lesson No. 2: Bush is decisive. The President-elect and his political team assessed the rapidly deteriorating political environment (even some Republicans were abandoning Chavez) and concluded the nominee had to go, according to one Bush insider. "At no time was I ever asked" to withdraw, Chavez told reporters. No, she wasn't "asked." More likely, she was told.
Lesson No. 3: Bush cuts his losses. Why have a messy, protracted battle for a hopeless cause? It would have been a public-relations disaster. The new President promises to fight to the finish for causes dear to his heart. But he's not going to tilt at windmills -- particularly for somebody who couldn't figure out Lesson No. 1.
Chavez has many friends and allies in the conservative community. But she did them no favors in the way she handled the nomination controversy. To Clinton-haters, Chavez' answers were eerily Clintonesque.
BORROWING FROM BILL.
Conservatives from Virginia Beach to Orange County, Calif., had to cringe when Chavez embraced Clinton's own phrase -- "the politics of personal destruction" -- which the outgoing President defines as the combustible combination of media sensationalists and extremist ideologues. "So long as the game in Washington is a game of search-and-destroy, I think we will have very few people who are willing to do what I did, which was to put myself through this in order to serve," she told reporters. Bill Clinton couldn't have said it better.
Like Clinton before her -- and Ronald Reagan before him -- Chavez acknowledged that mistakes were made. But what were those sins? Chavez said she committed none when she harbored an illegal immigrant and none when she allowed Bush to be embarrassed by an unnecessary flap. Her mistake? "Not thinking through that this might be misinterpreted" by scandal-mad reporters and political foes, she said.
This is politics of victimization, which fellow conservatives love to hate -- and for good reason. The principled, conservative thing to do would be to accept personal responsibility. The smart thing to do would have been to spare Bush the distraction at the beginning of his Administration.
Within weeks, the Chavez flap will be an obscure footnote in history. In some ways, however, it is a useful preview for things to come from Manager Bush.
Dunham is a White House correspondent for Business Week's Washington bureau
Edited by Douglas Harbrecht