Blood in the water?

Bush's Chavez blunder may spell trouble for his other nominees.

Published January 10, 2001 8:56AM (EST)

Linda Chavez will likely wind up a footnote in the history of the Bush administration, since she didn't even make it to her confirmation hearing. But historians will no doubt remember her chutzpah, thanks to the most brazenly mawkish political self-defense since Richard Nixon's "Checkers" speech.

Margarita Valladaras stood trembling at the lectern, her mouth obscured by a Plexiglas "Bush-Cheney Presidential Transition" sign, talking about Chavez, her benefactor. When they met, "I hardly spoke any English," Valladaras recalled, and even today her English is halting. The diminutive Latina looked terrified of the television cameras; her voice cracked. But she closed her remarks with dignity: "I will always be grateful to Linda."

So will many of Chavez's enemies. By asking Bush to withdraw her nomination as labor secretary, in the wake of reports that she once housed an illegal Guatemalan immigrant who did household chores in exchange for some spending money, Chavez eliminated a Bush nominee who would have been easy for Senate Democrats to defeat. Given that the collegial Senate is considered unlikely to reject more than one or two of Bush's picks, liberal advocacy groups will be able to concentrate their political power on attorney general nominee John Ashcroft or would-be Interior Secretary Gale Norton, now that Chavez has been done in by her own hand.

Republicans may praise her "compassionate conservatism," but the cavalcade of hard-luck stories she used to defend herself, all the little brown people she's helped over the years, was stunningly self-serving and patronizing. "If I don't have Linda Chavez to help me, I don't have anything I have today," said Benson Bui, a Vietnamese immigrant who lived with Chavez and now works at the Justice Department. One after another they poured out their hearts, and it was poignant and affecting -- before Chavez dispatched them with a brusque "Thank you very much," and tore into her enemies.

She blamed her troubles on "the politics of personal destruction" (conveniently forgetting the GOP's role in elevating that practice to an art form during the Clinton years) and said not a word about her own role in sabotaging her nomination. By most accounts, Chavez failed to tell the Bush team about housing the Guatemalan woman, Marta Mercado; was evasive about whether she knew the woman was in this country illegally; and finally, according to the Wall Street Journal, tried to get a neighbor not to talk about Mercado to the FBI when agents asked questions during her background check.

And for someone who's made a career out of blasting the victim mentality of the civil rights movement, she played a pretty mean victim herself when the situation demanded it, savaging the media for the way it played her story, and insisting her withdrawal sent "a very, very bad signal" to all "good people" who want to help others.

Chavez and her allies turn the old saw about liberals -- they love mankind, it's people they can't stand -- on its head. As practiced by Chavez, compassionate conservatism turns out to be about playing Lady Bountiful to the needy, while deploring solutions designed to help groups of people you don't know, whether women, Latinos or workers. Of course charity is rewarding, it's admirable, it's necessary, but there's no evidence in Chavez's record that she understands the role government can and must play on behalf of those who need help.

President-elect Bush said he was "disappointed" that Chavez would not be in his Cabinet, but privately some Republicans were steaming that she'd allowed the situation to explode in their faces. But Chavez was a political disaster waiting to happen, an intemperate provocateur who has used her own race to get ahead as baldly as any member of the civil rights establishment she loathes.

And for all his supposed sensitivity to Hispanics, Bush's selection of Chavez showed a tin ear on matters of race and ethnicity, since Chavez is a polarizing figure widely disliked by Latino leaders. She was also an in-your-face conservative selection in a post that often goes to moderates, even in Republican administrations. For a president-elect without a mandate, who failed to win the popular vote, this was a huge mistake.

Her withdrawal gives Bush a Cabinet mulligan, a do-over, a chance to nominate someone who understands the challenges facing the Labor Department in the increasingly bumpy economy. If he picks another right-wing provocateur, the Chavez blunder might turn out to be the political blood in the water that tempts Senate Democrats to savage his other nominees.

By Joan Walsh

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George W. Bush