Smearing Linda Chavez—The Poison of Partisan Thinking

Some of Chavez's critics would have beatified Hillary Clinton had she done the exact same thing

"The narcissism and duplicity of Chavez's [Jan. 9] press conference announcing her withdrawal ... was simply staggering.... She trotted out a gaggle of immigrant admirers to offer staged testimonials about her history of assisting those in need.... Even the Bush team had abandoned the absurd pretense that Marta Mercado was not Linda Chavez's employee.... You shouldn't exploit [illegal immigrants].... What's more, rather than tell the Bush team the truth ... she lied." —The New Republic

"Reasonable people would call a two-year houseguest who is not a relative and who vacuums, does laundry, looks after the kids, and receives free room and board and spending money a maid. But Ms. Chavez had insisted that Marta Mercado ... was a needy charity case.... [Chavez] telephoned a former neighbor, presumably to coach her on what to say about Ms. Mercado [to] FBI agents.... The law is quite clear. Harboring an illegal alien is a felony." —The New York Times

"As one online political wag put it, is this the definition of compassionate conservatism, to bring illegal immigrants into your house, put them to work, and then not pay them?" —Los Angeles Times

These are some of the things they said about Linda Chavez as her nomination to be Labor Secretary was going up in smoke. For giving from 1991-93 what liberals used to call "sanctuary" to a battered and depressed illegal immigrant from Guatemala who clearly was a needy charity case, the conservative Chavez has now been smeared as an exploiter, a criminal, a liar, and a hypocrite.

The attackers include some of the same folks who would have beatified Hillary Rodham Clinton, Donna Shalala, or Barbra Streisand for doing the same thing. And their attacks only intensified when Chavez showed, at her awkward but moving Jan. 9 press conference, that Marta Mercado was just one of more than a dozen needy people she had helped over the years. All this smacks of that distinctive brand of hypocrisy exuded by people who would never dream of inviting a battered woman into their own homes, but consider themselves compassionate because they patronize needy people en masse through liberal political causes—such as deploying government bureaucrats to help battered women, or blocking efforts to give poor kids alternatives to rotting public schools.

More broadly, the Chavez episode exemplifies the tendencies of many conservatives and liberals alike to presume the basest of motives for even the most honorable of acts by their ideological adversaries, to draw the worst possible inferences from the flimsiest of allegations, and to demand the harshest of consequences for the most trivial of offenses. In this sense, the journalists and others who so casually smeared Linda Chavez have something in common with conservative former Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., who smeared Missouri Supreme Court Judge Ronnie White in October 1999 as "pro-criminal." (See my column, NJ, 1/13/01, p. 78.)

Chavez did make two big mistakes that (she admits) sealed her doom. The first was her Dec. 21 phone call to a neighbor who had employed Mercado. The New York Times and some others have leaped recklessly to the conclusion that this was "presumably" an effort to coach the neighbor on what to say to FBI agents checking Chavez's background. Chavez says her purpose was to refresh her own hazy eight-year-old recollection about "when Marta had been in my life." She also hoped for and got an assurance that the neighbor would not go to the media. But Chavez stresses that she told the neighbor (a lawyer and a Democrat) to be truthful with any FBI background checkers.

This account has been met with understandable skepticism, in part because Chavez unwisely chose not to tell Bush background checkers about the phone call. But the neighbor has not publicly contradicted Chavez. And I see no reason not to give Chavez the benefit of the doubt. At the very least, her account of this conversation is far more credible than (say) President Clinton's preposterous claim that he was seeking to refresh his own recollection when he coached Betty Currie to lie about Monica Lewinsky.

Chavez's second big mistake was failing to bring up Mercado when a Bush transition official and (later) an FBI background checker posed open-ended questions about whether she had ever done anything that could be used to embarrass her or George W. Bush. This fell short of any would-be nominee's ethical duty of complete candor with background interviewers, and Bush may therefore have been justified in letting her sink. But Chavez's omissions cannot fairly be called lies—not, at least, unless one assumes without evidence that she was hiding something illegal or improper.

Inadequate disclosures aside, the Chavez-Mercado relationship at the root of this fuss appears to have been exactly what both women say it was: a commendable and legal act of charity that unexpectedly evolved into the kind of relationship one can imagine having with an impecunious houseguest who ends up staying for many months. The hundreds (perhaps thousands) of dollars Chavez gave Mercado at irregular intervals for such expenses as airfare to visit Guatemala were intended to be just that—gifts. This belies the suggestions that Chavez violated the minimum-wage law or failed to fulfill a (nonexistent) obligation to pay Social Security taxes. Nor did Chavez flout the criminal ban against intentionally "harboring" illegal immigrants—not, at least, under any reasonable interpretation of that law. It was apparently aimed not at good Samaritans, or homeless shelters, or hospitals who feed and shelter illegal immigrants out of compassion, or even at domestic employers, but rather at those who actively conceal illegal immigrants, typically in alien smuggling operations.

The most natural inferences from Chavez's essentially uncontradicted account of the relationship are these: She took the badly abused Mercado into her home at the request of a professional acquaintance. Mercado spent most of her time working for the neighbor, going to English classes, and socializing with friends. She also spent much time alone in her room. She did not act as a nanny for Chavez's three children, who ranged in age from 13 to 23 in 1991 and had no need of one. (Chavez was working exclusively out of her home at the time.) She spent no more than about 10 hours a week doing chores, such as laundry, washing dishes, and picking up after Chavez's teen-age sons. Chavez, not Mercado, did the cooking.

The stories told in halting English by Ada Iturrino, Benson Bui, Margarita Valladares, and others about Chavez's kindnesses powerfully corroborate her account of her relationship with Mercado. Iturrino is the mother of two Puerto Rican children in New York for whom Chavez has paid more than $10,000 in tuition so they could attend Catholic schools. Bui and his brother were refugees from Vietnam whom Chavez had taken into her home for several weeks in 1979. Valladares told of continuous help from Chavez over a period of more than 20 years. Says Abigail M. Thernstrom, a leading scholar on race relations who was recently appointed to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights: "Linda is an amazingly generous, thoughtful person. For as long as I've known her, which is 25 years, she has been unique among my friends in the degree to which she has reached out to people in need."

Why, in the face of such evidence, do so many liberals leap to the most damning of conclusions about a prominent conservative? And why do so many conservatives leap to the most damning of conclusions about the motives or activities of liberals such as (say) Janet Reno or Al Gore? This is the poison of partisan thinking, which has seeped into the bloodstream of official Washington.

By the way, the assertions by The New Republic and others that Chavez hypocritically "trashed" Zoe Baird in 1993 for employing an illegal immigrant couple as a nanny and driver are bogus. These claims stem from a misinterpretation of a passing reference Chavez made to Baird's illegal-alien problem during a December 1993 television interview focusing on Bobby Ray Inman's nomination to be Defense Secretary. The interview transcript shows Chavez suggesting a bit ungenerously that Baird would not have been a strong candidate for Attorney General but for President Clinton's insistence on appointing a woman. But Chavez said nothing that could fairly be called an attack on Baird for hiring (let alone for housing) illegal immigrants.

Chavez had not been a player in the bipartisan firestorm 11 months earlier in which, as I later detailed in slightly overwrought prose in The American Lawyer, "Zoe Baird was monstrously caricatured for the smallest of sins, pounded by press and popular righteousness, and crucified by prejudice and hypocrisy." Now Linda Chavez—who hired no illegal immigrant and violated no law—has suffered much the same fate.