The Zoe Baird Debacle: How It Happened

The Baird debacle grew out of a selection process in which Clinton aides acted hastily and cavalierly in brushing aside an early warning

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IN THE END, ZOE BAIRD DID NOT NEED President Clinton or anyone else to tell her that her career as the nation's chief law officer was over before it ever got started. When her grilling before the Senate Judiciary Committee ended last Thursday at 9:30 p.m., she retired to the Washington law office of her friend and mentor, Lloyd Cutler, at 24th and M streets. Over coffee and sandwiches, an exhausted but clear-headed Baird rehashed her day with a group that would include her husband Paul Gewirtz, Cutler, fellow fortysomething lawyer Terrence Adamson and Secretary of State Warren Christopher. By 10:45, Baird concluded that she must withdraw her nomination. "She said, 'Look, this is so controversial it would be crippling for the President and the department even if we won,' " said Adamson. Soon after, Christopher phoned White House chief of staff Thomas ("Mack") McLarty and pulled her name.

Her decision climaxed a 29-day ordeal that secured Baird's place in the history books as the Clinton Administration's first major setback. As hard a comedown as it was for the talented Connecticut lawyer who stood to become America's first female Attorney General, it was a greater embarrassment for Clinton. The episode showed Clinton and his aides acting hastily, naively and cavalierly in brushing aside Baird's early warning that she had employed two undocumented Peruvians in her home. When the pieces of the shattered nomination are fitted together, Baird's civil infraction appears less careless than her handling by a transition team that seemed more bent on completing its headhunting mission than applying its standards.

In some ways, the Baird nomination was troubled from the start. The first indications from Bill and Hillary Clinton were that they wanted to appoint Vernon Jordan to the Attorney General's post. A flurry of press articles questioning Jordan's ties to a tobacco company, capped by a searing editorial in the New York Times, persuaded Jordan to remove his name from consideration. Aides then leaked word that Clinton sought a female appointee -- a move that in effect devalued the post to affirmative-action status.

That may help explain the series of rejections that followed. Clinton's first choice, Federal Appeals Court Judge Patricia Wald, declined the nomination, citing her age and reluctance to lose her pension benefits. The name of former Federal Judge Shirley Hufstedler was floated next. National Public Radio then reported that Washington lawyer Brooksley Born had been tapped. Baird and her husband first met the Clintons at an annual New Year's Renaissance Week at Hilton Head, South Carolina, some years earlier. But it wasn't until she was summoned late last year to Little Rock, initially to be vetted for the post of White House counsel, that she struck a fast rapport with the President-elect. "Clinton likes people who he likes," explains a presidential aide. Baird also boasted an impressive connection to the Clintons' alma mater, Yale Law School: her husband is a constitutional scholar on the school's faculty.

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