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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* While in Little Rock, Baird told Warren Christopher, who was then co-chief of the transition team and later became Secretary of State, that she employed illegal immigrants as a driver for herself and a nanny from 1990 through 1992. Christopher, a long-standing mentor of Baird's, passed the information on to Clinton. Last week, after much confusion about what Clinton knew and when he knew it, the President set the record straight. "Just before she was announced but after I had discussed the appointment with her, I was told that this matter had come up," he said. Clinton added that he had been told "in a very cursory way" about the hirings. He said he felt confident because Baird had consulted an attorney "who was an expert in this area."

Back in Little Rock, however, Clinton and his aides had perceived no danger. A transition aide recalls that the attitude about Baird's legal infraction was "Everybody does it." As for Baird, "she deferred to a political judgment that it was not something that should deter them from nominating her," says a lawyer who was involved in the process. The nomination went forward, and Clinton introduced Baird to the world, hailing her as a "dynamic, talented and innovative lawyer."

The press treated the unknown Baird gently, with adjectives like brilliant, hard-working and ambitious sprinkled throughout the stories. Her resume -- short stints in the Carter Justice Department and White House, private practice, head of General Electric's legal department, chief counsel of Aetna Life and Casualty -- was trotted out as the very model of the modern manager. It was noted that the woman now destined to restore order and morale to the 90,000-strong Justice Department had spearheaded a restructuring of Aetna's 120-member legal department.

In the wings, however, public-interest advocates quietly voiced their reservations. Critics complained about Baird's big-company orientation and her lack of experience in civil rights and criminal matters. "A lot of people in the public-interest community were saying, 'Zoe who?' " says a Washington lawyer involved with Clinton's transition team. Broadly, they worried about Baird's stance on tort reform; specifically, they questioned her role in Aetna's campaign to restrict the number of civil suits brought against corporations. Critics also pointed to Baird's work at GE that led to implementation of a program aimed at dodging federal prosecution and blunting whistle blowing on waste and contract fraud.

! With the notable exception of consumer watchdog Ralph Nader, most of the carping was done anonymously. A public-interest activist explained the general reluctance to openly criticize Clinton's nominee: "The Washington civil rights lobby groups have a symbiotic relationship with the Democratic Party and are unwilling to rock the boat. They are desperate to preserve their access."

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