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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The support of Hatch and other conservative Republicans had an easy explanation: her strong probusiness credentials. And if they could push through her nomination, the conservatives would have a large chit to call in from the new Administration. The Democrats on the committee, however, were caught in a painful bind. After the Anita Hill debacle, they desperately wanted the Baird confirmation to go smoothly. They also did not want to embarrass the new President. But after so many tainted Attorneys General, they were determined to confirm someone with an unblemished record.

The confirmation hearing opened last Tuesday with not a single member of the committee on record against Baird. But the illegal-alien issue was front and center -- and growing fast. "There were phone calls to offices, local editorials," says a top Senate official. "The people were just way ahead of us." Biden more than hinted at the ground swell with his pointed, if rambling, questions. "Do you understand that the vast majority of the American people have similar needs?" he lectured.

Baird allowed that she had made a "mistake," but stressed that she had been open about the infraction from the start. She blamed her husband for having failed to file Labor Department papers in a timely fashion, saying, "I would have pushed to make it more expeditious." She assumed responsibility for the lapse in judgment but blamed it on the pressures of motherhood.

It was an appeal designed to tug heartstrings. But Baird's apologia did not play well in Peoria -- or the rest of America. Irate callers jammed the phone lines of radio and cable stations across the country, denouncing her tax dodging and calling on her to withdraw. The switchboard on Capitol Hill lit up as constituents weighed in with their representatives. In a single day, Senator Paul Simon's Washington office logged 1,000 calls. "In 18 years in the Senate," said Senator Patrick Leahy, "I had never seen so many telephone calls, spontaneously, in such a short period." Senator Nancy Kassebaum and Representative Marge Roukema lobbied Republican colleagues on the Judiciary Committee to quash the nomination.

As Clinton was feted, two transition-team lawyers flew to Connecticut to interview Baird's immigration lawyer, Belote. They emerged disturbed by what one lawyer called "substantial discrepancies" between Baird's testimony and Belote's logs and diaries. Upset by his depiction in the media as an inept attorney, Belote provided documentation that some Senators believe contradicts Baird's testimony. While Baird testified that her husband contacted Belote upon hiring the Peruvians in July 1990, Belote's documents indicate that Gewirtz did not contact Belote's firm until four months later. Moreover, according to a lawyer familiar with the session, Belote's records indicate that he had no further contact with the couple until April 12, 1991, when he told them that the Peruvians were not authorized to work until they had documentation, that their employment was illegal and that there were tax obligations.

As the second round of hearings opened Thursday, it was plain that Baird was a woman without a constituency. She had no track record with women's groups, Washington insiders or public-interest groups. Not even professional women with children rushed to her defense.

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