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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Through a second round of questioning, Baird remained calm. At noon, Senator Herb Kohl brusquely inquired, "Have you asked yourself whether or not you might serve . . . best by withdrawing your nomination?" Baird replied, "I don't believe that would be appropriate," leaving tea-leaf readers to divine that Clinton's support remained intact. During the lunch break, White House aides Bernie Nussbaum and Howard Paster sprinted to the Hill to take Baird's pulse. The result: full-speed ahead, Baird told them. But during that same break, Senators of both parties caucused, and the mood perceptibly began to shift against Baird. Five Southern Democrats told majority leader George Mitchell that they could not support the nominee. Five Republicans, including two committee members, soon announced their opposition.

Over the next several hours, the Clinton Administration seemed to vacillate in its support for Baird. Even as Baird soldiered on, heartened by her lunchtime visit from Clinton aides, White House spokesman George Stephanopoulos was cutting her loose. During a press conference, he said the Administration continued to support her "right now" and that details of her tax and hired-help situation were "murky." Clinton, who was kept informed of developments in multiple briefings, was determined to let Baird play out her cards and make her own decision. "Remember, he stated his case on 60 Minutes," said a Clinton associate, recalling how Clinton and his wife had gone on TV last January to address questions about his marital fidelity. "He believes in that."

While the Clinton people made no effort to warn Baird of the shifting mood, Biden did. More than once he invited her to bring the proceedings to a halt. In each instance, she declined. At 7:30 p.m., as more Democratic Senators said they would vote against Baird, Biden joined Senate majority leader George Mitchell in a blunt call to Clinton, telling him that the nomination was doomed. When Biden could not get through to the President, he resorted to a final message: If his call was not returned immediately, he would state his opposition to Baird's nomination publicly. The tactic worked: Clinton called back and Biden told him the bad news. Baird meanwhile kept going with considerable poise and grit. "We kept telling her that she had to smile," a White House aide recalled. Two hours later, the hearings closed. At 10, Baird reached Cutler's office downtown, where Christopher and White House aide Paster informed her that there was no hope left. Biden called to echo the point. After some hesitation, Baird relented. Phone calls were made; letters were exchanged by fax, and, at 1:22 a.m., released to the press.

If Clinton moves quickly to name a successor, it is likely that the furor will die out. Chief of staff McLarty and counselor Bruce Lindsey will oversee the new selection process. To his credit, Clinton assumed full responsibility for the blunder. Moreover, once the nomination began to crumble, he retreated swiftly, recovering with some grace from a nasty stumble.

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