No good deed goes unpunished

Maggie Gallagher

1/11/2001 12:00:00 AM - Maggie Gallagher
I understand why many doubt Linda Chavez's story. In this age of cynicism, it doesn't necessarily have the ring of plausibility: What?! Bring a Guatemalan immigrant into your home, for no good reason but to help her out? Who does things like that? Certainly not me, I'm rather ashamed, as a Christian, to confess.

It's worth taking a minute to recall how this micro "scandal" was manufactured. Chavez's critics leapt to put the ugliest possible construction on her apparent act of kindness. A guest? Not likely. An undocumented worker, denied her rights, kept in virtual slavery? Most likely, they assure us. A spokesman for Sen. Edward Kennedy, senior Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, called the disclosures "very disturbing. The cloud over her nomination is certainly getting darker." The AFL-CIO's strangely named executive vice president, Linda Chavez-Thompson, called Chavez's explanation that Marta Mercado merely did occasional chores around the house and received spending money "typical" of statements used by people covering up employment of illegal aliens.

But Mercado backs up Chavez, telling The New York Times (in Spanish): "What I did in the house really was not work," and "I really appreciate what she did for me." Mercado, who was experiencing undisclosed personal problems at the time, took English lessons, worked part-time doing housecleaning for other employers and attended a women's support group.

Chavez has an impressive history of personal acts of charity, as well as a history of paying taxes on housekeepers she employs, both of which tend to support her account of the matter.

So now the charge has shifted from violating labor laws to harboring an illegal alien -- from exploiting a poor immigrant laborer to a failure to turn same poor laborer over to the INS for deportation back into whatever personal hell she was seeking refuge from. Would the latter course really have revealed a better moral character?

"What did Linda Chavez know?" and "When did she know it?" was the odd rallying cry from the left, who charged Chavez was lying when she said she did not know the woman's immigration status. Friends from the time confirm that Mercado appeared to be a guest, not a worker, but that they believe Chavez knew she was an illegal immigrant.

Chavez now admits that she was aware of Mercado's status as an illegal; most likely, when asked as a private person to help a distressed woman in obvious need, Linda Chavez's reaction was not to inspect the woman's paperwork first.

Question: Should Chavez, an ambitious woman, have known back in the early '90s that this charitable act could create the appearance of public impropriety in any future confirmation hearing? Should she really have refused to shelter Marta Mercado and/or helped deport her? Answer: Is the kind of person who would do that, in the interests of furthering his or her political career, really the kind of person we want in high public office?

There are dangers, obviously, in allowing ourselves to be too gullible. But there are dangers, too, in an aggressive cynicism that does not even entertain the possibility that some who aspire to high office might actually act from motives of charity, compassion and personal service. The dangers of being "taken in" by Chavez's explanations are really less than the risk of ruling out as unfit for public office some of the best people in public life.