The demolition of Linda Chavez

Posted: Jan 11, 2001 12:00 AM
The miasma was there, the coiling blast dispatched by the losers to suck Linda Chavez into oblivion. There would be satisfaction at several levels: (1) They would be saying no to President-elect Bush; (2) they would be rebuking a public servant who outraged civilized thought by opposing the idea of a federal minimum wage, opposing bilingual education, and denying the benefits of affirmative action; (3) they would have demonstrated the evenhandedness of their administration of justice, inasmuch as Clinton nominee Zoe Baird, eight years ago, was ruled out for the post of attorney general because she had a nanny at home who hadn't got working papers.

To be sure, the Senate should inform itself whether a candidate speaks truthfully. Just because President Clinton lies doesn't mean, or shouldn't, that everybody else in government can lie. Ms. Chavez had said she did not learn that Marta Mercado was an illegal alien until 1993, which was after Mercado had left Chavez's room and board. Existing law does not actually prosecute an employer who gives work to illegal aliens. A motion in that direction was attempted by a recent Congress, but it transpired that in the event it came to pass, half the restaurants in New York and Washington would close down.

The emphasis in the interrogation of Ms. Chavez would have focused more closely on whether she had spoken the truth than on whether the truth was damaging. Illegal aliens must not be overmolested. To do so gets in the way of their voting for their Democratic patrons.

So we had the truth count and then ideological count. Would she have succeeded in persuading the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that the arrangements were as she described? That she came upon Marta Mercado more or less homeless and, as a good Samaritan, offered her food and shelter, intending no condition of servitude? And that the dollars she gave her weren't compensation, merely an extension of the corporal works of mercy already proffered?

John J. Miller, who is an editor of National Review, wrote in a column for the New York Post that he was eyewitness to arrangements between Chavez and Mercado, and that they were apparently as described by Chavez.

But along came the view expressed by Mr. Clinton's sometime secretary of labor, Robert Reich. On television and in The New York Times, he said that it is precisely the responsibility of a secretary of labor to refine relationships to the benefit of employees. He added that an "employee" is not necessarily someone who works for you 40 hours every week. Neat distinctions of that order are anachronistic in an age in which people float around, like computer techies and piano teachers.

What Reich was saying is that a prospective secretary of labor ambitious for the welfare of the working man or woman will look for opportunities to strengthen their gestating rights to the fuller privileges of formal work, in the direction of minimum wage, health care, Social Security, etc. What he was saying was that Ms. Chavez should have shaken Marta by the shoulders and instructed her, as a boarder at Linda's place, in how to assert inchoate rights.

Well, that was never fought out. Ms. Chavez pulled out, and there is a sense of it that she was pushed just a little bit by her sponsors to do that. It is a pity. The senators would have discovered, those of them who didn't know it, that Linda Chavez is a formidable woman, brainy, consistent, articulate, resourceful.

In trying to demonstrate her bad moments, several television programs featured her, the day before her surrender, in panels in the past in which she took politically incorrect positions on the minimum wage. But what she said can't be thought unfeeling. It is that a minimum wage that is appropriate in one part of the country isn't compellingly appropriate in another part of the country. Those who deny this have never vacationed in New York and experienced the relief of going back to live in New Mexico. And anyway, as secretary of labor, to the extent that the problems crossed her desk, she would have enforced laws as they stand.

The second of her abrasions against popular thought is her opposition to bilingual education. What she has held on this subject is that for children to be taught in two languages simultaneously impedes authoritative experience in the second language, which is the language the United States, English. Since she made that point years ago, hard evidence vindicating the position has been published, e.g., on schooling in California.

Linda Chavez is an adornment on the American political scene, attractive, strong, incisive. The thought that she has been disqualified on account of kindnesses shown to Marta Mercado, or expressions of right thought on public issues, saddens the scene, and diminishes the republic.