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Jewish World Review Jan. 29, 2001 / 6 Shevat, 5761

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby
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Consumer Reports

Chavez's 'hypocrisy': Take a closer look -- PROVOKED by my recent column in defense of Linda Chavez -- her only offense, I wrote, was to show compassion and generosity to an abused and homeless woman -- Joseph N. of Boston undertook to set me straight.

"Chavez engaged in the politics of destruction ... against Zoe Baird," he e-mailed. "Her hypocrisy was on record for all to see when she attacked Baird for employing an illegal alien."

Don T. of San Francisco had the same reaction. "You should go through your archives and retrieve Chavez's comments on the Zoe Baird illegal immigrant story. Chavez is what most conservative right wingers are and that is a moral hypocrite."

In fact, Chavez didn't attack Baird. But Joseph N. and Don T. and all the others I heard from can hardly be blamed for thinking she did. During the controversy over her nomination as labor secretary, the media repeated that canard endlessly and appeared to back it up with Chavez's own words. The result was to add insult to injury: Not only was her nomination torpedoed, but she was defamed as a hypocrite to boot.

By now, everyone involved in this episode has moved on. But the Chavez "hypocrisy" story is worth a second look. It is a reminder of the ease with which the press can vandalize reputations, and of a point too often forgotten: A thing isn't true just because it has been reported.

The news about Marta Mercado, the formerly illegal immigrant who lived with Chavez and her family in 1992-93, broke on Sunday, January 7. The next morning, The Washington Post headlined its Page 1 story "Chavez Is Under Fire Over Illegal Immigrant; Guatemalan Lived In Designee's House." After laying out the facts, reporters Thomas Edsall and Manuel Roig-Franzia mentioned the 1993 ruckus over Zoe Baird, Bill Clinton's first nominee for attorney general. Then came this:

"Chavez was sharply critical of Baird. On Dec. 21, 1993, she appeared on PBS's 'MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour' and said: 'I think most of the American people were upset during the Zoe Baird nomination that she had hired an illegal alien. That was what upset them more than the fact that she did not pay Social Security taxes.'"

This, it seems, was the source of the "hypocrisy" charge. The fallout spread swiftly. On "Good Morning America," George Stephanopoulos, paraphrasing Chavez, made the accusation explicit: "Back in 1993, when Zoe Baird ... was being hit for hiring an illegal immigrant, Linda Chavez, a commentator at the time -- and these words often come back to haunt you -- said, 'Listen, I think most of the American people were upset ... over the fact that she hired an illegal alien.' Now the allegation is being made that Linda Chavez may have hired an illegal alien. Getting caught in that kind of hypocrisy makes her an easy target."

On NBC, Tim Russert made the same point: "When Zoe Baird was put forward by Bill Clinton back in 1993, Linda Chavez was extremely critical of Zoe Baird for hiring an illegal nanny and not paying a Social Security tax," he told Matt Lauer on the "Today" show.

Updating the story throughout the day, the Association Press kept repeating the charge: "Chavez was critical of Baird, saying in 1993 on PBS: 'I think most of the American people were upset ..." The evening newscasts aired the old video of Chavez speaking those words. Bill Press played the clip on CNN's "Crossfire," noting that Chavez had helped create the standard that sank Baird. And the next morning, the quote was in The New York Times, with the by-now familiar observation, "At the time, Ms. Chavez was critical of the Baird nomination."

Only she wasn't.

Chavez's comments on "MacNeil/Lehrer" were not condemnation, they were explanation: She was pointing out that what fueled the uproar over Zoe Baird's housekeeper was not the nonpayment of Social Security taxes but the fact that the woman wasn't a legal immigrant. Reread her words: "I think most of the American people were upset ... that she had hired an illegal alien. That was what upset them more than the fact that she did not pay Social Security taxes." Chavez wasn't judging Baird, let alone denouncing her. She was simply clarifying why the case had caused a commotion.

And why, you might wonder, did a panelist on "MacNeil/Lehrer" -- whose audience tends to be very well-informed -- need to spell out the reason for the controversy over Baird's nomination?

Because at the time Chavez was speaking, the Baird controversy had been over for nearly a year.

Baird's nomination collapsed on January 21, 1993. Chavez appeared on "MacNeil/Lehrer" on December 21 -- 11 months later. The topic that day wasn't Baird, it was Bobby Ray Inman -- Clinton's first choice for defense secretary after Les Aspin resigned. Inman, it turned out, had also failed to pay Social Security taxes for a housekeeper, but the revelation set off no sparks. Jim Lehrer pointed this out, then asked Chavez why Inman wasn't being treated the way Baird had been.

"There are some real important differences here," she replied. "I think most of the American people were upset during the Zoe Baird nomination that she had hired an illegal alien. That was what upset them more than the fact that she did not pay Social Security taxes. And I think that that was a reaction to that. And this" -- Inman's housekeeper -- "is an American woman whose Social Security taxes have not been paid."

What a difference a little context makes. Chavez didn't attack Baird -- not then, not ever. On the contrary, she has long called for repealing the sanctions US law imposes on employers who give jobs to illegal aliens; it was one of the first recommendations of her think tank, the Center for Equal Opportunity. She would have had no reason to oppose Baird's nomination -- and there is no evidence anywhere that she ever said a word against her.

Journalists are entitled to scrutinize a nominee's record, but they are also obliged to be careful. Inaccuracy can stain a reputation -- sometimes indelibly. Chavez has her faults, but hypocrisy isn't among them. That was a smear she didn't deserve.

Where does she go to collect her apology?

Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment on this column by clicking here.

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