When former Labor Secretary-designate Linda Chavez suggested in her classy withdrawal statement that her humiliating experience might discourage good people from seeking high-profile public office, she raised the difficult but obvious question: Is anybody good enough?
For if the surest way to minimize opposition is simply never to have said or done anything the least bit controversial, aren't we also talking about somebody who probably has never said or done anything worthwhile? So we fill our government's highest posts with folks who are bland, innocuous, and safe.
Nobody, of course, ever accused Linda Chavez of being bland, innocuous, and safe. Nor have they said that of John Ashcroft or Gale Norton. Which is precisely why those three nominees to our new president's cabinet have drawn the most vicious fire. They are gutsy people on a number of issues, willing to take risks-and then they end up paying the price of that risk-taking. It goes with the territory, and all of them are political grown-ups and know how brutal the territory can be.
All of which is hardly to justify the brutality of the territory's ruffians. They have proven themselves a vicious lot. And for those who say that this is all part of the game, and that conservatives have given as much hostile fire in recent years as they've taken, here's a telling test: Who among those liberals during the Clinton years, for example, when criticized by conservatives, was able to say, as Ms. Chavez did, "If I had it to do over again, even knowing the consequences, I would do it"? Web Hubbell couldn't and didn't say that about his criminal payoffs; the Clintons themselves couldn't and didn't say that about the Whitewater real-estate deal, or Travelgate, or Monicagate; and even Zoe Baird couldn't and didn't say it about hiring an illegal immigrant and then failing to withhold taxes. But Linda Chavez could and did say it, with head held high-and her statement symbolized a huge difference on the moral front.
So, taking all that into account, it still seems worth asking: Who is equal to the task? Who is good enough? On the one hand, you've got folks so watered-down they'll never make a difference. But almost always, if they're zesty enough to be interesting and potentially make a mark for good, they're also marred by fatal flaws.
For, as last week's WORLD made clear in its cover story, it wasn't altogether the mean-spiritedness of Ms. Chavez's enemies that did her in. "I gave them ammunition," she told WORLD editor Marvin Olasky in a telling phrase that sadly summarizes the failures so many of us have experienced in our own lives, and the frustrations that have so often capped our ambitions. We did a lot of things right, and perhaps even extremely well. But as with Ms. Chavez, there were one or two things we didn't do well, and they came back to haunt us.
Even our new president came perilously close to tripping over such a small matter. It is conventional wisdom among political experts that Mr. Bush's failure to disclose an old drunk-driving conviction came within a cat's whisker of costing him last November's election. Without the distracting report, many pundits think, Mr. Bush might not have left Florida in a cliffhanger and might well have carried several other very close states. How many times, especially during the interminable Florida recounts, must Mr. Bush have asked himself: "Why didn't I get it all out earlier?"
And does John Ashcroft wish he could go back and use some term other than "pro-criminal" to describe Ronnie White, the black judge from Missouri whose appointment to the federal bench Mr. Ashcroft successfully scuttled? The argument against Mr. White was probably good enough on its merits; the use of an inflammatory pejorative like "pro-criminal" almost certainly has hurt Mr. Ashcroft more than it did Mr. White.
Watching good people like Ms. Chavez, Mr. Bush, and Mr. Ashcroft trip over the little things hurts only partly because we hate to see their good ideas either permanently derailed or temporarily short-circuited. It hurts also because it reminds us how many other good folks may step aside from public service just because of the fear that some past issue, pesky and small, might surface as an embarrassment.
There is, of course, an easy way to keep that from happening. It's called repentance. It involves getting it all right out in public view-before God and everyone else as well. It involves saying, "I'm a sinner, and nobody knows it better than I do. But I also know what grace is, and in the same way it's been extended to me, I'm going to extend it to others."
Yes, some mean-spirited folks will even trample on grace. But let's let that be them, and not us.