Cover Story

Opening day defeat

Linda Chavez withdraws from the nomination process in the face of liberal pressure. Conservatives wonder: How hard will TeamBush fight for John Ashcroft?

Issue: "Linda Chavez," Jan. 20, 2001

As TeamBush prepared for Jan. 16-18 confirmation hearings concerning John Ashcroft, and journalists wondered whether it had the stomach for a tough fight, the reasons Linda Chavez gave up her attempt to become secretary of labor became clearer.

In a televised press conference on Jan. 9 Ms. Chavez put on a defiant face, attacking the Washington "game of search and destroy." But in an interview the next day, she told WORLD that she had given critics a lot to search for, and said repeatedly, "I'm sorry ... I'm really very, very sorry."

Ms. Chavez said, regarding Mr. Bush and his associates, "I put them in a very bad position by not being forthcoming. I embarrassed them. I made my nomination, which was always troublesome, more vulnerable. It was a terrible mistake. I hurt them. I hurt myself. I regret it terribly."

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Sheltering and helping early in the 1990s Marta Mercado, an illegal immigrant, was not a mistake, Ms. Chavez said. The mistake was in not disclosing that action to Fred Fielding, the Bush representative who initially interviewed her, or to the FBI officer who came to ask questions: "I should have been forthcoming. I knew she was an illegal. That should have been brought out."

Ms. Chavez stipulated that she did not lie in either interview, but did not give answers to unasked questions: For example, the FBI woman "didn't ask anything that was related to Marta." Ms. Chavez noted that "vetting" (discussing nominees' backgrounds and going point by point through areas of discomfort) went very quickly this time-"all the interviews took place in a week's period"-because the transition process started in earnest five weeks late.

Still, Ms. Chavez does not claim memory loss during her week of interviews concerning the way eight years before she gave Ms. Mercado money and had her do chores: "I had obviously thought about it. I remembered it." That became part of the assault on her nomination: Was she hiring an illegal immigrant, as prospective Clinton cabinet members had done?

One definition of an enemy is someone who will take acts of kindness and turn them into the appearance of evil (see p. 46). Ms. Chavez knows she has enemies: "The organized labor movement, the Democrats, despise my views." But she now sees herself as an accomplice: "I gave them ammunition. I don't blame the Bush people, I blame myself."

Others, including people close to Ms. Chavez, do blame TeamBush, and ask whether a double standard is operating: Mr. Bush, for example, did not disclose his arrest as a young man for driving under the influence of alcohol. When the story did come out five days before the Nov. 7 election, it stopped a Bush surge in the polls and allowed Al Gore to win most of the last-days undecided-and the rest was hysteria.

The "double standard" is actually a new standard, based on hard lessons learned. TeamBush has always been adamant about the need for personal loyalty to the team manager and the importance of avoiding extraneous controversy. But added to that now is a stress on telling the whole truth, rather than following the old standard and just answering the specific questions asked. (Future nominees should take to heart words in chapter 12 of Luke's Gospel: "There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known.")

The old standard may still be applied to old issues: If reporters at some point start asking questions again about the possibility of youthful Bush use of drugs, don't expect new disclosures. The new standard also won't mean more information for the press generally. But within TeamBush, the message to prospective nominees is: You'd better be completely honest with us, and we'll decide if you're worth the risk. Potential problems in your past may not disqualify you, but that's for us to decide.

The Bush issue with Ms. Chavez was also complicated by potential legal questions. The U.S. legal code establishes criminal penalties for harboring aliens or encouraging them to reside in the United States. Nancy Cohen of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, asked about a hypothetical housing of an illegal alien, told WORLD, "It is illegal to harbor an illegal alien. Housing is considered harboring, and harboring is against the law."

The statute of limitations is five years for such immigration offenses, so Ms. Chavez would appear to be legally safe. Political controversies, though, have few limitations, and TeamBush did not want to be out on a limb when charges of law-breaking could lead to limb-breaking. The lack of strong help for Ms. Chavez left Jim Jordan of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chortling to The Washington Post about future prospects: "It implies Bush is not going to spend a lot of political capital on his nominees, and Ashcroft could get very expensive."

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