WASHINGTON -- On Christmas Eve, when Bill Clinton proudly introduced Zoe Baird as the nation's next attorney general, her downfall -- and the first blunder of his presidency -- had already been sealed.
To the relief of the Senate, which did not want to cross swords with President Clinton in the dawn of his administration -- but which had been deluged with calls opposing the nomination -- Ms. Baird's nomination was withdrawn by the president early yesterday.
In many ways, the Baird controversy is a typical Washington tale of good intentions gone awry, of high-level decisions made in haste, of a president-to-be who became the prisoner -- and ultimately a victim -- of his lavish promises.
But it is also a story of political miscalculation. How could a president who promised to be a champion for people "who play by the rules" appoint as the nation's top law enforcement official a woman who knowingly broke the law?
Perhaps most remarkably, how did a shrewd politician who rode to power as a voice for the "forgotten middle class" fail to anticipate the firestorm of public protest over his choice: a corporate lawyer earning more than a half-million dollars a year who hired an illegal alien couple at $500 a week to care for her infant son and failed to pay their Social Security taxes?
Mr. Clinton accepted the blame yesterday for having rushed to nominate the 40-year-old Aetna Life & Casualty vice president and general counsel, only hours after he accepted her withdrawal in a letter that was forced by White House pressure.
Zoe Baird's rise and fall was recounted to The Sun by roughly two dozen people actively involved in the nomination and the hearings.
In many ways, the collapse of the Baird appointment can be traced not to this week's dramatic Senate hearings but to the scrambling that went on in Little Rock, Ark., before Christmas.
The choice of Ms. Baird was not so much the culmination of a thorough search process with all signs pointing her way as much as a last-minute settlement that enabled Mr. Clinton to meet all the arbitrary restrictions he had imposed on himself.
First, there was the deadline. He had said he would pick his Cabinet by Christmas and did not want to break one of his first postelection pledges. Already, there had been reports that he was stumbling, moving too slowly.
Even yesterday, in explaining what he knew of Ms. Baird's situation, he admitted he acted hastily: "In retrospect, what I should have done is to basically delay the whole thing for a couple of days and look into it in greater depth."
Mr. Clinton had privately assured women's groups that they'd be happy with the final makeup of the Cabinet, that one of the power positions would go to a woman. It was increasingly clear that would be the attorney general's slot, as a short list of women -- with Judge Patricia M. Wald and Washington lawyer Brooksley Born at the top -- was assembled.
But when Ms. Wald took herself out of the running, all signs pointed to the appointment of Ms. Born, a seasoned, respected liberal lawyer, one of the founders of the Women's Legal Defense Fund and, not surprisingly, the favorite of women's groups.
But at the same time, women's groups were pressing Mr. Clinton over what they saw as the low number of female appointments. " At a news conference, Mr. Clinton lashed out at those "bean counters."
In private, sources said, he was determined to find an attorney general who would appear to be the product of his search, rather than pressure from any outside interests. Ms. Born was dropped, and suddenly, with Christmas Eve fast approaching, Ms. Baird became a last-minute entry into the attorney general's search.
Ms. Baird had been under heavy consideration for the position of White House counsel, a staff job that does not require Senate confirmation. She had many friends and admirers in high places, chief among them the transition director, and now secretary of state, Warren M. Christopher, with whom she had worked in the Carter administration.
"Various names kept getting removed, and Zoe's kept staying on the list," said a source close to Ms. Baird. "Eventually, [the transition directors Warren] Christopher and [Vernon] Jordan said, 'Why not her?' "
Mr. Clinton knew her only "superficially," said one transition source, but, as Mr. Clinton said last week, "Everybody that I called about her who I knew well raved about her."
During Mr. Christopher's meeting with Ms. Baird early last month, she disclosed to her former mentor that she had hired an undocumented alien from Peru in 1990 to care for her 1-year-old son.
Baird defenders and Clinton administration officials differed yesterday on how full her disclosure had been.
"She told Christopher all the details," said a Baird adviser. But one senior administration official said full details were not disclosed until after the nomination, including the hiring of the Peruvian nanny's husband as a part-time driver and the failure to pay Social Security taxes.
The subject did not come up in Mr. Clinton's conversation with Ms. Baird in mid-December, White House Communications Director George Stephanopoulos said yesterday, perhaps because at the time, the president-elect was not thinking of her as a potential attorney general but for a less lofty staff position in his administration.
Yesterday, Mr. Clinton said that he was told about the hiring of the Peruvian couple in a "very cursory way" and that "nobody said anything to me about the [failure to pay Social Security] taxes."
But several sources close to Ms. Baird said they were sure that both Bill and Hillary Clinton knew most of the details before the nomination was made.
"I had an impression that he had a pretty good idea," one source said. "[Mr. Clinton] interviewed her at length."
Through it all, the Clinton transition team somehow failed to grasp the political implications or seriousness of the matter. As the information was passed along from level to level, one administration official suggested, it was increasingly "sugar-coated" and dismissed as benign.
But another Clinton source blamed a lack of political savvy in the transition's inner circle for the mistake.
"He put lobbyists in charge" of the transition, said this adviser, who, like many of those interviewed yesterday, spoke on condition he not be identified.
On Dec. 24, Zoe Baird accepted Mr. Clinton's nomination of her to head the Justice Department, saying that the department "more than anything else . . . symbolizes that we are a nation guided by the rule of the law."
Although it would not become public for three weeks, Ms. Baird's problem with her illegal nanny was disclosed by transition officials to key members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which would conduct her confirmation hearing, including the Democratic chairman, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, and the senior Republican, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah.
Neither recognized the gravity of the problem. But on Jan. 5, Ms. Baird and her husband, law professor Paul Gewirtz of Yale University, knew it was a problem that warranted action: They paid $8,000 in back Social Security taxes for the Peruvian couple.
As Ms. Baird started making the rounds of Senate offices on Capitol Hill early this month, none of the senators seemed to consider the matter a major roadblock.
In Ms. Baird's early conversations with Sen. Alan K. Simpson, R-Wyo., "She led the senator to believe she had received bad advice from counsel," an immigration specialist she and her husband retained, said Stanley D. Cannon, an aide to the senator. "This week, she said she had knowingly violated immigration laws and that counsel had advised her of that fact. That is different from what he was led to believe in personal phone calls from her."
By the middle of last week, the story of Ms. Baird's hiring of illegal aliens had started circulating on Capitol Hill, and on Jan. 14, as the FBI was finishing up an investigation of the matter, it came to national attention by way of a front-page article in the New York Times.
Clinton officials defended Ms. Baird, saying that the president-elect was fully aware of the situation and that he remained confident she would make an excellent attorney general.
The senators, both Democrats and Republicans, seemed to be holding firm, willing to treat the matter lightly as a minor technicality. Neither Ms. Baird -- and her supporters
nor the Clinton administration thought the nomination was in any danger. No senator had come out in opposition to Ms. Baird.
"A lot of people on the Hill thought it would fly," said a Clinton official.
For the first half-hour of Tuesday's opening session, a celebratory atmosphere prevailed in the hearing room, 106 Dirksen. But before Chairman Biden got to the point of bringing up the illegal aliens issue, there was an uncanny coincidence: Almost at the precise moment that Ms. Baird began testifying, the telephone lines started getting jammed, one floor above, in the committee's offices. The protests over her nomination were flooding in.
"The calls took off once she appeared on C-SPAN," said a committee aide.
Some on the committee, such as Republican Hatch, later said he thought that was too much of a coincidence: It was "orchestrated," he said, by Ms. Baird's liberal opposition, led by Ralph Nader. But Mr. Hatch also would concede that the telephone protest went beyond anything that could have been managed; even he would agree that much of it was sincere public resentment of the aliens incident.
The telephoned outrage was the beginning of the end for the Baird nomination. Senators already were getting nervous about being forced to vote on this nomination, and those calls increased that uneasiness.
When Mr. Biden launched into an uncommonly aggressive confrontation with Ms. Baird over the alien household employees, the pattern that would prevail throughout the public part of the hearings was set.
The questioning always came back to the aliens issue.
Associates of Ms. Baird said she did not realize it fully then, but there really was no other issue before the committee, or the Senate as a whole. Interspersed with her repeated, unqualified confessions of error about the aliens, she talked hopefully -- and specifically -- about what her Justice Department would be like. She used "will," not "could" or "would," and it did not sound feigned.
In the hearing room, Ms. Baird's team of on-hand advisers talked with easy confidence about the process, and no senator or aide would dispute that expectation seriously.
A reporter walked up to Terry Adamson, a suave Atlanta lawyer with a still-vivid Dixie accent and sharp Southern political instincts, and asked in the vernacular: "Is this dog going to hunt?" "Oh, yes," he said without hesitation.
But by the next morning, Inauguration Day, it no longer seemed so certain that a success story was unfolding. The reports of the first day's hearings were negative, and speculation about the nomination's unraveling was fast becoming hard reality.
Ms. Baird, described by Senate Democratic aides as someone with no real political instincts, was troubled enough that she talked to her husband and three advisers that morning about hTC withdrawing. She could already see indications, an associate said later, that her ability to lead the Justice Department was eroding.
Somewhat surprisingly, the president, perhaps preoccupied with that day's grand celebration, went out of his way to bolster her expectations. "Hang tough," he told her at one of those events. "You have to fight in situations like this," comparing it to the struggles of his campaign.
Not everyone was preoccupied with the inauguration. Barbara Jordan, the revered former black congresswoman from Texas, who is as close as anyone to being the Democratic Party's conscience, called on Ms. Baird to withdraw.
When the Judiciary Committee reconvened the following morning, Ms. Jordan's complaint reverberated throughout 106 Dirksen. The strange tableau of Tuesday continued: The hearings went on with Ms. Baird making her case, but the side conversations were about nothing but the nanny problem. And the calls kept streaming in.
Growing increasingly stubborn as Thursday wore on, Ms. Baird refused several offers by Chairman Biden to end the hearings; she was determined to stay until the last question had been asked.
L When the hearing was over, the nomination was beyond saving.
Just before the close, Lloyd Cutler, the Washington lawyer who had been working first to promote and now to save her nomination, was asked in the back of the room how he was doing at that point. "I'm suffering," he said simply.
What Mr. Cutler, Ms. Baird, and few others realized at that late hour was that 10 hours earlier, as the nominee was answering questions from Republican Sen. William S. Cohen of Maine, the final chapter of her nomination already had begun. It was marked with the arrival of a news release.
Dropped on the press tables, it was an announcement that a highly respected female senator, Republican Nancy L. Kassebaum of Kansas, wanted the Baird nomination withdrawn. "That was the cover" for the male members of the Senate to start publicly abandoning the nomination, according to Senator Hatch.
A few moments later, one of the committee Democrats, Sen. Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, asked the nominee directly if she thought she should withdraw. It would be "inappropriate," she said. It also was inevitable.
At midday, the Senate's Democrats held their weekly luncheon, and much of the morbid talk was of ways to get the nomination scuttled. One of those dreaded phrases uttered about a nomination in trouble -- "a delegation should go to the White House" -- reportedly was spoken there.
There was no such delegation. One was not necessary.
By day's end, 11 more senators had joined the demand that the nomination be withdrawn or haddeclared their opposition to it. And Secretary Christopher and attorney Cutler would deliver the news to Ms. Baird that her chances of becoming the first female attorney general were gone.
"The president was interested in a quick end, and as the day went on it became clear that it had to be put to Zoe," said a senior administration official who was involved in the discussions.
By the time Ms. Baird and her entourage left the Dirksen building at about 9:40 p.m., headed for a downtown law office, the committee had scattered, and Chairman Biden and a handful of his staff went to his office in the Russell building to have pepperoni pizza. The chairman said he was awaiting a telephone call -- from the White House.
It was after 10 p.m. when Ms. Baird, her husband and their advisers finally talked over her chances. From the moment she sat down with them, to share sandwiches, Cokes and iced tea, she expressed doubt that she could lead the Justice Department now, after all that had happened. In particular, she said she feared that any vote in the Senate would be along party lines, and the goal of a "bipartisan Justice Department" would be gone.
The talk went on quietly, and one participant reported feeling moved as "I sat there watching her really hurt."
Ms. Baird said she could not deny the existence of the controversy, whatever her merits as attorney general might have been.
"I really think this is the best course," she said at last, having chosen to withdraw.
When she announced that intention to the group and asked, "Does anybody disagree?" no one did. One participant remembers that Ms. Baird was "quite composed" throughout. "She is one strong woman," that observer said.
A few blocks away, in the White House, Mr. Clinton was managing the first domestic crisis of his new presidency, going from office to office in the West Wing, dealing with the undoing of his historic appointment.
As much of Washington slept, Zoe Baird took up a yellow legal pad and wrote in longhand the letter that she had been destined to write for many hours, perhaps days, possibly weeks.
And, at one minute before 1 a.m., news wires flashed out a message that the White House would have a statement. Exactly 29 minutes later, Ms. Baird's 29-day journey toward the Clinton Cabinet was over.