Clinton's First Big Setback


Perhaps never in American history has a brand new administration taken so quick a rabbit punch: the forced withdrawal of Zoe Baird as attorney general at the end of President Clinton's first full day in office. Mr. Clinton took "full responsibility" for the failure of his transition team to realize the full implications of having an admitted scofflaw as the nation's top law-enforcement officer. He is a politician adept at cutting his losses, of bouncing back from bad situations, and he will need all his talents to handle this one.

If it is any comfort for the new president, he at least shed the Baird imbroglio early on, thus avoiding a protracted Senate confirmation battle that would have distracted public attention from more pressing priorities. George Bush's first two months in office were hobbled by internecine warfare in the Senate that led to the rejection of former Sen. John Tower as secretary of Defense. Yet after Mr. Bush regrouped with the nomination of the non-controversial Dick Cheney for the Pentagon top spot, the controversy vanished in short order.

What differentiates Zoe Baird from John Tower is her symbolism. The late senator from Texas was just another male hawk on the Washington scene with a reputation for drinking and womanizing. Ms. Baird, in contrast, is part of a feminist generation (as is First Lady Hillary Clinton) that has pushed into the top levels of corporate, professional and political life. In her new role, she was the first Cabinet appointee ever with a pre-school child needing a nanny. That the attorney general-designate decided to hire a Peruvian couple who came to this country illegally and to skip paying their Social Security taxes proved her undoing.

In the Tower case, senators would not have rejected one of their own if they were not sorely troubled by conflicts of interest and personal failings in Mr. Tower's background.

This time the initial inclination of most senators was to give their approval to Ms. Baird, a corporate lawyer qualified to be, in her words, "a great attorney general." But the Washington Establishment, which now includes elitist Baby Boomers in huge numbers, failed (as did President Clinton) to see that the Baird nomination was preeminently a class issue. Senate switchboards were inundated by citizens outraged that a couple with a combined income of more than $600,000 a year dabbled in the underground cash economy.

And so, with wet fingers aloft to test the political winds, senators shifted massively against Mr. Baird. The Clinton White House, aghast at an unforeseen crisis that punctured its inaugural high, buckled visibility. Soon the word was out and Ms. Baird's withdrawal was in.

We are saddened by this turn of events, not least because it reinforces the impression that President Clinton is a man who can be rolled. We believe he is made of tougher stuff. One of these days he will have to prove it to all those vultures along the Potomac with an instinct for blood and weakness.

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