Zoe in the Year Of the Saxophone

THE nomination of Zoe Baird as attorney general of the United States was unstable from the beginning.

Her hiring of an illegal alien couple from Peru to provide child care, whatever the factors, struck a majority of Americans as simply wrong. They saw Ms. Baird as privileged by education and wealth, and not needing to cut corners on the very laws she was nominated to enforce.

Not all Americans saw it that way.

The difficulties of finding child care, empathy for aliens trying to get a foot in the opportunity door, Baird's point that the infraction should be weighed against her achievements and potential: These mounted a rebuttal in the minds of many Americans, but one that got washed away.

This is the year of the saxophone, Bill Clinton's year.

The saxophone is not usually found in the elite's orchestra. It's a populist instrument. It's what a politician plays on the night talk shows when he appears with dogs walking on their front paws - not an elegant performance, but as Samuel Johnson says, one that is surprising to see at all. Clinton's playing showed him to be a good sport, if not much of a musician, and took him to the fringe of the great rock and jazz performers who supported his campaign.

What Clinton needed to do was to save his administration, not save Zoe Baird. The Justice Department lies at the heart of what Americans perceive as fair. Clinton could not risk a basic political instability in that office.

Clinton is having to act fast on a number of issues to get them behind him as quickly as possible. These include his executive actions on abortion and fetal tissue and on homosexuals in the military. They are contentious issues that will test his staying power.

We have observed the casual "Bill" Clinton: jogger, hugger.

We have yet to see the "Jefferson" Clinton, the leader implicit in his middle name.

We don't really need another Bill, an accepting, "yes" person.

We do need a "no" leader, one who can say: "We won't do that because it's not right."

He gave Zoe Baird no defense. He cut his loss there. Will we now observe unremarked the Peruvian couple's deportation?

Will he risk some give-and-take with the media? Or will he attempt to discipline the access of the press?

Will he maintain Washington's lead in aiding Somalia?

Will he convey a sense of confident strength to Moscow, Beijing, Tokyo, Bonn, Paris? They will be watching his first 100 days for signs of his mettle.

With the passing of former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, a central figure in the achievement of minority rights, an era is closing. What will be the next class of grievances to address? Will it not, ironically, include the new group of immigrants and women in the workplace, represented in the Baird episode?

Clinton's presidency cannot be primarily a corrective one; progress on the deficit, which he did not create, should not be the central test of his success. In the search for revenue resources, he should carefully weigh the impact of a possible energy tax program on the environment, on alternative transportation modes like rails, and on vehicle design.

Clinton will want to back election reforms. Time should be made available for candidates to appear on local television. Spending limits should be imposed, PAC contributions capped.

The ethics of daily business in all branches of government should be reviewed. The House banking scandal. The three-day workweeks of House members. Why doesn't Clinton challenge Congress and the agencies, most particularly the FBI, to a 100-day progress check on ethics reform?

There is a paradox here. Americans accept the fiction of a classless society: equal under the law, not equal in daily conditions. This goes with the paradox of wanting their leaders to be one of them and yet better than them. Clinton could just claim to have heard the populist sound of the saxophone. It said no to Zoe and yes to plain dealing for everyone else.

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