Symbol of Justice

ZOE BAIRD'S withdrawal as President Clinton's nominee for US attorney general was, in the end, based on politics - an art of leading and governing that is driven as much by symbols as by substance.

In this case, two very powerful symbols clashed: that of a woman bursting through a "glass ceiling" to sit in one of the highest seats of national authority; and that of the office of attorney general itself as the country's top law-enforcement position.

How, many asked, could someone who knowingly broke the law effectively lead a department established to enforce it?

The public outcry served as a sharp reminder to Mr. Clinton, Ms. Baird, and senators that the symbolism inherent in the office is at least as important as, and certainly more fragile than, her own place there. During the last dozen years, the Justice Department has become a target for accusations of mishandling investigations into several major scandals.

In her letter of withdrawal to President Clinton, Baird wrote: "I am surprised at the extent of the public reaction, but face the reality that this situation affects my ability to achieve the goals we both have for the Justice Department."

Her surprise at the public's reaction is hard to understand.

Two themes in the 1992 campaign, sounded from Clinton on down the ticket, were the need for government reform and for elected officials to play by the rules.

As the president rightly points out, he and his transition team bear responsibility for not more rigorously probing her violation and for not anticipating its impact.

For her part, Baird has paid a high professional price for what by her own admission was a clear, knowing violation of US immigration law: hiring a Peruvian couple, in the US illegally, to care for her child and to drive her to and from work.

If this failed nomination alerts the Clinton administration to the need for better scrutiny of private and public actions of all who work in it, it will have served a purpose.

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