Clouds over confirmations

It's Nannygate time again in the presidential transition, the time when nominees for high office find themselves preoccupied more with defending small missteps than big policies.

In 1993, President Clinton's successive nominations of Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood for attorney general went down over matters of employing illegal aliens and not paying Social Security taxes. Then retired Adm. Bobby Ray Inman, nominated for Defense secretary, bowed out over what he called a "Nannygate problem" of Social Security taxes.

Back then Linda Chavez said, on the PBS Newshour, that Americans were "upset" about Baird employing an illegal alien. So, it seemed ironic when Chavez, nominee for secretary of Labor, found herself in trouble over a Guatemalan illegal immigrant who had done chores in her house.

Superficially a parallel problem, but actually Chavez's problem was much different. She had been less than forthcoming about the Guatemalan woman with the Bush transition team and, more perilously, with the FBI. Chavez withdrew her nomination on Tuesday, complaining of "the politics of personal destruction." But as former President Nixon and President Clinton might have told her, she was practicing the politics of personal destruction. It was Nixon who said, after the Alger Hiss spy case, that the cover-up is more dangerous than the original act.

No other Bush nominee, as far as is currently known, has a personal problem in the order of Chavez's. But other cabinet nominees have things to explain.

Secretary of State-designate Colin Powell has to explain a fee, reported to be $80,000, from a billionaire Lebanese official for a speech on the Middle East at Tufts University five days before the election, when Powell had already indicated he would join a Bush Cabinet.

And Defense Secretary-designate Donald Rumsfeld is explaining why he responded only with "That's right" and "That's for sure" in a taped conservation in 1971 with President Nixon, who described black Africans as being "basically just out of the trees." Rumsfeld said through a spokesman that he had meant only to acknowledge Nixon's remarks, not to agree with them.

These are the kinds of matters, like membership in segregated country clubs or investments suggesting possible conflict of interest, that more and more often bubble up from the past to becloud the confirmation process.

Such personal issues may serve as distractions from issues of greater substance, such as those facing nominees John Ashcroft for Justice and Gale Norton for Interior. But in a time of intense scrutiny of personal traits and behavior, they are sure to absorb the confirmation committees and the public.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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