St. Linda's Passion
  By Timothy Noah

At the press conference announcing her withdrawal from consideration for labor secretary, Linda
Chavez presented various people who testified to her lifelong habit of helping others; she complained
about the Washington "game of search and destroy"; and she chided the press for distorting her
relationship with Marta Mercado, the illegal immigrant from Guatemala who lived with her for two
years during the early 1990s. Asked if she had made any mistakes, Chavez answered, "I made the
mistake of not thinking through that this might be misinterpreted." Then why was she withdrawing?
Because "I am becoming a distraction."

But why was she a distraction? Because she had lied about her relationship with Mercado. The
closest Chavez came to admitting this at the press conference was when she said, "I did not
volunteer" to the Bush administration that she'd once harbored an illegal alien. (To her credit, Chavez
owned up to having always had a strong hunch Mercado "was here illegally.") Amazingly, Chavez
managed to get out of the press conference without having to substantiate her claim that the
housework Mercado did for her (Mercado now attests that it was fairly extensive) did not constitute
labor, hence did not require Chavez to pay Social Security taxes in addition to the several thousand
dollars she provided Mercado in cash, room, and board. Chavez also successfully avoided answering
her neighbor Margaret Zwisler's accusation (attributed in the Jan. 9 Wall Street Journal to "those
familiar with Ms. Zwisler's version") that Chavez had told her she "didn't plan to raise the subject of
Ms. Mercado" with FBI investigators.

Apparently, Mercado really did enter Chavez's life as someone to help. The people who referred
Mercado to Chavez initially were Peter Skerry, a political scientist who specializes in the study of
identity politics, and his wife Martha Bayles, a journalist and critic. They are friends with Chavez (and
also--full disclosure--with Chatterbox; Chatterbox has never met Chavez, however). Skerry and
Bayles had a housekeeper who had a friend from Guatemala who was staying with her. The
friend--Mercado--allegedly had an abusive alcoholic husband in Guatemala and was in a bad way.
The housekeeper had kids of her own and couldn't put her friend up forever. "I knew she had a big
house, and I knew she had taken people in," Skerry told Chatterbox. Also, "Linda was savvy, and
she would know her way around either social service agencies or the bureaucracy. She sort of got
things done." Chavez agreed to put Mercado up.

Clearly, though, the helping hand Chavez offered evolved into some sort of employer-employee
relationship. That isn't so awful, either. Paying housekeepers under the table was a dicey but still fairly
routine practice within Washington's political community until its illegality became the basis for
withdrawing Zoe Baird's nomination for attorney general in 1993. If Chavez had straightforwardly
said, "Look, I broke the law way back when everyone else did, and I'm sorry, but I straightened up
my act after the Baird affair when the whole country was forced to learn what the law was and to
consider the moral consequences of breaking it," she probably could have defused the situation. (This
is especially true when one considers that the relationship grew out of an act of undeniable generosity
on Chavez's part.) Instead, Chavez maintained, dishonestly, that Mercado had been just a houseguest.

Chatterbox hesitates to make too much of Chavez's lie given her withdrawal today. But Chavez's air
of persecution about the whole affair is another lie, one that should be answered. What's more, the
evil of mendacity is too prominent a theme in Chavez's column for Chavez's own lapse to be ignored.
To wit:

     The problem is the president lied, as he has on so many important occasions in
     the past. But this time, it was not a little lie, not some prevarication about his
     sexual peccadilloes, nor even perjury in a civil court--all of which we've come to
     expect from this mendacious man. No, this was a big lie. A lie from beginning to
     end. A lie repeated over and over again ...
     --"Our Liar in Chief," April 25, 2000

     Gore's problem isn't so much what he did, but what he said. He lied--over and
     over again--to investigators, to the media, to the American people.
     --"It's the Lying, Stupid," March 17, 2000

     [B]eing believable and being truthful are two different things. Bill Clinton has
     mastered the art of believability, which is what makes him such a dangerous liar.
     --"Believable and Truthful Are Two Different Things," Sept. 23, 1998

     [Clinton's] approval ratings still hover in the 60 percent range, even as
     two-thirds of Americans say they don't believe the president is telling the truth
     about his relationship with Lewinsky. But like a patient who may not want to
     know that cancer is eating away at his body, the American public can't afford to
     avoid the truth indefinitely.
     --"When Truth Is of the Highest Odor," Aug. 4, 1998

     Bill Clinton has led a charmed life, fooling most of the people--including, I
     believe, himself--most of the time. But it can't go on forever.
     --"Sometimes Bubba Actually Tells the Truth ... As He Sees It," May 20, 1998

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