WASHINGTON, Jan. 9 — President-elect George W. Bush won praise in recent
the speed with which he assembled an ethnically diverse and ideologically cohesive cabinet of
well-tested administrators and politicians.
But Mr. Bush found out today that speed can kill — in this case the
nomination of a committed
conservative, Linda Chavez, who broke the unwritten rules of Washington by failing to disclose all
during a hasty vetting process.
It was a setback, one that a senior Bush aide characterized tonight as "more embarrassing than damaging."
But for Mr. Bush, the risk is that the speed with which Ms. Chavez was
abandoned could embolden
Democrats, unions and environmentalists with other nominees in their sights, particularly John Ashcroft,
the religious conservative attorney general- designate, and Gale A. Norton, Mr. Bush's choice to run
the Interior Department.
Ms. Chavez drew fire for her political views, including her opposition
to affirmative action, to the
Family and Medical Leave Act, and to raising the minimum wage. But the way Washington works,
nominees for cabinet jobs are rarely rejected for ideology alone (though subcabinet officials are often
fair game). Presidents have traditionally been given enormous latitude in surrounding themselves with
top advisers to their ideological liking.
So what killed off Ms. Chavez's prospects — in a remarkably quick 48
hours — was a misstep in her
private life. She cast her decision nearly a decade ago to give shelter and some modest financial aid to
an illegal immigrant as an act of compassion for a Guatemalan woman in trouble, and said that if she
had to do it all over again, she would.
But Ms. Chavez compounded her own troubles by failing to mention her
aid to the woman to Mr.
Bush's vetting team, and then by apparently trying to hide the details from F.B.I. investigators. That
gave her opponents exactly the weapon they had been searching for.
"The toxic combination in Washington is a strong ideological position
that creates a lot of hostility and a
personal mistake," said Paul C. Light, the vice president for governmental studies at the Brookings
Institution who is directing a study of presidential appointments.
Bush officials, said one Republican close to the transition office here,
were enraged when they learned
that Ms. Chavez had withheld potentially damaging information.
And hour by hour, it seemed, they grew more tepid in their support for
her nomination. They moved
from Mr. Bush's less-than-confident- sounding statement on Monday that she would ultimately be
confirmed by the Senate to a comment this morning from Ari Fleischer, Mr. Bush's spokesman, that
"we are seeking to develop information" about when Ms. Chavez discovered she was aiding an illegal
By the time Ms. Chavez appeared on television this afternoon, she was
accompanied by other
immigrants she has helped who spoke up for her. But no officials of the Bush transition office took the
stage in her defense at her news conference.
It did not help Ms. Chavez's cause that she was not a member of Mr.
Bush's inner circle, where the
ties of loyalty presumably would have led to a vigorous fight in her defense.
"It became clear to everyone that she was not salvageable," the Republican
official said. "Fortunately, it
was also clear to her."
When asked if Ms. Chavez's quick decision to drop out was in response
to pressure from his team,
Mr. Bush, arriving at Andrews Air Force Base after a flight from Texas, responded, "No, she made the
The alacrity of her departure was seen as a blessing by Mr. Bush's aides:
After all, Zoë Baird,
President Clinton's first choice for attorney general in 1993, lasted for eight days between revelation
and surrender. Ms. Baird had once hired an illegal immigrant and failed to pay Social Security taxes for
the employee; among her many critics at the time was Ms. Chavez.
Today, Ms. Chavez said that she now thought "Zoë Baird was treated
unfairly" even while she tried to
distinguish the nature of Ms. Baird's relationship with an illegal immigrant from her own.
But the question here this evening was whether Ms. Chavez's decision
would relieve pressure on Mr.
Bush's other nominees, or only increase it.
"Does our political base say `We got one!' or does it say `That was
spring training, and now it's on to
the real game'?" asked Rahm Emanuel, a former political operative for President Clinton who has
returned to private life in Chicago, but still keeps his hand in Democratic politics.
"I think they conclude this was spring training," he said.
One Democratic senator agreed. "I think this puts a lot more pressure
on Ashcroft," he said. "Senators
who say that the president deserves a presumption to get people he wants into his administration may
have voted against one" nominee for the cabinet, he said, "but not two."
Absent more surprise revelations about the private lives of other nominees,
Mr. Bush's advisers expect
that even the most controversial of his picks should fall under the ideology rule — and, after a sufficient
grilling, win the Senate's approval.
That assumes that the rules are not shifting. They may be.
The anger over the Florida recount is still palpable on Capitol Hill,
so palpable that it could make some
Democrats more willing than usual to go after one of Mr. Bush's choices.
Alternately, abortion rights groups, gay and lesbian organizations or
others could try to apply the kind
of pressure on Mr. Bush that conservatives successfully put on Mr. Clinton in June 1993, when he
withdrew his nomination of Lani Guinier to be the civil rights chief in the Justice Department.
That, of course, was not a cabinet post. But Mr. Clinton decided it
was not worth the political price to
stand by an old friend, whose writings, he said, he had not read before nominating her.
In that case the issue was Professor Guinier's writings about race;
in Mr. Ashcroft's case, the questions
focus on his views about civil liberties, judicial nominations, the death penalty and gun control.
So far Mr. Bush has been unwavering in his support, and many senators
say that, as a former senator
himself, Mr. Ashcroft will be given great leeway.
Still, the early exit of Ms. Chavez makes some of Mr. Bush's opponents
wonder whether his team is
willing to stand and fight. They will find out in the next two months.