The Basement Tapes

For Linda Chavez, the devil was in the details.

If only Linda Chavez had spoken more than English only, she might still be George W. Bush's nominee for Secretary of Labor.

If only Chavez had spoken Spanish, for example, she might have understood immediately that her new pet charity back in the early '90s, Marta Mercado, was in the country illegally from Guatemala -- and that by housing Mercado in her basement, giving her odd jobs and occasionally throwing money at her, Chavez could be in violation of both INS and labor laws.

If only.

But Linda Chavez didn't want to speak Spanish, and she didn't want to understand Mercado's status in this country (how different is the pronunciation of legal from the English, anyway?). She wanted to have her clothes ironed and her house cleaned, and still become Secretary of Labor.

Her hypocrisy loses nothing in the translation.

"In folklore, there are many trampa -- caught in one's own trap -- stories," says cantadora and psychoanalyst Clarissa Pinkola Estes, "where the antagonist admonishes or punishes others, but in the end is caught doing the same or worse. Once caught, the character tries to talk their way out of trouble but usually digs themselves deeper instead. When such 'spin' goes on in their story, when the character's stories conflict, when his or her stories keep changing, we say, 'Son muchos los diablos y poco la agua bendita' -- Look! There are too many devils loose and not enough holy water to go around!

"This means only God knows the real story and that a person digging pits for others to fall into ought to be careful how deep they dig...for they are likely to fall in themselves and disappear."

Minutes after Bush announced Chavez's nomination on January 2, critics started complaining -- particularly in Colorado, and especially among Hispanics. Although she was a Chicano activist in her University of Colorado days, Chavez took a right turn almost immediately after, and she's continued in that direction ever since -- first as staff director for the U.S. Civil Rights Commission under President Ronald Reagan, then as a champion of the Official English movement, then as president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a Washington, D.C., policy group.

But Chavez was not forced to bow out because of her archaic positions on labor (she opposes the minimum wage) or affirmative action (having benefited from it, she's against it) or discrimination laws (too restrictive for employers) or the English language (it rules!). And while Chavez's syndicated columns -- which appear in the Denver Post, as well as in numerous other papers that need to fill their conservative Hispanic female quota -- would have provided plenty of delicious fodder during her Senate confirmation hearings, she won't get the chance to eat her words. Her work on Official English cost her a speaking engagement at the University of Colorado a decade ago -- she showed up anyway, and waved the U.S. Constitution at students -- but it didn't cost her the Cabinet position.

On Tuesday afternoon -- two days after the Mercado story first broke, just one day after Bush said he was "confident" about his nominee, and hours after Republican leaders suggested quite the opposite -- Chavez withdrew her name from consideration. "I believe I would have made a great Secretary of Labor," she announced, "but I have decided that I am becoming a distraction."

And clearly becoming distracted, too, since Chavez's version of the story kept changing. In the early '90s, Mercado -- "a battered woman," Chavez says -- had been introduced to her by a friend. She gave Mercado a bed in the basement of her Maryland home, gave her some duties, gave her some money. At first Chavez told reporters that she didn't know Mercado was in the country illegally -- Chavez doesn't speak Spanish, remember? But on Tuesday, Chavez acknowledged that she'd indeed been aware of Mercado's status. And it's illegal to house an illegal alien, much less hire one.

Chavez announced her withdrawal against a backdrop of people she'd helped in the past, including three immigrants -- two Hispanic women and a Vietnamese -- who told the press of how Chavez had aided them when they first came to this country. Helping Mercado was another act of charity, she said. "Knowing everything that has happened over the last week, if that woman showed up at my door...I would do it in an instant, without hesitation," Chavez said.

But she still wasn't ready to take responsibility for violating the same laws that had torpedoed Cabinet nominations before -- including that of Zoe Baird, Clinton's short-lived pick for attorney general, whose two illegal-alien housekeepers became an issue eight years ago. That was back when Mercado was living at Chavez's home. "I think most of the American people were upset during the Zoe Baird nomination that she hired an illegal alien," Chavez said during a 1993 PBS interview. (Mercado moved out of her home late that year.) "That was what upset them more than the fact that she did not pay Social Security taxes."

Strong words for a future Secretary of Labor nominee.

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