St. Linda’s Passion

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, 2000Gore’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, 1998Bill 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