By Her Enemies You May Know Her
October 1, 2002
By Harry Stein
"Why was I so acerbic?" Linda Chavez asked herself a couple of years back, reflecting on the articles on politics and social policy written over her career. "Why did I have to take on so many controversial topics? Why hadn't I pulled my punches, at least occasionally?"
One can understand her concern. As we learn in "An Unlikely Conservative," (Basic Books, 262 pages, $26) this moment of self-questioning came in the early stages of a vetting process that would result in her nomination as George W. Bush's labor secretary -- and in her rapid withdrawal. Ms. Chavez was keenly aware at the time that everything in her record would be used as ammunition by her enemies, and indeed it was.
But concern is not regret. When Ms. Chavez calls herself "the most hated Hispanic in America," as she does in her memoir's subtitle, she wears the designation with pride; for it has been earned, at much personal cost, in her brutal battles with the champions of identity politics.
Surprisingly, in this insider's account, it is not so much her liberal antagonists who leave one feeling frustrated as the legion of accommodationist conservatives who are unwilling to do the right thing (e.g., speak out against quotas) for fear of being branded racist -- who pull their punches as a kind of reflex.
Ms. Chavez never does, and as she tells it in this book, her personal experience has much to do with this. Half-Anglo and half-Hispanic, she has forebears on her father's side who lived in what is now New Mexico a century before the American Revolution. But by the time she was born the family had fallen on hard times: Her father suffered from alcoholism, and financial insecurity dogged the family. Her coming through it all is a Horatio Alger tale.
By dint of both class and family tradition, Ms. Chavez started her adult life as a Democrat and liberal. Even so, as the first college graduate in her family, she was startled by the readiness of so many well-intentioned people to gut standards and forsake a color-blind ideal in the name of affirmative action.
One episode was a particular eye-opener. At 22, already married, with an infant son, and trying to figure out how she'd pay for a longed-for doctorate in English literature, Ms. Chavez was thrilled to learn that she was a finalist for a Ford Foundation grant set aside for minorities. But after preparing for the pivotal interview by boning up on her subject, she found herself before a panel that rejected her as unacceptably competent. Her circumstances were desperate enough to merit assistance, but her English was too fluent, and she'd scored too well on her GREs. As she grimly concludes: "I hadn't lived up to their image of what a disadvantaged Mexican American looked, sounded or behaved like."
There was worse to come. Teaching a course in Chicano literature at UCLA -- set up by administrators bullied by campus militants -- she tried to maintain standards in a classroom of angry and unprepared beneficiaries of ethnic preferences. But few even pretended to do the work. She soon faced a class revolt and found herself the target of student thugs who one night ripped open the seat of her car and filled it with excrement.
"I knew," she states, "that I could not continue teaching in an environment that rewarded ignorance," a place "better suited to political indoctrination than genuine learning." Meanwhile the students "blamed racism for all their problems and would never consider that their own behavior might be partly to blame."
Still, it was a while before she could identify herself as a conservative. She moved to Washington in the early 1970s and worked for a liberal congressman, the Democratic National Committee and even the National Education Association. Increasingly put off by the condescension of those who presented themselves as the best friends of minorities, she finally made her break only in 1980, pulling the lever for Ronald Reagan.
A pivotal figure in this shift was Albert Shanker, the head of the United Federation of Teachers. Though a solid union man and a Democrat, Shanker was a dogged proponent of standards. When he gave Ms. Chavez control of the American Educator, the UFT's publication, she built it into a platform for conservative thought, taking on not just affirmative action but bilingualism and the educational trend called "values clarification."
In due course she emerged as a public figure in her own right, serving on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and seeking to move it beyond the familiar formula of minority victimization and white guilt. Naturally, she made enemies along the way. When she ran for the Senate in 1986, in Maryland, a writer for the Baltimore Sun called her "Cruella de Vil," and she was portrayed in the press as having sold out to the country-club set.
There was no reason to expect better treatment when she was nominated for labor secretary. But she had campaigned hard for post and had every reason to hope that it would cap her career.
But it was not to be. When it was discovered that an illegal alien had lived with her family, Ms. Chavez was duly "borked." Alas, her account of this episode is less persuasive than it might have been. Even accepting her claim that she had taken the woman into her home as an act of compassion, and had violated no law, there is no way to put a positive spin on her conscious choice not to mention the matter to Bush vetters asking point-blank if there was anything in her past that might prove worrisome.
Still, this book leaves one disappointed she didn't get the job, for she would surely have done much good. Even with Republicans in the White House and controlling the House, she notes in her epilogue, racial preferences and bilingual education have stayed firmly in place. "Indeed, the Bush administration early on gave every indication that it would retain the status quo on both."
In a world where such faint-heartedness is the norm, it's a safe bet that Ms. Chavez would have made a fight of it.
Mr. Stein, a contributing editor of the City Journal, is the author of "How I Accidentally Joined the Right-Wing Conspiracy (And Found Inner Peace)."
©2002 The Wall Street Journal