by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

I don’t know what kind of attorney general Zoe Baird would have made. I do know this: The reason we will never find out, the reason she has been bounced out of Washington like a teenager trying to sneak into a bar, is pretty simple. She was rich. And she was cheap.

Oh, people will tell you it’s because she broke the law. They’ll say a candidate for attorney general should know better than to hire illegal aliens to care for her child.

But what really rankles people is that Baird, a corporate lawyer, and her husband, a Yale University law professor, are yuppies. And yet despite their money — a combined salary of $600,000 — they still looked for a bargain. We Americans hate this quality in rich people, even though we use it every day ourselves.

Why do you think callers swamped radio talk shows last week, demanding that Baird withdraw? “Zoe must go-y!” they yelled. Did most of them even know what an attorney general’s job is? Did most of them know what qualifications Baird brought to the position, or what her philosophy of law enforcement was?

Probably not. But they saw a woman with big bucks, living in a rich Connecticut suburb, who hired a foreign couple for cheap when she could have paid more and hired Americans.

And that was that.

Out she goes. Above the law?

Now, I want to say right here that, in my opinion, Baird should not have gotten the job, either. For one thing, I don’t know that being a corporate lawyer for an insurance company is the best training for the highest law official in the land. And besides, an attorney general should be beyond reproach, even by small transgressions.

But let’s look at this illegal aliens thing. First of all, eliminate the term. It makes them sound like they have two heads and come stepping out of a spaceship. Instead of “illegal aliens,” let’s use words such as “nice Peruvian couple.” Or “lovely Irish woman.” Or “wonderful Greek man.”

Starting to sound more familiar?

Now think of how many people employ such foreigners, as housekeepers, yard workers, babysitters, drivers, snow shovelers, handymen or pool workers — without ever asking to see a green card. How many of us even knew it was our responsibility to do so — or that we were breaking the law if we didn’t — until this case came up?

This law, by the way, enacted in 1986, was intended to crack down on companies, not nannies. And anyone who thinks Zoe Baird is the first person to hire undocumented domestic help has never been to New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Dallas or Miami.

And anyone who thinks there are millions of qualified Americans just begging for these jobs had better come out from under his rock, too. The sad fact is, there is a huge shortage of good candidates for child care or housekeeping work, because many “real” Americans feel cleaning diapers and washing plates is beneath them.

It wouldn’t be if the money was right. A question of degree?

Which brings us back to root of this anger. Baird and her husband — private citizens at the time — paid a Peruvian couple $2,000 a month to watch their 3-year-old son and do housework. A pretty cheap wage for two people, no? They said they advertised the position but found no willing American candidates.

Had Zoe Baird offered $5,000 a month, she would have found some. And she might be attorney general today. But why should she do that, when her neighbors pay less? Isn’t that how our economy works? Follow the market? Would you have paid more?

Now, ask yourself this: If Zoe Baird had been a single mother, working in the public defender’s office, would people have been as upset with her for hiring the cheapest help to watch her son? Probably not. Many would have rallied to her side, saying she exemplifies the pressures on working mothers.

But you know what?

She still would have broken the law.

So it becomes a question of degree, doesn’t it? Some say the worst crime Baird committed was not paying the Social Security taxes due the couple — until after her nomination. But are we to believe she is the only one in Washington to cheat on her taxes?

And isn’t it interesting that there was little initial opposition to Baird by our lawmakers — until their offices were swamped with calls from eligible voters? Then suddenly, Baird was Public Enemy No. 1.

This is how America works. We get hot and bothered, someone takes a fall. And so Baird, the first female would-have-been attorney general, is outta here. Maybe it’s the best thing. Maybe not. But as the smoke clears, and we look back years from now, we still may need to answer: Is it what she did — or that she was rich and still did it — that bothered us most?


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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