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Foster Latest Victim Of Labeling Process Politics Take Precedence Over Qualifications

Tue., May 2, 1995, midnight

It has become Washington’s word-association game, simple, brutal, effective, destructive:

Zoe Baird - illegal nanny.

Lani Guinier - quota queen.

Robert Bork - extremist.

Douglas Ginsburg - pot smoker.

Clarence Thomas - sexual harasser.

John Tower - drinker, womanizer.

And now, the newest recipient of a damaging label, Henry Foster - abortionist.

His nomination for surgeon general, incubating since February, will be explored by a Senate committee today.

Maybe there was a time when presidential nominees for high public office were judged merely on whether they were competent to do the job.

Now, nominees are made into symbols and are fought over for political advantage. Sometimes, their qualifications enter the debate. Sometimes, qualifications have nothing to do with it; the nominees are turned into targets of opportunity.

In the debate over Foster’s nomination, his critics don’t talk about whether he can fulfill the responsibilities of surgeon general but whether an obstetrician-gynecologist should be held to account for the abortions he has performed.

Of course, it doesn’t help that the Clinton White House mangled the nomination, finding itself caught unaware with each new set of questions about Foster’s past.

“The poor guy has been wrapped around this ideological dispute; he is the abortion vote of 1995,” says Tom Korologos, a lobbyist who says he has shepherded at least 100 nominees through the confirmation process on behalf of Republican administrations.

That’s the way the liberals made it, and that’s the way it is going to be from now on, says Constance Horner, who was personnel director in George Bush’s White House.

“When you’re in the middle of a culture war, which side the soldier enlists on matters a lot,” says Horner, now a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution.

And it doesn’t matter that the Foster confirmation battle is over a post that has little policy-making importance; its chief responsibility seems to consist of proselytizing on health issues.

Chase Untermeyer, who was Horner’s predecessor in the Bush White House personnel office, says fights over a minor nomination can affect an administration’s choices for major posts. He cites Clinton’s nominations of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer to the Supreme Court.

“Bill Clinton has named two of the most Republican Democrats to the Supreme Court while he hungered, so far as we know, to put a Mario Cuomo or a George Mitchell on the court,” Untermeyer said. “I conclude that the fact that we have justices Breyer and Ginsburg is the price the Democrats have had to pay for what they did to Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas.”

The Senate had rejected only eight Cabinet nominees in its history before 1989, when it turned down Bush’s nomination of John Tower for secretary of defense on the grounds that his personal behavior made him unfit to serve.

The prevailing attitude used to be that a president was entitled to latitude in selecting his own team. Supreme Court nominations, because they are for life, have been held to a higher standard; about a fifth of all nominees have been rejected.

The process took a turn toward the brutal when the Senate rejected Ronald Reagan’s Supreme Court nomination of Robert C. Bork. Bork’s last name became a verb.

“‘To Bork,”’ says former Sen. John C. Danforth, R-Mo., “meant the relentless effort by interest groups to wage a political campaign against a nominee, creating a grotesque image of the person in order to build public pressure by alarmed constituents.”

Fifteen days after Bork’s rejection, Douglas Ginsburg, nominated for the same vacancy, withdrew following the disclosure that he had smoked marijuana while a teacher at Harvard. That’s about all the country got to learn about him.

Clarence Thomas survived his nomination process - but not unscathed. Thomas was accused by a former colleague, Anita Hill, of sexual harassment in sensational, nationally televised hearings.

Clinton’s first nominee for attorney general, Zoe Baird, withdrew after the disclosure that she had employed illegal aliens in her home.

His second choice, federal Judge Kimba Wood, withdrew even though opponents acknowledged that her employment of an undocumented worker was not illegal at the time it had occurred. That didn’t matter; Wood had “a Zoe Baird problem,” opponents said, and the label was enough to cause Wood to ask to be withdrawn from consideration.

Lani Guinier’s ideas were what did her in. Nominated as civil rights chief in the Justice Department, Guinier was withdrawn by Clinton before she had a chance to answer her critics. She was done in by a label - “quota queen” - applied by conservatives who said she would subvert the democratic process to win advantages for minorities.

Politicizing the nomination process has had two consequences, says George C. Edwards III, director of the Center for Presidential Studies at Texas A&M; University: Presidents are tempted to select “the safe, the bland, the non-controversial,” and highly qualified people shun going to work for their government.

“How many people are going to want to take a job after a lifetime of good works and professional accomplishment when the reward is to be savaged in the confirmation process?” Edwards asked.

If it’s any consolation, the message to Henry Foster - as to so many other nominees who have suffered through the process - is this: nothing personal.

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