March 14, 2003
by Ronald Radosh
Linda Chavez, An Unlikely Conservative: The Transformation of an Ex-Liberal, or How I Became the Most Hated Hispanic in America (New York: Basic Books, 2002) 262 pages, $26.00
One of the highlights of Linda Chavez’s life was her nomination by George W. Bush to be his Secretary of Labor. In this fascinating memoir, Chavez tells the story behind her nomination and turbulent withdrawal. But the book is much more than that. Hers is the story of a uniquely American life. Indeed, much more in Linda Chavez’s life was “unlikely” than her embrace of conservatism.
Chavez was born in 1947 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to an Anglo, blond-haired, blue-eyed mother from Wyoming and a father of Mexican descent. Although her father’s ancestors had been one of the politically powerful families that settled New Mexico in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, her father, Rudy Chavez, grew up in poverty and often had problems with alcohol. Consequently, much of Linda’s childhood was chaotic. The family often lived in motels and run-down boarding houses or stayed with relatives. By the time she was in third grade, Chavez had attended six schools. Even worse, during her childhood Chavez’s four siblings disappeared from her life with dismaying regularity and under tragic circumstances.
Chavez first experienced discrimination against Mexicans when the family moved to Denver and the parents of a friend found Chavez to be an unsuitable playmate. Interestingly, she had never thought of herself as Mexican—a term her family reserved for people from “Old Mexico.” If anything, they referred to themselves as Spanish, although no one in the family spoke the language. Her emerging identity as a Hispanic was further shaped by forces growing out of the identity politics of the 1960s.
Chavez graduated from high school with a penchant for reading, a self-described good Catholic girl with ambitions to work at a nine-to-five job in retail, as her mother did. On a fluke, she accompanied a friend who was registering for classes at the University of Colorado at Denver. Chavez decided to register for some classes herself—a decision that would change her life. There, her dance teacher, Rhoda Gersten, took the attractive, reticent girl under her wing. Rhoda, “a middle-aged bohemian” who had danced with Martha Graham in New York City and was married to a prominent Denver doctor, arranged for Linda to meet her son Chris. Although the Gerstens identified themselves as Reformed Jews, Chris was an avowed atheist and socialist, and he introduced Chavez to the Young People’s Socialist League. After a whirlwind romance, they moved to Boulder to attend the university, got married, and had their first child.
Always a hard worker, Chavez proved herself an able student. In addition to her studies and her responsibilities as a wife and mother, she got involved with the United Mexican American Students (UMAS), a group who sought to recruit more Mexican-American students to campus. Chavez convinced the English Department to devote a section of Freshman English for these new recruits who needed some remedial help. Soon, however, more radical elements calling for “Chicano Power” took over UMAS and demanded a separate Chicano curriculum. It was here that Chavez’s disillusionment with identity politics began. She saw students being relegated to academic ghettos where they got away with bad grades and study habits, learned that they were victims, and were left unprepared to succeed in the larger society. Soon after Chavez began to voice these opinions to her students, she found a dead cat on her front stoop and began receiving many other threats as well.
In 1970, Chavez began applying to graduate schools of English. She applied for a newly established Ford Foundation Fellowship for blacks, Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, and American Indians, and was selected as a finalist. The interview was a disaster—when asked why she deserved the fellowship, Chavez described growing up in a working class family in New Mexico and Colorado, working her way through college, and recruiting and helping Mexican-American students at her university. “You speak English so well—do you speak Spanish?” asked one interviewer. The fact that she didn’t—and the fact that her grades and standardized test scores were actually good instead of poor—destroyed any chance Chavez had of becoming a Ford scholar. She simply was not the kind of Hispanic they had in mind. “I was utterly dismayed,” Chavez writes. “Of course I needed their help. Without financial aid there was no way I could attend graduate school. . . . Didn’t my work with UMAS count for anything? Wasn’t I exactly what the Ford Foundation should have been looking for: an economically disadvantaged student who earned good grades, performed well on achievement tests, and had a history of trying to help others? Apparently not.”
Chavez finally got her chance to attend graduate school, at UCLA, but became disillusioned when she found that rather than reading the literature she loved, the focus was on reading literary criticism. It was also here that she found out the truth about affirmative action. Instead of helping disadvantaged blacks, Puerto Ricans, Mexican Americans, and other minorities, the program “enhanced racial and ethnic tensions and animosity and reinforced stereotypes.” Chavez knew that affirmative action programs were “doomed from the start” because they promoted self-pity among their recipients, which served only to make success in life even more elusive. Chavez’s detailed account of how such programs affected her and those she sought to teach is sobering. We can be thankful, however, that her experience of these programs taught Chavez a lesson. She writes, “I knew that I would never teach again, so long as colleges remained in the grip of affirmative action policies.” Academia’s loss was the country’s gain.
Having learned that higher education was not for her, Chavez and her husband moved to Washington, D.C., where they both got jobs with the help of contacts in the social-democratic circles they were then involved in. She initially joined the staff of the House Judiciary Committee, with what later would be called the Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights. But it was the eight years she would spend working with the late Al Shanker at the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), one of the largest AFL-CIO unions, that would prove to be of the greatest importance. Those who expressed shock when Chavez was first nominated to be Secretary of Labor obviously are not taking into account her experiences and work with the AFT.
Chavez’s AFT experience would complete her transformation from a moderate social-democrat to a neoconservative. Although Shanker supported union positions on wages, government spending, and privatization, he also was a foreign policy hawk who vigorously believed in using his union’s resources to fight Communism abroad. Starting as a lobbyist, Chavez eventually found herself editing the union’s publications, most importantly their journal of opinion, The American Educator. Unlike the AFT’s other publication—a traditional union news sheet—the new magazine stressed ideas, and Chavez used it as a vehicle for what were then relatively new assaults on traditional New Deal-Fair Deal liberalism. She brought authors like William Bennett, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, Robert Bork, Thomas Sowell, and others to its pages. Later, of course, many of these writers became household names, but when she first published them, they were little-known intellectuals. What Chavez had done—much to the consternation of many unionists—was to make the AFT publication “a conservative journal of ideas.” In its pages one could read attacks on feminism, the nuclear freeze movement, ethnic studies, and Communism.
As time passed, Chavez realized that she was to the right of virtually everyone else at the AFT, including Shanker. She still had leeway to publish whatever she chose to in her journal, but in other publications she was forced to promote views with which she disagreed, including a special issue of the AFT newspaper endorsing Ted Kennedy for President in 1980. The nomination, as we know, went to Jimmy Carter, and for the first time in her life, Chavez voted Republican—casting her vote for Ronald Reagan. Within a short time, she would leave the AFT to work for the Reagan administration, as chief administrator for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
Today, a fight that was in full fury when Chavez joined the commission continues to rage between its director, Mary Francis Berry, and commission members who, like Linda Chavez, oppose Berry’s ultraliberal agenda. It comes as no surprise, then, to read of Chavez’s bitter, behind-the-scenes conflicts with those who consistently tried to undermine her work and to isolate her so that she would be ineffective. The issue that got her in trouble with the civil rights establishment was the same one that exists today. As she writes in her memoir, “We were all adamantly opposed to racial quotas, and that was enough to make us public enemies.” The debate was not about who favored and who opposed racial discrimination. Rather, it was “whether blacks and other minorities deserved special treatment to make up for past discrimination, even if it meant discriminating against other groups in the process.” That Berry is still at the commission, playing the same racial games as were prevalent decades ago—and that Chavez is now fighting from the outside—says a great deal about the national political scene.
In her present capacity as director of The Center for Equal Opportunity, Chavez carries on the same fight against affirmative action, bilingual education programs in the schools, and racial quotas, and she supports programs that work to guarantee real equal opportunity for minorities.
There is much more of interest in the book. We have the full story of Chavez’s brave and perhaps hopeless 1986 run for the Senate in Maryland; her work in the Reagan White House as director of public liaison; her attempt to oppose radical feminists at an international women’s conference; and her perspective on her doomed appointment as Secretary of Labor in the current Bush administration.
By now, the entire nation knows of how Chavez’s housing of an illegal alien decades ago led to her resignation as the administration’s nominee. Politics in the nation’s capital is a tough business, and the Bush administration cut her no slack, quickly withdrawing their support. Chavez’s account suggests that she received a bum rap, and she certainly establishes that her political and journalistic attackers severely and knowingly distorted the facts in their zeal to destroy her. She was accused, for example, of having criticized President Clinton’s first Attorney General nominee, Zoë Baird, for hiring an illegal alien, which was not the case. Chavez had criticized Baird for her failure to pay Social Security taxes on the employee.
Chavez’s good deed for an immigrant in need of help was transformed into the appearance that she had hired the person, failed to pay Social Security taxes, and exploited her for her own personal use. Chavez attempted to refute these false charges, but to no avail. An incoming administration could not afford such controversy: it was easier to sacrifice Chavez and rescind her appointment before congressional hearings took place.
The Bush administration’s loss turned out to be the public’s gain once again. Having lost what would have been the most important and prominent government job in her career at the time, her move back to public life as a private citizen enabled her to continue her work as a commentator, columnist, and advocate for truly equal opportunity. Ironically, Chavez writes in her epilogue, “Even with Republicans in control of both the White House and the House of Representatives, there was little indication that the federal government would change its policies on racial preferences.” Recently, George W. Bush made known his intervention against the University of Michigan for its racial preferences program. That President Bush has taken such a stance is due in no small part to the years of work and effort made by Linda Chavez. Now out of office, she is as effective a presence as ever. Her book is must reading for anyone interested in why so many thinking Americans have dismissed the old political bromides, and for those who want to know how one person moved from liberalism to conservatism. Chavez pledges to continue to be a thorn in the side of her opponents, and of this we can happily be certain.
Ronald Radosh is an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute; Prof. Emeritus of History at the City University of New York, and the author of many books, including "The Rosenberg File;" "Divided They Fell: The Demise of the Democratic Party, 1964-1996," and most recently, "Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left."
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