fEditor’s note: This book review appeared in the October 28, 2002, issue of National Review.
An Unlikely Conservative: The Transformation of an Ex-Liberal (Or How I Became the Most Hated Hispanic in America), by Linda Chavez (Basic, 262 pp., $26)
The high point of Linda Chavez’s career came when George W. Bush asked her to be labor secretary; the low point came when she was forced to withdraw. Did something good come out of this rotten experience? Yes, this memoir, this autobiography, that Chavez has now written. It is a brilliant, provocative, and moving book, a blend of the personal — often very personal — and the political. Chavez has led a rich, remarkable life; she has thought about it well; and she expresses what she has concluded from it beautifully.
So, what happened, in that nomination mess? A refresher: Chavez had “harbored an illegal alien” and failed to tell the Bush transition team about it in a timely fashion. Harbored an illegal alien: That was the absurd phrase used about Chavez, as though she had committed a low-down act. What she had done was take into her home a helpless, battered Guatemalan refugee named Marta — giving her money, helping her find work, helping her learn English, and so on. She had done this — and would do this — for many helpless people, mainly immigrants. Chavez, all her life, has been a do-gooder: a real do-gooder, not the kind that merely advocates a government program.
Chavez remarks — somewhat bitterly but truly — that Christine Todd Whitman, Bush’s choice for EPA administrator, went through unscathed, despite the fact that she had hired two illegal aliens in the 1990s and paid no taxes on them. Whitman got a pass because she was a Great Republican Moderate; Chavez, though, in a career of laying it on the line, had accumulated many, many enemies, who resented that a poor Mexican-American girl could rise through social-democratic, civil-rights, and union ranks to become an extraordinarily effective Reagan conservative. She was no bloodless, innocuous Republican from horse country.
Chavez writes that, once she lost the cabinet job in a cloud of ignominy, her reputation was “shattered.” Only among those, surely, whose respect is not worth having to begin with.
Linda Chavez is one of the Most Valuable Players of the American Right. But what a curious word to use: “Right.” That she is considered a right-winger points to the bizarreness of contemporary American politics: She is an old- fashioned liberal who believes in equal opportunity, equal justice, and bright American idealism. She is particularly effective against the Left, including the radicalized Democratic party, because she has lived and worked among them. She knows their arguments, she knows their tactics, and she is gloriously unafraid of them. Chavez has much in common with Thomas Sowell, Peter Collier, David Horowitz, and Ward Connerly — more MVPs.
She was born into a chaos of a family in Albuquerque, N.M. Her mother was a “blue-eyed natural blonde with skin the color of alabaster”; her father was a handsome, semi-itinerant, and unfortunately alcoholic Mexican-American. Young Linda had several half-siblings, and an assortment of aunts, uncles, grandparents, and others. She writes, “My family seemed a strange hybrid of partial connections and incomplete bonds, with children sent away on a whim.” Death was all around, too, including young death: Linda lost a brother and a sister early. This was a hardscrabble, unsettling existence in the hot West.
In time, the family moved to Denver, and there Linda had her first taste of discrimination: A neighbor boy informed her that his mother had said, “I’m not supposed to play with Mes’cans.” Later on, a boy failed to ask her to the prom because his father would not permit such mixed dating (“an odd prejudice for an Italian, especially one whose skin was much darker than mine”). But Linda never thought of herself as “ethnic,” and her father would “bristle” upon hearing the word “Chicano.” “Hispanic” was similarly ludicrous. One day, a teacher asked Linda, “What nationality are you?” When she told her mother about this, she said, “I hope you said ‘American.’” She had.
In high school, Chavez joined Student CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality) and marched in civil-rights protests. She was interested in real civil rights — that is, true equality and justice, not the baloney that would later come in the guise of civil rights, such as affirmative action and “comparable worth.” Although bookish and curious, she did not plan to go to college, but thought she might make a respectable living in a department store. She quickly landed a job as a model, having won a competition.
But then she met the young man who would become her husband, Chris Gersten. This seems an extraordinary love story, which is told throughout the book. On their first date, he informed her that he was “an atheist and a socialist.” Writes Chavez, “I’m not sure which identification shocked me more.” Chris encouraged her to go to college, and the two of them went together — to the University of Colorado, in Boulder. They were a happy, energetic pair of Yipsels, which is to say, devotees of the Young People’s Socialist League. Linda, like many of the Yipsels, was never a true radical, however: She never despised America, she was appalled at Black Power and Brown Power (the “Hispanic” version), and she had little use for the anti-war movement. “I had grown up with tremendous respect for the military,” she writes. “I believed that our soldiers fighting in Vietnam were heroes. The protesters, on the other hand, seemed dirty, disrespectful, and unpatriotic.”
In these pages, the ’60s and ’70s come back, vividly: the drugs, the dress, the music, the ideology, the conformity, the intimidation — all of it. Chavez was an earnest social democrat perpetually trying to do good, to lift up those who were struggling: yet, in her various organizations and institutions, she was always shoved out, or bullied, by the extremists. In college and graduate school, she saw firsthand the degrading effects of affirmative action and “ethnic studies,” with its ghettoization. And then there was the violence: always the violence. This book, rather shockingly, is filled with violence, as the author makes her way through academia and politics: a dead cat on her doorstep; a knife flicked in her face; excrement dumped in her car; death threats over her phone; objects — including coconuts (brown on the outside, white on the inside) — thrown at her; hate-twisted mobs baying for her blood. It is useful to be reminded, now and then, that the Left was not only wrong, but dangerous. And I say “was” to be polite.
In 1971, Chavez moved to Washington, D.C., where she began a rapid and inevitable ascent. She seems to have held every job imaginable. Often, she was given these jobs because she was a “Hispanic” and a woman — a “two-fer,” as she says. It did her no harm that she was beautiful, too. But she was also fearsomely competent. She worked for the Democratic National Committee, the House Judiciary Committee, the Department of HEW (remember that?), the National Education Association — everywhere. Eventually, she ended up at Al Shanker’s American Federation of Teachers, where she edited a journal called American Educator. Under her direction, it became a “neocon” outlet, publishing Bill Bennett, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Bob Bork, and others. In her telling, her views did not change dramatically: She was always a foe of discrimination, insistent on color-blindness. Only this had become a “right-wing” position.
It is true, however, that she left any socialism far behind: In reading Adam Smith, she found the thinker she describes as her “soul mate.” (Her husband, Chris, became a free-marketeer too.)
By the early 1980s, she was able to cross all the way over into the Reagan administration. Chavez served as staff director of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, where she swam with Mary Frances Berry and other barracudas. Then she went into Donald Regan’s White House (as it seemed to be, for a while) — there were a few barracudas there, too. In 1986, she even ran for office, losing a Maryland Senate seat to Barbara Mikulski, who, absurdly, was able to portray her as some kind of aristocrat.
At every stage, this book engages. The personal and the political constantly intersect. At times, it seems like a cross between Maya Angelou and The Public Interest (and, by the way, when I mention Angelou, it is not in the least disparagingly — she is a master of autobiography). Chavez has a good eye, and memory, for the interesting detail. She knows the folkways of Washington cold. At her disposal is a wealth of first-rate anecdotes: about Reagan, about W., about Maureen Reagan, about Clarence Thomas, about the notoriously lady-lovin’ Strom Thurmond (“‘You’re not all that dark,’ he said, putting his hand next to mine for comparison. I could just see the wheels turning . . .”).
She can write tartly and somewhat vindictively — this is not a cuddly puppy, Linda Chavez — and she can write elegantly, poetically. Hers is an exceptionally frank book, and it is often raw and gritty. Even a reader who objected to its politics would be absorbed by it as autobiography.
No doubt, Chavez would have made an excellent — even exciting — secretary of labor. But it is better to have this book, which rose from the ashes of that failure. After she was named, she endured an experience that was, as she says — echoing Clarence Thomas, in fact — something out of Kafka. Her regard for President Bush is high, but this truth remains: He never called her, when she was at her lowest. He apparently thought himself victimized by her. At exactly this time, however — Chavez does not mention this — he placed a call to his implacable and odious enemy, Jesse Jackson, who was receiving some rare bad press for a “love child.” It was not W.’s finest hour: the non-call in contrast with the call that was made. But who, among the Bushies, was particularly stand-up when it came to Chavez and her straits? No surprise: Donald Rumsfeld.
Chavez entitles her book “An Unlikely Conservative.” But she is smart, principled, clear-eyed, patriotic, compassionate, capable of learning from experience, and very, very brave: not an unlikely conservative at all. Thank goodness the Left is so awful. It has driven so many of the best people to our side.