An Unlikely Conservative by Linda Chavez
An Unlikely Conservative: The Transformation of an Ex-Liberal
by Linda Chavez
Basic. 255 pp. $26.00
In 1970, the Ford Foundation identified Linda Chavez—then a financially strapped graduate student with a husband (himself in graduate school) and a two-year-old child—as a finalist in a fellowship competition for minority students and flew her to New York for the decisive interview. The fellowship would have let her complete her Ph.D. without working. What Chavez feared, as she sat in the waiting room, was disqualification because of her poor math scores on the Graduate Record Exam. It had not occurred to her that she might be disqualified because her scores were too high. But they were, and she was rejected. What the bureaucrats at the Ford Foundation wanted, it turned out, was another kind of Hispanic: one who was darker-skinned, “educationally disadvantaged,” did not speak English so well, and in general showed no signs of assimilating into the broader culture.
This moment and others like it in Chavez’s immensely readable new memoir do much to explain her steady drift away from liberalism and her eventual embrace of the conservative movement. Chavez’s public career has now spanned twenty years—a Nexis search brings up her name in 219 articles in the New York Times over that period—and has landed her in a wide range of interesting jobs, in almost all of which she has managed to be controversial.
Linda Chavez grew up in Albuquerque and Denver in a household that was recurrently mired in grinding poverty, and with parents whose lives, thanks in large part to her father’s alcoholism, were endlessly chaotic. Neither parent was well educated or thought much of schooling. But despite the disarray in their own lives, both seem to have been instinctive social conservatives. They had very strict ideas about how a young Catholic girl should behave; and when Linda’s father was around, there was hell to pay if she returned late from a school dance. She attended Mass every Sunday and dutifully watched Monsignor Fulton Sheen on television.
Things changed abruptly in Chavez’s post-high-school years, when the dominant influence in her life was a young man named Chris Gersten. As he announced on their first date, he was an atheist, a leftist, and an active member of the Young People’s Socialist League—which also meant he was a fervent anti-Communist. Gersten persuaded her to join him as a student at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and they were soon planning to marry
Chavez’s subsequent revolt against liberal politics took place over several decades, and had several different motifs. One major theme was her dispiriting experience with affirmative action. Like her husband, she had been a fervent supporter of the civil-rights legislation of the 1960’s, and while still an undergraduate at Colorado she volunteered to help find candidates for a new program called United Mexican-American Students. UMAS ended up meeting its quota of 150 students by abandoning all academic standards, in effect taking anyone who applied. The university was clueless about how to handle these new Mexican-American enrollees, who, at constant risk of flunking out, became increasingly alienated, radicalized, and zonked out on drugs.
By the time Chavez left Boulder in 1970, she was persuaded that this effort at “outreach” had been a huge mistake. Her next stint (after failing to win the Ford Foundation fellowship) only deepened the process of disillusionment. Needing financial help to continue work on her Ph.D., she accepted a teaching fellowship at the University of California at Los Angeles, a campus traumatized by waves of violent protests against the Vietnam war and desperate to manifest its good will and sensitivity. UCLA had set up a curriculum in Chicano studies, and Chavez was tapped to teach a class in literature. Her students, she found, were profane, hostile, illiterate, and unwilling to read the sparse collection of works she had assembled. Most of them finally just walked out, but not before they had harassed their diligent teacher and in some cases even threatened her with violence.
It was in the Washington, D.C. of the 1970’s that Chavez finally and unambiguously became a conservative. Her husband had already abandoned an academic career and moved to the capital, and she joined him there without quite knowing what direction her working life would take. After several unsatisfactory jobs—including one at the Democratic National Committee—she finally found an employer she liked: Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Shanker was a man of ideas, many of them indistinguishable—dangerously so, for a union leader—from those of Irving Kristol. Chavez credits him with turning her into a thinking conservative, while also noting that during her eight years at the AFT she herself was gradually moving to the right of her mentor.
And so it happened that in 1980, after dutifully preparing the fall election issue of American Teacher magazine, the AFT’s house organ, which endorsed Jimmy Carter for President, Chavez found herself voting Republican for the first time in her life. So it also happened that, like William J. Bennett, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and other neoconservative ex-Democrats, she ended up working for Ronald Reagan, first as staff director of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, where she succeeded in getting the agency to reject the loony but increasingly popular notion of “comparable worth,” and then as director of public liaison at the White House, where she handled relations with assorted ethnic groups.
A failed campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1986—with characteristic boldness, Chavez had persuaded herself that she could win against the super-liberal Barbara Mikulski of Maryland—was followed by a highly visible term at the head of U.S. English, an organization working for a constitutional amendment to establish English as the country’s official language. Although Chavez’s debates with opponents were often emotionally charged—she even began traveling with a bodyguard—the group’s views prevailed in much-publicized referendums in Colorado, Arizona, and Florida. During the 1990’s she founded an organization of her own, the Center for Equal Opportunity, where she has continued to agitate against separatism, bilingual education, and racial preferences.
The latest and most unfortunate chapter in Chavez’s career is also the best known: in early January 2001, she was named by George W. Bush as his choice to be U.S. Secretary of Labor. As she acknowledges in her memoir, she had acquired a lot of enemies over the years—mostly centered in the labor movement and the world of civil-rights activists—and could not afford any slip-ups. Maddeningly, she failed to tell her interviewers on Bush’s transition team about a Guatemalan woman whom she had sheltered in the early 1990’s in an act of pure benevolence. Although not a nanny, a maid, or a cook, the woman was an illegal alien, and taking in illegal aliens was against the law. Chavez felt obliged to withdraw, and did so in a news conference at which the Bush team was conspicuously absent.
Whether Linda Chavez is an “unlikely” conservative, as the title of her book suggests, is a nice question. Her enemies, many of whom have never forgiven her for abandoning the liberal Left, have often charged her with tailoring her views in order to further her career. Actually, it is plain that her career would have advanced much more quickly and smoothly—and profitably—had she retained her liberal credentials and played the game of racial and ethnic preferences for all it was worth. By going her own way, she has paid a high and something of a lonely price, though she has also had the incomparable satisfaction of being her own woman and of keeping faith with the lessons of her experience.
In doing so, she has also kept faith with the bedrock teachings of her childhood and youth—teachings that, as Chavez herself notes, undoubtedly played a role in predisposing her to conservative ideas. “On most issues,” she writes in connection with her years with Al Shanker and the AFT,
I was still the Catholic schoolgirl, respectful of authority, more comfortable with a fixed moral code, and with a reverence for tradition and decorum. No matter how far I had strayed from the religion of my youth, I had carried it inside me, and it shaped my views on everything—family, popular culture, even politics.
Linda Chavez’s future is hard to predict, but she has never sat still for long. Given her brains and energy, I, for one, expect her Nexis count to keep expanding.