"Why was I so acerbic?" Linda Chavez asked herself a couple of years back, reflecting on the articles on politics and social policy written over her
career. "Why did I have to take on so many controversial topics? Why hadn't I pulled my punches, at least occasionally?"
One can understand her concern. As we learn in "An Unlikely Conservative," (Basic Books, 262 pages, $26) this moment of
self-questioning came in the early stages of a vetting process that would result in her nomination as George W. Bush's labor
secretary -- and in her rapid withdrawal. Ms. Chavez was keenly aware at the time that everything in her record would be used as
ammunition by her enemies, and indeed it was.
But concern is not regret. When Ms. Chavez calls herself "the most hated Hispanic in America," as she does in her memoir's
subtitle, she wears the designation with pride; for it has been earned, at much personal cost, in her brutal battles with the champions
of identity politics.
Surprisingly, in this insider's account, it is not so much her liberal antagonists who leave one feeling frustrated as the legion of
accommodationist conservatives who are unwilling to do the right thing (e.g., speak out against quotas) for fear of being branded
racist -- who pull their punches as a kind of reflex.
Ms. Chavez never does, and as she tells it in this book, her personal experience has much to do with this. Half-Anglo and
half-Hispanic, she has forebears on her father's side who lived in what is now New Mexico a century before the American Revolution. But by the time
she was born the family had fallen on hard times: Her father suffered from alcoholism, and financial insecurity dogged the family. Her coming through it
all is a Horatio Alger tale.
By dint of both class and family tradition, Ms. Chavez started her adult life as a Democrat and liberal. Even so, as the first college graduate in her family,
she was startled by the readiness of so many well-intentioned people to gut standards and forsake a color-blind ideal in the name of affirmative action.
One episode was a particular eye-opener. At 22, already married, with an infant son, and trying to figure out how she'd pay for a longed-for doctorate
in English literature, Ms. Chavez was thrilled to learn that she was a finalist for a Ford Foundation grant set aside for minorities. But after preparing for
the pivotal interview by boning up on her subject, she found herself before a panel that rejected her as unacceptably competent. Her circumstances
were desperate enough to merit assistance, but her English was too fluent, and she'd scored too well on her GREs. As she grimly concludes: "I hadn't
lived up to their image of what a disadvantaged Mexican American looked, sounded or behaved like."
There was worse to come. Teaching a course in Chicano literature at UCLA -- set up by administrators bullied by campus militants -- she tried to
maintain standards in a classroom of angry and unprepared beneficiaries of ethnic preferences. But few even pretended to do the work. She soon faced
a class revolt and found herself the target of student thugs who one night ripped open the seat of her car and filled it with excrement.