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An Unlikely Conservative by Linda Chavez (Basic Books, 262 pages, $26) Many Americans remember Linda Chavez from early 2001 as a George W. Bush Cabinet nominee who got caught up in a confirmation flap over the assistance that she had given years before to an illegal immigrant who had lived in her house. Chavez was quickly forced to withdraw her nomination as secretary of labor. But her brief period in the national spotlight by no means represents the most interesting part of her life. An Unlikely Conservative, the autobiography of this opinionated intellectual, has a good deal to tell us about some aspects of late 20th century politics, about the complex nature of ethnic identity in America, and about “making it” in the treacherous world of Washington, D.C. In fact, as a tale of Chavez’s ascent from poverty to affluence (not to mention influence) with the help of talent, considerable ambition, and a little luck, the book bears some similarities to Norman Podhoretz’s classic 1967 memoir, Making It. As the book’s subtitle — “The Transformation of an Ex-Liberal” — implies, Chavez, born in New Mexico as a 10th-generation American of Mexican descent, started out as a liberal in the 1960s and gradually traversed the well-known path to neoconservatism that others like Podhoretz, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and William Bennett also walked. What changed things for Chavez was affirmative action, at least the way it was practiced in the early 1970s. The question of Hispanic identity is at the root of this book. Although Chavez had grown up in a troubled working-class home — her half-sister was given up for adoption, her father was an alcoholic, and she had attended six schools by the time she finished third grade — she never fit the stereotype of the underprivileged Latino. Chavez concluded that she was turned down for a Ford Foundation grant because
My skin wasn’t dark enough. I lacked a tell-tale accent. I’d chosen to study Samuel Beckett instead of Octavio Paz. And worst of all, my test scores were too high. [The interviewers] knew perfectly well that Mexican Americans don’t do well on standardized tests; therefore, I must not be an authentic Mexican American.

And as one of the few Hispanic graduate students at UCLA in her era, Chavez was asked by the university to teach “Chicano studies” to Latino students who had been brought in from the barrios and in many cases from the prisons of Los Angeles. It didn’t matter that her own field of study was English literature, that she was barely a year older than some of her pupils, that the field of Chicano studies was poorly defined at the time, or that she knew very little Spanish. Chavez quickly discovered that the university administration, content that the Hispanic issue was being dealt with by a Spanish-surnamed person, had left her to flail on her own at age 23. Her students saw her as a traitor to her ethnic group and as an easy mark. After she received telephoned threats of violence and found excrement dumped in her car, Chavez had had enough. Dismayed by what she called “political indoctrination” in the name of inclusiveness, she left California and moved to Washington, D.C., with a husband who worked for the AFL-CIO, a small child, and no job. In the capital, Chavez’s ethnic background turned out to be a huge political plus, and she proved to be a quick study and an excellent networker. Still a Democrat then, Chavez saw her star rise rapidly as a congressional aide and lobbyist. She seemed to have little compunction about accepting jobs that were offered to her in part because of her Latino background, which seemed exotic to many who held power in 1970s Washington. But all along, Chavez was moving to the right. As the 1970s ended and the 1980s began, Chavez made key connections with the neoconservative movement as editor of a magazine put out by the American Federation of Teachers, then headed by her mentor, union President Albert Shanker. She writes that in that position, she was one of the first to bring to public attention the then-unfashionable views of thinkers like Bennett, Kirkpatrick, Diane Ravitch, Robert Bork, and Thomas Sowell. From that point, it was only a short step to the Reagan administration and to the Republican Party. Here, as in many other respects, Chavez sounds a bit like a Forrest Gump character, present at the creation of nearly everything. Let’s see: She happened to run into the burglars in the Watergate building on June 16, 1972; as a House staffer, she was the first person to read the Richard Nixon re-election files at the National Archives; as a White House aide (and a convert to Judaism) she urged then-President Ronald Reagan not to visit the German cemetery at Bitburg; and she harbored constant suspicions about a secretive Reaganite colleague named Oliver North. Chavez also ran as a Republican for a U.S. Senate seat in Maryland in 1986, but was handily defeated by then-Rep. Barbara Mikulski. Chavez has mostly been in the private sector since then as a newspaper columnist and think-tank leader. Although her 2001 Cabinet nomination imploded, Chavez remains president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a nonprofit research group she founded in 1995 to explore the issues of race and ethnicity that she first encountered three decades ago. Chavez’s writing in An Unlikely Conservative is workmanlike rather than distinguished. But she succeeds in exploding the stereotype of a stridently right-wing, self-hating Hispanic that some have associated with her. It must not be forgotten that Hispanics, like African-Americans, Jews, and every other group, constitute in themselves a very diverse community. Chavez’s is one type of life. Others with Spanish surnames have led other lives that are equally legitimate as varieties of Hispanic experience. These are facts that we ignore at our peril. Jonathan Groner is editor at large at Legal Times.

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