Clift: Nannies, Taxes, Geithner and Kennedy

The news rocketed through Washington on Thursday afternoon: housekeeper and tax troubles were said to have derailed Caroline Kennedy's bid for the Senate seat left vacant when Hillary Clinton joined the Obama administration, the New York Times reported on its Web site. Sound familiar? The Senate Finance Committee had just finished grilling Treasury Secretary-designate Timothy Geithner for his transgressions in these very same areas. But if you Googled Geithner, the top story headline read "Geithner Confirmation Plans Move Forward." We have yet to learn the particulars of Kennedy's alleged lapses, or even whether they contributed to New York Gov. David Patterson's decision to tap upstate Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand for the seat instead. Still, the contrast was striking. One prospective nominee is knocked out of the running while the other gets knocked around a bit but is assured confirmation.

It was tempting at first to say this was another case of the double standard. But as the dust settles, the Kennedy candidacy collapsed of its own weight—or lack thereof—while Geithner, despite his stumbles, brings strong credentials to the job he is seeking. Patterson's choice for the vacant seat is a 42-year-old former corporate lawyer and a mother whose youngest child was born in the midst of her re-election campaign last year. Presumably Gillibrand's household help credentials are in order, plus she's talented enough that we'll forgive any innocent mistakes.

Geithner didn't instill confidence when he testified before the Senate Finance Committee. He recited his talking points about making innocent errors and taking full responsibility—uttering the word "mistake" 41 times during the course of the hearing and "error" 11 times, according to the Washington Post's Dana Milbank. But Geithner's credentials were enough to carry him through to a job that includes running the IRS.

Kennedy may enjoy the benefits of one of America's most potent political names. But she hadn't sufficiently established herself on the political stage when the Zoë Baird windstorm blew in. On track to be the nation's first female attorney general, Baird withdrew her name after it was reported that she had employed two undocumented Peruvians in her home and failed to pay the appropriate taxes. The revelation aroused populist anger against the rich and well-connected getting away with something ordinary folks would be punished for.

What happened this week was a reminder that things have not changed all that much since Baird's saga. Those who hire illegal immigrants, or pay their household help under the table, or don't take care of their taxes are headed for embarrassment, if not defeat. It's remarkable that nearly 20 years after the Baird episode, so many of our would-be public servants still haven't absorbed those lessons. Anybody in the public sector should know better than to cut corners with household help, yet we don't want to live in a police state where we don't deal with anybody without first asking for their papers. At the same time it's hard to excuse people with Ivy League degrees and earning top dollars from abiding by the tax and immigration laws they expect the rest of us to obey.

Kennedy's flirtation with the Senate seat has been a brutal experience. She underestimated the magnitude of the pounding that she would get, just as her handlers overestimated her ability to acclimate to public life after years of guarding her privacy. Friends say she came to realize she would be a permanent target for the right—a convenient vehicle for payback for those still smarting from the treatment of another newcomer to the national stage, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Perhaps most surprising to Kennedy was the virulence of the attacks from within her own party questioning her ability to be a senator and denouncing her sense of entitlement. Would her late brother have been treated differently if he had lived to pursue a political career? John F. Kennedy, Jr. failed the bar exam, winning him the headline, "The Hunk Flunks." He too would have had to earn the public's confidence. And that's where Caroline fell short. Prepped by Mayor Bloomberg's team, she was initially reluctant to answer questions from the media, and when she did, she was less than impressive. Her answers were halting and dotted with so many "you knows" that the media began keeping count. To overcome the charge that she was entitled, Kennedy was advised to campaign for the seat in an attempt to prove her mettle. Everything she did backfired. By the end of her two-month trial run, she had so much going against her that questions about a housekeeper and taxes actually may have offered her a convenient way out. In the end, neither Kennedy nor Geithner were driven out of contention by those issues. Sixteen years after Zoë Baird, that's a victory of sorts.