AUSTIN, Texas -- Worst idea of 2001 so far: naming a newspaper columnist to the U.S. Cabinet. You really don't want columnists running the government. As any newspaper reporter can tell you, all newspaper columnists work maybe two hours a day and spend the rest of their time drinking martinis and misbehaving.

In addition to this deplorable professional life, Linda Chavez brings some truly unwelcome baggage to the position of labor secretary.

What is it about people who are drawn to one political extreme and then flip to the other? Chavez started out as a member of the Young People's Socialist League and now is on the conservative extreme of the Republican Party. You notice that many of the neo-conservatives have similar backgrounds -- there seems to be some personality affinity for true believership.

In the Bible, Job says he wishes that his enemy had written a book. A newspaper column works just as well.

As one of Chavez's admirers put it, "She embodies the term 'movement conservative.'" That's another way of saying "self-righteous zealot."

Chavez, an anti-feminist who has been married for 34 years, does not call herself Mrs. Gertsen. She is, however, opposed to all affirmative action programs, is a vociferous opponent of anti-discrimination measures and has urged the reversal of several civil-rights policies.

But of course the reason she was named to the Cabinet is precisely because her father was New Mexico Spanish. This is why Hispanics call her "the Latina Clarence Thomas," meaning someone who has benefited from affirmative action but is opposed to it.

If she were just a newspaper columnist, that wouldn't make much difference (columnists can advocate any fool notion and often do), but the labor secretary administers affirmative action programs for all federal contractors -- about 20 million workers.

Chavez has also campaigned against the minimum wage, with that chipper denial of the facts on this issue that marks the "movement conservative" -- all of whom hold that increasing the minimum wage leads inevitably to inflation, despite the obvious fact that it doesn't.

The trouble for George W. Bush in naming a labor secretary simply to insult organized labor and punish unions for supporting his opponent is that labor is not just about the union movement. It's about all American workers. Although it is true that only about 20 percent of American workers are in unions, that 20 percent sets the standards across the board in salaries, benefits and working conditions.

If you are making a decent salary in a non-union company, you owe that to the unions. One thing that corporations do not do is give money out of the goodness of their hearts.

In a memorable column, Chavez dismissed the notion of a glass ceiling for women as "almost entirely wrong." She was writing about a Labor Department study that found only 5 percent of senior managers at major companies are women and much other evidence of the glass ceiling. She simply dismissed all the evidence in the report and announced that the real reason for such figures is that women choose to put their families first and/or not work very hard. Problem solved.

Sexual harassment? Nope, the rising number of sexual harassment lawsuits means that we are "a nation of crybabies" and men are "so often the targets of such witch hunts."

A typical Chavez column takes a few incidents of sort-of-silly results of the Americans with Disabilities Act and then uses them to discredit the entire effort -- a favorite tactic with "movement conservatives."

There's never been a law yet that didn't have a ridiculous consequence in some unusual situation; there's probably never been a government program that didn't accidentally benefit someone it wasn't intended to. Most people who work in government understand that what you do about it is fix the problem -- you don't just attack the whole government.

For some reason, Chavez thought that Casey Martin, the disabled professional golfer who sued the PGA in order to use a cart to get around the course, was conclusive proof that the ADA is nothing but "an effort to force employers to offer special treatment in the name of accommodating the disabled."

Her campaign against bilingual education is an oddity. One can always debate about bilingual programs. In Texas, we know that throwing Spanish-speaking kids into English-only schools and punishing them for speaking their language was a disastrous failure, and we have the records to prove it. But Chavez's response was to lead a campaign to make English the official language of Colorado.

I totally fail to see the point. We can pass resolutions and laws and initiatives making English the Official Language until we're blue in the face, but it's not going to teach a single Hispanic kid how to speak English.

When Chavez conducted a memorably nasty 1986 Senate race against Barbara Mikulski of Maryland (she moved there from Colorado in 1984), a Baltimore Sun columnist (I told you they should all be shot) wrote, "Chavez has a knack for picking issues that are either unfair or outdated or out of line." I'd say so.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2001 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.