A sleazy Senate inquiry

IN A cynical attempt to make Bob Packwood a scapegoat for generations of congressional sexism, the Senate Ethics Committee put Americans on notice: No private diary is safe from government investigators.

Ironically, the recently established constitutional right to privacy, which forms the basis for all the pro-choice law in this country, is being undermined by panicky senators determined to punish one of their own for boorish behavior in a previous era.


Do you keep a diary? More of us should: It not only lets us blow off steam and articulate private thoughts that would be impolitic or libelous if said out loud, but it also preserves memories and reveals our youthful selves to our aging selves. Unlike a letter, it is intended to be totally private, written on our own time and in our personal space, for each diarist to keep or destroy.

In the case of a public figure, a diary is a godsend to historians. Samuel Pepys, the English naval functionary who kept a detailed diary three centuries ago, gave us an invaluable glimpse into the social conditions of his time.


Oregon's Bob Packwood is a Pepysian diarist. In the 25 years I've been his friend, this principled moderate has kept voluminous notes on life as a lightning rod.

He recorded his crusade to keep the legality of abortion from being eroded in the Senate, which made him public enemy No. 1 of anti-abortion forces. His fight to make the tax code simple and fair, culminating in the sweeping 1986 reform, infuriated the loophole legion of accountants and tax lawyers. His leadership of Republican support of Israel made him a pariah in the Bush White House.

And, as diarists from Pepys to Packwood do, he included the insiders' gossip of his time. He expressed the anguish of his failing marriage and his endangered eyesight, and may have noted when his friends told him he was drinking too much beer.

Now he is facing charges instigated by longtime political foes and driven by senators eager to placate feminists after the interrogation of Anita Hill. They say he made passes at an average of one woman a year for 20 years -- not slyly demanding affection for advancement, but clumsily grabbing and kissing them.

He is not accused of threatening to block careers, the essence of what we now prohibit as sexual harassment; on the contrary, Mr. Packwood hired and advanced qualified women when equal opportunity was denied elsewhere in the male-dominated Senate.

The scapegoaters are applying today's standards of behavior -- deservedly much higher than tolerated a generation ago -- to accusations of yesteryear's crude office gropings. That's ex post facto morality, which is neither ethical nor fair.

But this ethics investigation is not about accusations of one senator's past boorishness. It's about satisfying the need for vengeance in the minds of so many women workers who have had to endure the demeaning domination of lecherous bosses.

Senator Packwood has been chosen to be harassment's celebrity villain. To some nervous colleagues, his ruination has become the ticket to forgiveness for all congressional sexist sins.


That's why Pepysing Toms demand the Packwood diaries; it has been "determined that the documents in their entirety may be relevant and probative." If Senate staffers or hearing examiners rummage through his diary, they'll find personal ruminations and titillating tidbits to embarrass the man for years.

That's the scapegoat idea: Load all our sins onto Mr. Packwood and drive him out to Azazel, the demon in the desert. In its zeal to get right with the gender avengers, the committee has voted to rape the right to privacy, which -- under the penumbra of the Constitution, as pro-choicers say -- should be important to both sexes.

Only when a crime has been charged can prosecutors make a case for examining personal records. However, no criminal indictments are remotely contemplated in this case; "sexual harassment" law doesn't go back that far.

Even so, the fishing committee has subpoenaed Mr. Packwood's lifetime of diaries, insisting "there is no constitutional privacy right" to personal papers -- as the ACLU sleeps.

What hypocrisy! Feminists, who looked to Mr. Packwood for privacy protection when they were using him, now undermine everyone's civil liberty in abusing him.

And so to bed.


William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.