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The Partly Seen Figure in the Packwood Debate: Anita Hill

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Washington. -- Lurking just below the surface of the tedious legal arguments and lurid sex talk that dominated the Senate's debate over Sen. Bob Packwood's diaries last week was the enduring legacy of Anita Hill.

Not that the painful episode two years ago -- when the all-male Judiciary Committee was pilloried for its crude handling of Ms. Hill's sexual harassment charges against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas -- was a decisive factor in the diary matter, or even a particularly relevant one.

But it contributed mightily to setting the scene for the Packwood drama, and it haunted the entire debate.

It was there in the ethics committee's probe of Mr. Packwood on charges of sexual misconduct brought by more than two dozen women, many encouraged to come forward in the wake of Ms. Hill's testimony.

It was there in the visible presence of the seven women on the Senate floor -- five elected after the Senate's handling of the Hill charges outraged many and inspired a new wave of female candidates.

It was there in the spirited defense of the ethics committee's demand for Mr. Packwood's diaries by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, the Maryland Democrat named to the panel to give it a female voice. "She has worked extremely hard to sensitize the committee to the concerns and perspective of women in cases like these," said Sen. Tom Dashle, a South Dakota Democrat who also serves on the six-member panel. "And she has been dogged in her determination that the ethics committee follow every lead and piece of evidence, leaving no stone unturned."

Most of all the Hill legacy was there in the 94-to-6 vote to go to court to force Mr. Packwood to turn over his diaries -- a vote driven in part by the desire to prove that the nation's most exclusive white, male club finally gets it.

"The Senate is very aware that the American people think we have a double standard about disciplining infractions of conduct: one for ourselves, and one for other people," Ms. Mikulski said in an interview. "The Senate needs to affirm its honor."

But old ways die hard.

As the Oregon Republican's cause was flagging Tuesday, his defenders started singling out women for criticism.

Freshman Democrat Patty Murray of Washington provoked the greatest ire by reminding her colleagues of the Hill debacle and warning them a vote against the committee's demand for the diaries would be viewed as a sign that the Senate still doesn't take sexual harassment charges seriously.

"Many of my colleagues are worried about their personal privacy and the implications of this vote for that privacy," Ms. Murray said. "We need to remember today that the committee is investigating allegations of sexual misconduct, allegations that Senator Packwood attempted to intimidate and discredit the women making the claims, and allegations that he misused his official staff in attempts to intimidate and discredit. . . . It appears some want to delay that process."

Ms. Murray was publicly accused by Wyoming Republican Alan K. Simpson of pandering to "political correctness," and privately labeled a demagogue by other old Senate hands.

California Democrat Barbara Boxer, who endorsed Senator Murray's comments, was later charged with refusing to recognize Republican speakers when she took her turn in presiding officer's chair.

And a misstatement by Senator Mikulski was continually quoted back to her even though she had corrected it.

"Don't you find that intriguing?" Ms. Mikulski mused, noting that the "tart" comments came from the same male lawmakers who had their reputations bruised during the 1991 Thomas hearings because they treated the judge as the victim and Ms. Hill as the guilty party. "You think they're a little cranky about what happened to them during Anita Hill?"

Besides Mr. Simpson, who continues to complain bitterly about the way he was treated by the press during the Hill hearings, Mr. Packwood's allies included Republican Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who nearly lost his seat last year to a novice female challenger using his role as chief inquisitor of Ms. Hill as her major issue. Probably his most eloquent advocate was John Danforth of Missouri, the leading Senate sponsor of Justice Thomas, who is retiring this year.

The only other senators who voted with Mr. Packwood on Tuesday were North Carolina Republican Jesse Helms, one of the body's most conservative members, and Democrat Dennis DeConcini of Arizona, who was mildly disciplined by the ethics committee in the Keating savings and loan scandal.

Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution, warned against exaggerating the impact of the Anita Hill controversy on Mr. Packwood's fate.

"He was the first senator in history to refuse to comply with the ethics committee's request for documents," Mr. Mann said. "The Senate could hardly ignore that. And the committee members were wonderful in defending their position."

Particularly impressive, said political analyst Charles E. Cook, was the hard-line position argued not only by Ms. Mikulski and the committee leaders, but such conservative Republicans as Bob Smith of New Hampshire and Larry Craig of Idaho.

In the end, the Senate's decision was based, as always, on the lawmakers' own sense of self-preservation.

Mr. Packwood, who has become so unpopular in Oregon he no longer goes there, has been relying on the brotherhood of the Senate club to protect him. But he's become like a drowning man trying to pull his colleagues down with him.

After failing to get the ethics committee to back off on its demand for his diaries, Mr. Packwood put his colleagues through a soap opera of thinly veiled threats that their own secrets might be revealed in the voluminous daily recollections.

"What possible motivation can cause any person to put in writing or dictate to a secretary . . . an account of the personal peccadilloes or private sins of other individuals?" thundered Robert C. Byrd, the Senate's senior Democrat, who suggested Mr. Packwood should have the grace to resign.

By its overwhelming vote against Mr. Packwood, "the Senate has effectively washed its hands of him," said Harriet Woods, president of the National Women's Political Caucus. "I think they were most concerned about the effect on the Senate as an institution, but the fear factor reflects their experience of two years ago."

Karen Hosler covers Congress for The Baltimore Sun.

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