WASHINGTON -- Sen. Bob Packwood was on the verge of resigning from the Senate 10 days ago when the Justice Department suddenly subpoenaed his personal diaries, signaling the possibility of a criminal charge in his future. So the embattled Oregon Republican suddenly changed his mind on the theory, his Senate friends explained, that he would be in a better position as a senator than as an ex-senator to defend himself.
Now we know why. The files of the Senate Ethics Committee show Packwood had raised $279,000 in contributions to his legal defense fund in the first nine months of the year -- an amount any private citizen facing similar troubles would be hard pressed to match.
The practice of fund-raising campaigns to bail out politicians in trouble is well established. The usual device is a testimonial dinner, to which individuals and political allies buy tickets to demonstrate their high regard for the endangered politician who has run up some monumental legal bills defending himself.
There is also ample precedent for public figures tapping their old friends in such circumstances. Thus, it is not surprising that some of the names on the list of Packwood's benefactors are those of people back in Oregon with whom he may have had a long and in some cases close association.
What is mind-boggling about this particular example, however, is the context in which this money was raised, most of it before there was any expression of interest in Packwood by the Justice Department.
For almost a year now the Oregon senator has been the subject of an Ethics Committee inquiry focusing on accusations by about two dozen women that Packwood had made unwanted sexual advances over a period of more than 20 years. The question is supposed to be whether he has been guilty of a degree of misconduct that would deserve some disciplinary action from the Senate ranging from a rebuke to expulsion.
Packwood himself has made a de facto concession that there is a basis for at least some of these accusations. Before the first story about them was published just after the 1992 election in which Packwood was re-elected, the Oregon Republican had tried to fend it off by volunteering supposedly damaging personal information about some of his accusers.
The evidence was so heavy that the rough consensus in the political community has been that Packwood is washed up politically. At home in Oregon the outrage has been reflected in opinion polls showing most voters want him replaced.
But most of the money comes from corporations and organizations whose legislative interests usually come before Senate committees on which Packwood serves, most notably the Finance and Commerce committees. These contributors are saying, in effect, that they are willing to hedge their bets against the possibility he will be exonerated even if it costs something. The theory is, of course, that if Packwood continues in the Senate, he will remember who stood with him and who didn't.
Nor are the amounts of money trivial. At least nine individuals contributed $5,000 or more. Contributions of $2,000 to $9,000 came from more than two dozen other individuals and entities whose interest might reflect the fact Packwood sits on subcommittees on trade, communications, surface transportation and Medicare and long-term care or Packwood's history as a strong defender of Israel.
But the willingness of all these groups to rush to Bob Packwood's defense with their money makes you wonder if they have been spending a sabbatical leave on Mars.
If there is one thing that became apparent in the 1992 campaign and has continued to be obvious since then, it is that Americans harbor a deep distrust of the system under which politicians get their money for their campaigns -- let alone to do battle with the Justice Department. If there is another thing that has become clear in the Packwood case, it is that sexual harassment is no longer tolerable.
It would be understandable if longtime friends and associates helped out their old ally from Oregon. But in the cases of businesses, public interest groups and unions, you have to wonder how many of them informed their members and stockholders.