Scandal? nothing a dose of TV exposure can't cure


WASHINGTON -- In the age of television, all politics is performance.

A beleaguered president, his popularity dropping, can hold a news conference in which the only news is that he forgot he had made a $20,000 loan to his mother and have his poll numbers skyrocket the next day.


Because he performed well. He looked calm. Reassuring. Unafraid.

He gave good TV.

And if it worked for a president, why not for Bob Packwood?

Packwood is the five-term Republican senator from Oregon who is accused by more than 20 women of sexual misconduct. The Senate Ethics Committee is investigating him.

Packwood's old lawyer had told him to keep his mouth shut. His new lawyer has told him to speak out.

And that's because his new lawyer knows that public sympathy for Packwood might favorably influence the senators who are sitting in judgment on him.

So Wednesday night Bob Packwood went on "Larry King Live" to face the nation.

In the old days, people had their sins exposed in order to cause them humiliation. They were put in stocks and held up to public ridicule.

Television, however, loves sin: Phil, Oprah, Sally Jessy and the others thrive on it.

And the public exposure of sin is no longer humiliating. It is cleansing.

In an era in which every wrong can be blamed on something beyond one's control -- alcohol, drugs, cruel parents, abusive spouses -- nobody is guilty of anything.

And so Packwood's performance on Larry King followed a classic pattern:

ACT ONE: I Did It.

Packwood: "If I did things I can't remember, didn't know, or to people I didn't know, I'm embarrassed and I apologize."

ACT TWO: Alcohol Did It.

Packwood: "I want you to understand that of these 22 charges against me in the Ethics Committee, 14 of the women I simply cannot recall."

King: "And you were drinking, right?"

Packwood: "I was drinking."

King: "Are you alcoholic?"

Packwood: "Yeah, I think I'm alcoholic."

ACT THREE: Society Did It.

Packwood: "Remember what I said: When we were kids, it was the man that opened the car door, it was the man that bought the hamburgers and it was the man that made the first step.

"And if in any of these cases I approached a woman or attempted to kiss a woman, and as soon as I was refused, I didn't do anything more, if that kind of an approach was offensive 10 years ago, five years ago, 25 years ago, I didn't get it.

"And I now realize that you have got to be careful of your conduct. You simply cannot conduct yourself the way men did 25 years ago."

King: "So you no longer would say to someone, 'You look pretty in that dress?' "

Packwood: "No, I wouldn't."

And it took an act of will for the viewer to remember that Packwood is not accused of complimenting women on their clothing, but trying to remove it.

In one case, he is accused of grabbing a woman, standing on her feet, kissing her and trying to get her panty girdle off. (Though perhaps he was holding the car door open for her with his other hand.)

When you quote from the transcript of Larry King's show, as I have just done, Packwood does look a bit like a weasel.

But that's not the way he came across on TV. On TV, Packwood looked very good.

Square-jawed, his gray hair just a little tousled, he looked friendly, forthright and relaxed.

He even did a great Gary Cooper. Asked about resigning, Packwood replied: "I thought about it, and then I thought, darn it, I am not going to do it."

Darn it and gee whiz no.

He never lost his temper and he batted every question out of the park.

By my count there were six calls in support of him, three opposed to him and two neutral.

In other words, it was a very good evening for Bob Packwood.

"You'll probably see more of Senator Packwood [on TV]," his spokeswoman said.

Why not? TV is the medium that transforms sinners into victims.

And what more could a politician ask?

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad