He Can't Go Home Again -- So He's Visiting Us


Boston. -- Won't somebody please offer Bob Packwood a nice cottage by the sea for a couple of weeks? After all, he can't go home for the summer break. Oregon may be a nice place to represent but it's not a place he can peacefully visit.

As it is, the Congress is scattered to the 50 states, and Mr. Packwood is spending his days as a house guest of media folk like Larry King, Jane Pauley and Forrest Sawyer. Instead of acquiring a tan or even a sweaty blush of embarrassment, he's wearing pancake makeup, an aggressive manner and talking about "fighting fire with fire."

Back in May, the Senate Ethics Committee found "substantial credible evidence" of Senator Packwood's sexual misconduct with 17 women in 18 instances. On August 4, the Senate decided by a mere four votes -- including Mr. Packwood's -- not to hold public hearings.

Since then, there have been two more complaints, one by a woman who was a 17-year-old intern. Now he's taken his show on the road before the Ethics Committee determines his fate or the Senate changes its mind about public hearings.

The Packwood performance is almost as darkly riveting today as it was in 1990 when he was naively cast by the organizer of a Senate sexual-assault workshop to play the part of an assailant. On television, the Finance Committee chairman responds to charges of being a serial soul-kisser with a sort of stoic shamelessness.

The days when he put MASADA on his license plate signifying the biblical suicide are over. Now he's fighting for his political life. His arsenal of defense weapons is both varied and impressive.

In 1992, Senator Packwood denied the charges long enough and attacked his accusers hard enough to keep the story out of print before Election Day. When it finally hit the press, he tried a full Mea Culpa: , "What I did was not just stupid or boorish. My actions were just plain wrong. . . . I didn't get it. Now I do."

When this confession didn't win him absolution, it was followed in rapid and random order by the Demon Rum excuse, the Changing Mores explanation, the Awkward Sexual Blunderer self-analysis and the Statute of Limitations plea. Now the man who voted against confirming Clarence Thomas is using all these weapons simultaneously as he summer-surfs the airwaves.

He's (1) attacking his accusers again while (2) apologizing if he did the things they said he did though (3) he doesn't remember if he did them because of (4) those alcoholic blackouts while saying (5) the sins weren't so bad anyway! His appearances are ruining more vacations than Hurricane Felix.

I have never been as comfortable condemning Mr. Packwood as the odd coalition of left and right, feminists and moralists, Barbara Boxer and Pat Buchanan. I saw this as a sorry case study: When Good Guys Do Bad Things. How do you figure out a man who makes genuine advances for women and unwelcome advances on women?

This representative of a nearly extinct species -- a moderate Republican senator -- is hardly the only politician to have some fundamental disconnect between his private and public life. We are, appropriately, less tolerant of that split personality today. But I don't think we have yet figured out how to calibrate the importance of private and public behavior in assessing a person's character.

We have yet to distinguish "sexual misconduct" from "sexual harassment" from "sexual assault." Nor have we figured the proper punishment to fit the crime. We're still working on it. Just this summer, we've seen Del Labs ante up $1.2 million to settle an EEOC complaint that its chief executive sexually harassed his employees. We've seen the governor of Washington, Mike Lowry, agree to pay $97,500 to settle a sexual-harassment suit. We're watching Illinois' Rep. Mel Reynolds squirm while he talks about phone sex with a minor.

An ad put together by some women's groups asked: "If your boss stuck his tongue in your mouth, would he keep his job?" Maybe, maybe not. But the point is that the Senate should be playing by at least, and preferably more than, the same rules. Instead, as Barbara Boxer adds, "This guy got a promotion."

If the senator can spend his summer vacation chewing the public ear, his colleagues should come back and vote for Ms. Boxer's renewed plea for public hearings.

Oh, you want to be spared those hearings? Me too. If you can't find Senator Packwood that little cottage by the sea, couldn't somebody find him a new job?

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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