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Politically minded Senate sealed Packwood's doom


WASHINGTON -- The political execution of Bob Packwood was carried out by the Senate with its usual devotion to ritual and ceremony. Once he announced he was finally leaving, colleagues determined to bury him took to the Senate floor to praise him.

Hyperbole and hypocrisy are staples of American politics, and nowhere more obviously than in Congress. Those who are defeated or drummed out always are the subjects of eulogies that might make any sensible person wonder why they are going.

But the real message in the swift and certain punishment levied against Bob Packwood is that even the Senate has changed. The politicians there finally understand that the voters are watching and that there are limits on how insulated they can pretend to be even with their six-year terms.

In this case, there were two special factors operating. One, of course, is the fact that there are now seven women in the Senate, including one -- Democrat Barbara Boxer of California -- who was unwilling to remain silent on the case when it appeared that the Ethics Committee might be letting Packwood off the hook by rejecting public hearings.

The other was the memory, fresh in the minds of many senators, of how voters in general and women in particular reacted to the Senate Judiciary Committee's treatment of Anita Hill in the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas four years ago. You can make a persuasive case that the backlash made the difference in Boxer's election to the Senate in 1992.

So it is fair to say that, contrary to appearances, the Senate is a different political organism than it was a generation ago. Indeed, is hard to imagine Packwood being expelled 20 years ago even with evidence against him as compelling as it was in this case. The only expulsion voted by the Senate in this century was directed at Harrison Williams Jr. of New Jersey, who was filmed taking a bribe in the Abscam case.

In the long run, nonetheless, it was very conventional politics that doomed Bob Packwood. One of the unwritten rules of the game is that you don't put your colleagues on the spot, and Packwood did just that.

The key was the public hearings issue. The Ethics Committee and then the full Senate voted to close the case without hearings, which is what Packwood wanted at the time. Then the Oregon Republican reversed himself and left his erstwhile supporters hanging out to dry. Those who voted against hearings had visions of activist women using that vote against them when they seek re-election.

Beyond that, Packwood then launched a public relations offensive in which he went on one television program after another to complain that he was being denied a fair hearing and a chance to cross-examine the witnesses against him. Moreover, that line began to have some effect. The calls started coming into the talk shows from people charging that Packwood was being made a scapegoat.

The Packwood strategy infuriated the members of the Ethics Committee who were fully aware of the mass of evidence against him. That was apparent in the remarkably tough language used by the Republican chairman, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, when he announced that the committee had voted unanimously for expulsion and that he had offered the motion.

What most members of the Senate and apparently everyone in the press had failed to understand was how strong a case had been made against Packwood. The incidents involving the women were not simply harmless flirtations or drunken groping, as Packwood insisted, but part of a pattern of sexual abuse of the powerless by someone powerful, just as the women had complained.

Nor was the business of seeking work for his former wife to reduce his alimony obligations simply a case of, as he argued, talking to old friends about job possibilities. Instead, it was a case of seeking money from lobbyists who naturally wanted to be on good terms with a ranking member of the Finance Committee.

And then the ultimate insult for the Senate -- Packwood's attempt to alter the evidence of his diaries to thwart the investigators. If there was a last straw, that was the one.

Six weeks ago, the smart money held that the most the Senate might do was censure Bob Packwood and perhaps strip him of his prized chairmanship. But this was a different Senate, coming into the 20th century just in time for the 21st.

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