Bye bye Bob


Washington -- IT DOES make a political difference that women are no longer merely political tokens but are now a visible, serious presence in both the Senate and House.

In the awkward matter of sexual misconduct, for instance, California Democrat Barbara Boxer certainly made a difference to Bob Packwood.

After fending off for nearly three years charges of victimizing women, Mr. Packwood was forced to resign as a direct result of Ms. Boxer's drive to force the Senate Ethics Committee to hold public hearings into the issue.

The Oregon Republican gave up only after the bipartisan committee unanimously imposed on him its harshest sanction -- a recommendation of expulsion.

Ms. Boxer not only challenged the committee's insistence upon secrecy, but also she challenged the sincerity of the Senate itself which claims to condemn society's traditional predatory male culture.

Ms. Boxer saw the Packwood predicament as a pervasive betrayal of public trust that abused young women. Based on private comments, most male senators saw it as an embarrassing discussion of behavior they would prefer to ignore, if not actually condone.

Mr. Packwood got caught, and 17 women lined up to testify against him. In a different sense, he is as much a victim as the women he exploited. His misconduct was, if not the norm in Congress, certainly not unusual when he was at his most sexually active one and two decades ago. And we are not entirely talking past tense here.

But times and standards changed, because increasing numbers of serious women came to political power, walked in those hallowed corridors as equals with men and sympathized with their sisters. What used to be sidelined as unimportant "women's issues" are now in the political mainstream.

The committee's stunning decision to recommend Packwood be expelled from the body he served for over a quarter century came only after the appalling prospect of tawdry public hearings overwhelmed the GOP majority's initial instinct to cover up for its colleague.

After Ms. Boxer forced senators to vote on the record for or against public hearings -- and pushed it back into the forefront of the news -- the pro-Packwood stall began unraveling. The vote, primarily along partisan lines (though three Republicans voted for open hearings and one Democrat for closed hearings), made the Republicans look like sexists.

Ms. Boxer publicly was supported in her crusade by five of the other seven female senators. No male senator joined them at their joint press conference demanding public hearings, although some Democratic males separately expressed similar views.

But it was Ms. Boxer who took the heat. The moral purity now suddenly on display was nowhere to be seen earlier amid the political fury she unleashed.

Ethics Committee Chairman Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., tried to make her an outcast in her party by threatening to open hearings into presumed Democratic wrong doings. He meanly alluded to the quarter-century-old scandal in which a woman drowned in a car Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., drove off a bridge at Chappaquiddick, as though the world has heard little about it and is in any doubt about what happened there.

Senator McConnell also canceled further committee meetings. Other Republican leaders vowed to prove that Senator Boxer as a House member had not been similarly vigilant on ethics issues involving Democrats.

Mr. McConnell could have thrown up procedural barriers, tried to discredit Ms. Boxer or threatened revenge on her party, but he was not prepared to justify Mr. Packwood's indefensible behavior. At the time Ms. Boxer forced her vote on public hearings, the committee seemed to think it could get away with giving Mr. Packwood a playful slap on the wrist.

But then yet another woman came forward to attest that Packwood had forced himself on her while she was a minor.

In the end, Mr. Packwood had little option but to step down.

Marianne Means is a syndicated columnist.

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