The Senator Who Mistook His Errands For History

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Forget sexual harassment. Sen. Bob Packwood is guilty of cluelessness in the first degree, felonious Neanderthalism, exposing himself (as a bore) and, most of all, DWI, diary-writing while intoxicated by power.

For this, he has been dealt the most capital of punishments, one both cruel and unusual: Volumes of incriminating evidence that lay him bare to the world, in the black and white of the printed page. In the cruelest of ironies, Bob Packwood is the star of two recently published books but won't even get a book tour out of it.

There is the $10, 325-page quickie book that just arrived in stores, "The Packwood Report," a Times Books reprint of the Senate Ethics Committee report that would have led to his expulsion had he not resigned on Sept. 7. But, for the true plunger into this heart of darkness, there is the 10-volume, 44-pound and 10,145 page "Documents Related to the Investigation of Senator Robert Packwood," printed and sold by the U.S. Government Printing Office for $429.

Mind-numbing yet fascinating, wonderful yet awful, these pages upon pages of testimony, original and altered diary entries, legal briefs and interview transcripts provide a glimpse into the walled community that is Washington, as well as the rise and fall of one of its supreme sultans.

And the picture that emerges is highly unflattering: of a ham-handed, heavy-drinking man who viewed himself as a Lothario of Capitol Hill, of an office and campaign culture that takes the workplace stereotype of the powerful man and the subordinate woman to the extreme, of a world that either breeds or tolerates such a person and such behavior.

But here's the kicker: This unattractive image is a self-portrait. It is the Oregon Republican's own diary, after all, that lifts the veil of decorum that usually shrouds Congress and sets this report apart from the dry transcripts and procedural citations more commonly issued.

There are so many perversely delicious levels of enjoyment in reading the diary, where to begin? The first and most headline-grabbing aspect, of course, is the powerful senator revealed as a graceless clod when it comes to sex. He writes of a drunken occasion when he and a staff member make love and dance nude around his desk in the office. And, there is the bridge tournament where one of the female players is wearing a jacket "showing, as best I could tell, bare breasts. God was she a good player. I was so fascinated in watching her bid and play that I could hardly concentrate on the breasts."

Equally comical is this portrait of The Senator Who Mistook His Daily Errands as Historic Events. This is one self-absorbed man, like a baby who has just discovering his toes, recording for posterity his tales of shopping for stereo equipment at Myer-Emco, puffing up his hair with a blow-dryer and going to Hechinger's and ending up with the wrong kind of telephone cord.

Finally, there is Senator Packwood's breathtaking lack of reflection, of seeing any forest beyond the trees, heck, even any trees beyond the pile of sawdust. For all the accounting of the minutiae of his days, this is a woefully unexamined life. There is almost no self-awareness, no sense of a world beyond his own little fiefdom, no comprehension of how others might view him.

At one point in the diary, he discusses a "pastoral meeting" with an unnamed "cleric" -- whom later news accounts identify as then-Sen. John Danforth. He is the decent Episcopalian minister who also counseled his friend Clarence Thomas through similar travails, when Anita Hill's charges of sexual harassment nearly cost him a seat on the Supreme Court. Senator Danforth keeps trying to explain to his colleague that it's wrong to engage in extramarital sexual relationships -- especially with subordinates in the office. But Senator Packwood, in the now-cliched slogan, just doesn't get it.

An unvarnished life

A diary is a funny thing. It presents the writer with perhaps his only chance to star in his own life story. Yet, precisely because it's a diary -- and meant for your eyes only, or perhaps a future, suitably respectful biographer -- it is an entirely unvarnished account. Most of us could use several coats of varnish; most of us should not be seen in public without it.

And so it is with Senator Packwood. The man who triumphantly marshaled the 1986 tax reform bill through the Senate should have let his legislative bills rather than his diary be his legacy. (Ironically, the government printing office says, the final report of the tax bill has sold about 30,000 copies to date, far outstripping the 20-some sets of the Ethics Committee's Packwood report.)

Congress apparently was his entire life, not just his business life or political life, but his social life. There never seem to be any parties just for the sake of parties, they're always campaign fund-raisers, lobbyist affairs or the continuation of a workday in the office. He seems to hold a regular happy hour in his office, the party moving into bars and restaurants as the night progressed. His staff seems set up as a personal sorority of cheerleaders for the captain of the football team to dip into.

His chief of staff, Elaine Franklin, is the office wife -- and indeed his former real wife, Georgie, wondered if there was something more than business going on between them. Cluelessly, he can't figure out why Ms. Franklin is offended when he wants to call her a "host ess" at official dinners. Hello? She already has a title, Bob, look it up.

Still, Ms. Franklin bulldoggedly sticks by her man, more mother tiger than wife actually, checking with secretaries on his office drinking and defending him against the swelling tide of women lodging sexual harassment complaints against him.

Trying to reconcile his oafish behavior around women even as he was staunchly defending their rights in Congress, you begin to wonder: Is he one of those men who support feminism as a way to get chicks?

He said, she said

Of all the complaints against Senator Packwood, most intriguing is that of a former staff member identified in the committee report only as C-1 for Complainant No. 1. Her case is perhaps emblematic of why charges of sexual harassment defy easy resolution, why they so often turn into a muddled Rashomon: One person's harmless office flirting is another person's job-threatening sexual advance. A seemingly consensual relationship in one person's eyes may be anything but to another's if one participant is the boss and the other is the underling. These, of course, are much the same dilemmas that coursed through the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings -- and remain unresolved, as the Packwood case demonstrates.

The senator and C-1 relationship began as a seemingly pleasant workplace friendship and somehow ended up with her charging sexual harassment and the Ethics Committee's agreeing.

Initially, Senator Packwood calls her "the bright light" on the staff, according to the July 29, 1991, entry. "She's bold, she's imaginative, she's forward, she's sassy." There is an exchange of notes, musical tapes (he likes Mel Torme, especially the song -- ouch -- "Careless Hands") and music reviews. A letter dated Sept. 12, 1990: "C-1 -- . . . So many of the songs bring back memories. Are you sure we didn't know each other in 1955? Didn't we meet under the clock at the Biltmore? Bob." And this from 1992: "BP -- . . . You made me feel that in the thousands of eager faces, mine was special. . . . I hope someday, after you're re-elected and you're having some wine in Vermont, you'll think of your friend . . . and smile -- Very sincerely -- C-1."

Change of heart

This note comes after disputed kisses -- C-1 claims he grabbed her by the shoulders and kissed her in 1990, stunning and upsetting her; Mr. Packwood says in a 1991 diary entry that she kissed him and told him he was wonderful. She becomes one of the complainants and, by 1993, Mr. Packwood has done a 180-degree: "She is a goddamn liar and perhaps the worst troublemaker we've ever had on the staff. I've never had a staffer who was more disliked than C-1, uniformly, by everyone."

Beyond his women problems, Senator Packwood is revealed as somewhat peevish and petty when he talks about other staff, lobbyists (whom he nonetheless solicits for campaign contributions), reporters and constituents.

"Boy, if this isn't a group of overweight, stand pat, white, past middle age pedestrian men, I've never seen it," he grouses in a June 19, 1989, entry about representatives of the American Iron and Steel Institute. "No wonder the steel industry is in bad shape."

Worst of all, though, is when he picks on kids dragged in for photo ops in mostly failed attempts to make politicians seem more human.

"I by inadvertence agreed to receive the first box of cookies the Girl Scout Cookie Camp Out kickoff or something like that at the auditorium," he writes on April 5, 1969, in typical syntactic mush. "Nobody knew when I was to appear or what I was to do and finally two of us, one girl scout and I agreed that she walk on the stage and say, 'Here, Senator Packwood,' give me a couple of boxes of cookies and off I go. That whole goddamn transaction took us about an hour."

Inside Washington

The Ethics Committee report also provides an eye-opening look at insider Washington and its denizens, the politicians, lawyers, functionaries and journalists who speak their own language, deal in minute nuances of the massive bureaucracy and are in serious need of trips outside the Beltway.

Transcripts of interviews that two Washington Post reporters conducted with the senator and his flunkies are particularly instructive. The same question gets asked 10 different ways, Mr. Packwood and his people dance around it 10 different ways. Soon, the Q&A; about the sexual harassment charges devolves into a Q&A; about the Q&A; itself. What the editor told the chief of staff the questions would be vs. what they turn out to be. Whether the question, whatever it is, was previously answered, and well, could you please clarify it again. And whether the reporter could turn off his tape recorder even if the senator's tape recorder was still going. Phew!

And now, Mr. Packwood has been exiled from the club.

The distinguished senator from Oregon is now neither distinguished nor -- when he finally leaves Capitol Hill this week -- a senator. It's hard to imagine he'll land in one of those graceful post-Senate gigs -- a cushy position on a corporate board, an ambassadorship in a pleasant land, a think-tank title -- at least not immediately. The way it works is this: Suitable time has to lapse, he has to appear to have soul-searched and reformed, memories of the sordid affair have to dim, and then the pundits eventually can declare him an elder statesman.

In the meantime, there is, of course, the refuge available to all rogues: the book deal.

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