1995: The year the future began
The bumbling vice president, Joe Biden, demonstrated anew yesterday his hazy understanding of recent history by praising Bob Packwood, a lecherous former U.S. senator, in speech to the Women’s Leadership Forum of the Democratic National Committee.
Packwood resigned his Senate seat in disgrace in 1995, ending a three-year investigation that centered around his numerous unwanted sexual advances on women, many of whom were dependent on him for their jobs.
“Packwood was no Lothario,” I write in my forthcoming book about 1995. “The senator’s advances were graceless, and ‘consisted chiefly of dropping sudden, surprise French kisses on women, usually after forcefully seizing them by their arms or wrists,’ as the New York Times described them.
“‘The women, most of them members of Packwood’s staff, lobbyists and campaign volunteers, [denied] sending any signals of romantic interest. … He didn’t flirt suavely or invite women for candle-lit dinners. No, he swooped down out of the blue, usually embracing a woman under the fluorescent lights of an inner office. According to many accounts, his groping was wooden and his open-mouthed kisses oddly passionless.'”
Packwood’s offenses were so sordid — and included charges of evidence-tampering and influence-peddling — that the Senate’s bipartisan ethics committee called unanimously for his expulsion. The committee compiled a report of 179 pages, supported by thousands of pages of documentation.
The report said Packwood had engaged “in a pattern of sexual misconduct” from 1969 to 1990 and had intentionally altered diary entries as to mislead investigators and minimize his misconduct. The report also accused Packwood of improperly soliciting financial assistance from people who had an interest in legislation that he could shape.
Given the severity of the charges, Packwood faced almost-certain expulsion from the Senate. After insisting he wouldn’t quit, the 27-year incumbent from Oregon suddenly did so in a maudlin farewell speech from the Senate floor on September 7, 1995.
As I note in the book about 1995, tears welled in Packwood’s eyes “as he recalled successes, failures, and frustrations of his years in the Senate. He spoke of ‘the dishonor that has befallen me in the last three years.'”
I further note that when Packwood finished speaking, “several of his close friends in the Senate — Mark O. Hatfield, John McCain, Alan K. Simpson, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan among them — took the floor, one by one, to lament Packwood’s resignation and to say how they would miss his presence.”
The Packwood scandal was recalled, at least in general terms, by news organizations yesterday, following Biden’s favorable reference to the former senator, whom he mentioned as an example of the bipartisanship Republican lawmakers showed in the mid-1990s.
“Guys like [former Maryland Senator] Mac Mathias and Packwood and so many others. It wasn’t Democrats alone. Republicans were the sponsors of the raises of the minimum wage,” Biden declared, in his typically foolish speechmaking swagger. “I could go on and on. I’m not joking: This is not your father’s Republican Party, or your mother’s Republican Party.”
It was hardly the first time that Biden demonstrated his uncertain command of American history. In Moscow a few years ago, he declared that the Washington Post’s reporting of the Watergate scandal was what brought down Richard M. Nixon’s corrupt president — a mythical interpretation that not even the Post embraces.
Recalling the Packwood case is instructive for reasons that go beyond Biden’s oddball reminiscences.
As I discuss in the forthcoming book, 1995: The Year the Future Began, the Packwood case had significance beyond tracing the fall of a dissolute senator: It offers a modest contributing explanation as to why President Bill Clinton survived the sex-and-lies scandal that led to his impeachment in 1998.
At that time, the Packwood case offered something of a standard for career-ending sex scandals in Washington — and in comparison it was far more repugnant and more clearly embroidered with evidence-tampering than Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern when their dalliance began in 1995. Clinton was 27 years older than Lewinsky. But their relationship, by her accounts at least, was one of mutual attraction.
Which certainly can’t be said of the crude and unwelcome advances that Packwood made on his targets.
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