1995: The year the future began
After a three-year ethics investigation into his unwanted sexual advances on women, many of whom were dependent on him for their jobs, Bob Packwood of Oregon abruptly announced the resignation of his U.S. Senate seat, 20 years ago today.
Had he not quit, Packwood faced certain expulsion.
That he be expelled was the unanimous recommendation of the Senate Ethics Committee, which investigated Packwood’s suspected offenses and found them sordid and numerous. They included evidence-tampering and influence-peddling in addition to sexual misconduct, the committee said in a report of 179 pages that was supported by thousands of pages of documentation.
“These were not merely stolen kisses, as Senator Packwood has claimed,” Senator Mitch McConnell, a fellow Republican and chair of the Ethics Committee, said about Packwood’s harassment of women, adding:
“There was a habitual pattern of aggressive, blatantly sexual advances, mostly directed at members of his own staff or others whose livelihoods were connected in some way to his power and authority as a senator.”
I discuss the Packwood case in my latest book, 1995: The Year the Future Began, noting:
“Packwood was no Lothario. 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.'”
The Ethics Committee report said Packwood had engaged “in a pattern of sexual misconduct” from 1969 to 1990 and had intentionally altered diary entries in attempting 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.
Despite the severity of the charges and the committee’s findings, Packwood insisted he wouldn’t quit. But late in the afternoon of September 7, 1995, in a maudlin speech from the Senate floor, he said he was resigning.
As I note in 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 also 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.”
In describing those eulogies, the New York Times reported that Senator Dianne Feinstein “delivered a gracious tribute to Mr. Packwood, whom she said she hardly knew. She said her father always told her to remember a man by what he did best, not by what he did last.”
“We do make mistakes,” the Times quoted Feinstein as saying, “but it is a sign of a wise man, and even a giant man, who stands and does what needs to be done and goes on to fight another day.”
Packwood, the Times said, was “apparently surprised and overwhelmed”; he crossed the floor to Feinstein’s seat, “clutched her hand and cried.”
So why, 20 years on, is it important to recall the sordid Packwood case and its dénouement?
Several reasons present themselves, including that of Packwood’s hanging on in Washington. Despite his disgrace, he never completely went away. He became a lobbyist, like many former insiders in Washington, and apparently has thrived.
“By any measure, life is pretty good for Packwood these days,” Politico reported in a lengthy article last year. “He spends half the year in Washington — about 80 percent of the time Congress is in session — and the balance of his days in the posh Portland suburb of Dunthorpe. As a lobbyist does, he fills the weeks he’s in D.C. trudging up to Capitol Hill to buttonhole congressional staffers or lawmakers.”
About a year ago, Packwood, who is now 82, was fondly recalled in remarks by Joe Biden, the gaffe-prone vice president. Biden referred to Packwood as representative of the bipartisanship that 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. “I could go on and on.”
And in February, Packwood was on Capitol Hill to testify before the Senate Finance Committee, which he once chaired. The Washington Post noted that the committee chair, Orrin Hatch, a Republican from Utah, said in introducing Packwood that he was a “great former leader.” Hatch, the Post added, did not mention why Packwood had left office.
And Slate.com noted that Packwood in his testimony “fondly referred to the Senate as a ‘small fraternity,’ an all-too-apt comparison given the nature of the allegations that had drummed him out of it.”
The Packwood case also had significance that went beyond the career arc of a fallen senator.
At that time, the Packwood case was something of a standard for career-ending sex scandals in Washington — and by comparison, it was more repugnant and more clearly embroidered with evidence-tampering than Clinton’s tawdry 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.
The Clinton scandal did give Packwood a bit of fleeting hope that he might resurrect his political career. The New York Times reported in 1998:
“Bob Packwood is out to test a theory: If President Clinton can survive — even thrive under — an avalanche of sex-related accusations, then maybe the political climate has changed enough for Mr. Packwood to seek redemption.”