She Just Doesn't Get It

ELLEN GOODMAN

December 04, 1992|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston. -- There are days when I want to stand on the edge of the great cultural divide and echo a phrase that's usually thrown at the other side. I just don't get it.

I don't understand how a senator like Bob Packwood, who used his power to help women succeed as equals in public life, apparently also used his power to take advantage of them in private life.

I don't understand how a man could work seriously with a lobbyist on women's rights issues and then, reportedly take a run at the same woman. At the same meeting.

It's not that I'm naive. I've been around long enough to know that it happens. I can think of a dozen book titles to describe syndromes I've seen: Progressive on the Job, Neanderthal in the Home. Good Guy by Day, One of the Boys at Night. I can even rattle off the historic list of men who had one moral posture in public and another in private. JFK, MLK, fill in the blanks. Nor is this disparity only over women and sex.

But I still don't get it.

I don't understand precisely how it happens. What synapse misfires in a character who make advances for women and then also makes ''unwanted sexual advances'' on women? What part of the electrical system simply disconnects?

Such questions have been running through my mind since the Washington Post revealed a history of unwelcome encounters between the longtime senator and at least 10 women who worked for him or with him.

These questions remain unanswered by the senator's not-quite-apology, ''if any of my . . . actions have indeed been unwelcome . . . I am sincerely sorry.'' They remain unresolved by his admission this week to an alcohol-abuse clinic. Alcohol is no more acceptable an explanation of sexual misconduct these days than it is of bad driving.

What unsettles many of us are these contradictions. The newly and barely re-elected senator was a certified friend of feminism who took political risks for his beliefs. He stood up for abortion rights, family leave, and even -- ironies abound -- voted against the confirmation of Justice Clarence Thomas.

Any number of women will attest to the fact that Mr. Packwood was genuinely supportive of their professional success. ''His office was a place where Republican women had a chance to take on substantive work and move up,'' muses political consultant Ann Lewis, who adds, ''But it was also a place where young women could find themselves harassed and beleaguered.''

Maybe this is why all 10 women described various degrees of shock in their stories of his sudden, unwanted advances. Maybe this is why one women still says that the senator, ''genuinely respects the intelligence that women bring to their work.''

This split or splintered character makes this allegation even more unsettling than those against other senators or even against Clarence Thomas. The closest comparison is to the tempest created by the accusation that a respected, even revered, chief judge of the highest court in New York, Sol Wachtler, had harassed his former lover and sent lewd and threatening notes to her and her 14-year-old daughter.

Sol Wachtler? Bob Packwood? It's easier to think someone was mad -- or drunk -- than to acknowledge bad seeds in good guys.

Maybe there was something in our culture that allowed for such a compartmentalized life. Maybe there was something that allowed men in power particularly to disconnect their principles from their behavior.

Constance Buchanan, the associate dean of the Harvard Divinity School, sees it that way. She says with some frustration that ''good guys do this all the time. That's the problem. We have to stop being stunned.'' The difference, says Ms. Buchanan, is that once a ''cloak of privacy surrounded male sexual behavior at work and at home.'' For a long time, she says, we only looked at what leaders did in public.

There was no dichotomy, no contradiction in our view, because we didn't really ''see'' the private side. It was shielded by institutions, the Senate, the corporation or even the church. Maybe it was even shielded from the men themselves.

Now that cloak has been ripped off. The harsh public light that shines now into nooks and crannies of public lives isn't always comfortable, or always fair. It may illuminate the worst in one person and miss another person entirely. But this is the one way things change.

I still don't get it. But then, maybe we shouldn't get it. The men in this public spotlight don't have to be understood. They have to change.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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