Yesterday's stolen kisses become today's headlines

ROGER SIMON

December 16, 1992|By ROGER SIMON

In March, Roberta Ulrich, 64, a reporter for the Portland Oregonian, was interviewing Sen. Bob Packwood, 60, R-Ore., in his office.

At the end of the interview, Packwood walked over to Ulrich, shook her hand and then kissed her on the lips.

Ulrich was stunned and upset and reported the incident to two of her editors. But her paper did not print a word about it at the time.

Today, we know that Bob Packwood is a serial kisser.

A few weeks after his re-election in November, The Washington Post printed a lengthy story quoting several women who said that over the past few decades Packwood had grabbed and kissed them against their will.

(After the story appeared, Packwood apologized for his actions, but he has refused to resign his seat.)

In the most serious case, Packwood was accused of trying to pull a woman's girdle off in 1969.

In most cases, however, Packwood would kiss the women, who worked for or with him, and stop only when "they forcefully resisted or otherwise made clear that they were not interested."

"No one said Packwood punished her for rejecting him," the paper reported, "but several decided to leave their jobs within months."

"The rumors," the Post said, "had circulated in both Washington and in Oregon for years, but had not surfaced publicly."

The rumors were not just "surfacing" now, of course. The Post was making them public. But I am guessing that a few years ago the Packwood story may never have seen print at all.

It would have been dismissed somewhere along the editorial line as not a very big deal -- "He just kissed them; he didn't rape anybody," someone would have said, "and how come they didn't file charges at the time?" -- and the story would have remained as one of those rumors reporters know about but don't print.

(It is a minor irony that when Burton Lee, the White House physician, grabbed a female Post reporter around her thighs, yanked her onto his lap and then threw her onto a table at the 1991 White House Correspondents' Dinner, the Post did no separate story at all. The incident was mentioned deep in a story on the dinner, and Lee's actions were dismissed as the behavior of an "indiscreet party guy.")

This, however, is late 1992, and the clock has run out on such behavior.

Nor does it matter when the behavior took place. Some are saying this year's morality is being applied to the actions of past years.

But others say the behavior was always wrong and by refusing to reveal it, the press just perpetuates it.

So in March, the Seattle Times printed interviews with eight anonymous women who accused Sen. Brock Adams, D-Wash., of harassing and molesting them and, in one case, of rape. None had filed criminal complaints. The day after the story appeared, however, Adams dropped out of his race for re-election.

In October, a hairstylist accused Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, of having sexually assaulted her 17 years ago. Inouye denies it.

In November, a woman accused Sen. David Durenberger, R-Minn., of raping her 29 years ago. Durenberger says that anything that happened was consensual.

Once again, I'm not sure papers would have printed these accusations just a few years ago. Though the press gets damned either way.

A newspaper (OK, a supermarket tabloid) reports that Gennifer Flowers had an affair with Bill Clinton, and some people are disgusted that the press would print such trash.

On the other hand, some people are disgusted that the press never reported on the affairs of John Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower while these men were alive.

For the foreseeable future, however, the press is going to pursue and print stories about sexual wrongdoing by public officials whether the sources are named or anonymous and regardless of when the incidents occurred.

It was recently reported, in fact, that ABC's "20/20" placed an anonymous ad in the Post asking working women on Capitol Hill to call if they are "currently harassed on the job. Confidentiality guaranteed."

So rumors in Washington are no longer going to be treated as something to be gossiped about and chuckled over.

They are going to be treated as something to be investigated and printed.

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