Was scheduled to begin a unique debate at noon...


November 01, 1993|By THEO LIPPMAN, JR.

THE SENATE was scheduled to begin a unique debate at noon today. For the first time a committee has asked the full Senate to give it permission to sue a senator in court to force him to turn over material.

The senator is Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore. The committee is the Select Ethics Committee. The material is his diary.

The committee has been investigating charges that the senator grabbed, kissed and otherwise abused or harassed women in his office over a period of 20 years. But there may be something else in the diaries that the committee is after.

The chairman of the Ethics Committee, Richard Bryan, D-Nev., said last week that the committee stumbled over something "serious" that is "outside the scope" of the original investigation, and possibly criminal.

By "stumbled" I mean the Ethics Committee knew nothing of the diary until Senator Packwood volunteered a version of it in an attempt to exonerate himself. By "version," I mean he produced diary entries for the period from 1969 to 1989, with what he called sensitive remarks un-related to the charges against him "masked" by overlays.

Senator Packwood's lawyer said the masked material included conversations the senator recounted involving another senator's affair with a staff member and another Senate staff member's affair with a House leader and good stuff like that. The senator himself made a speech in the Senate after his lawyer's remarks to say he certainly hoped no one took this as a threat.

I have mixed feelings about this attempt to get Senator Packwood's diaries. On the one hand, I think that congressional investigators should not be asking judges to force senators or anyone else to produce private material such as letters, diaries, memos and the like, when no specific crime has been charged. On the other hand, I think that newspaper readers should get to enjoy the same juicy stuff that I and other journalists are being told off the record -- till the diaries are made part of the record, if ever -- about who the swinging lawmakers are. On the other hand (some of us editorial writers have a tough time buying gloves), I worry that if diaries can be subpoenaed, public officials won't keep them.

Too few senators keep historically valuable diaries as it is, as Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W. Va., lamented a few years back: "I'm sad to say diary keeping has been rare in the Senate. One thinks of William Maclay of Pennsylvania, John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts, Henry Fountain Ashurst of Arizona and George Aiken of Vermont, who maintained and published diaries. But most senators are too busy to keep such a record."

Senator Maclay's diary dealt with the first Congress. It's in print, re-published recently by the Johns Hopkins University Press. It's interesting not only for its insights and occasional gossip, but also for its reporting, since in those days the Senate met behind closed doors.

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