Packwood can't let go Senate is everything 'I only want to be a senator'

November 03, 1993|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau Chief

WASHINGTON -- Exactly 25 years ago, the voters of Oregon sent young Bob Packwood to Washington. And over the next quarter-century, he built a reputation as one of the capital's brightest stars.

At his peak, in the mid-1980s, he chaired the Senate's most important committee -- Finance -- and seriously considered running for president. He personally shaped the 1986 tax reform law and was a leading supporter of abortion rights.

Today, his brilliant career seems all but ruined. Yet Mr. Packwood, at 61, is refusing to let go. Critics, and even some sympathizers, believe the man who came to Washington to help others has become addicted to the exercise of power.

A clue to Mr. Packwood's decision to stay and fight can be found in a comment he made in 1989, as his marriage was dissolving: "I only want to be a senator," he said. "That's all there is for me."

For two days, all official Senate business -- votes on administration appointments, hearings on the president's health care plan, consideration of spending bills -- has come to a halt while his colleagues deal reluctantly with the Packwood scandal.

There is grudging respect, in some quarters, for the dispassionate way in which the senator has pleaded his case on the floor this week. But there are difficult questions about why Mr. Packwood is putting the Senate -- and himself -- through such a humiliating and public ordeal.

By many estimates, Mr. Packwood's political wounds are fatal. He has been fighting accusations of sexual harassment brought by more than a dozen women and charges that he used his office to intimidate them to keep quiet. This week, a new problem surfaced: reports that he pressured a lobbyist to offer his ex-wife a job.

As Mr. Packwood himself remarked the other day, he has effectively been branded a criminal by the chairman of the ethics committee. His public appearances in Oregon have generated angry protests, and there have been repeated calls for him to quit.

"Most senators would say, 'To hell with it,' and resign," says former Sen. William Proxmire, who served with Mr. Packwood for two decades.

Stubborn battler

But friends see the senator as a stubborn battler who cannot bear to see his life's work "reduced to some entries in a diary," as one of them put it.

"When you have a big investment in a career, you want to keep that career going," explains Richard Fenno, a political scientist at the University of Rochester. "These people have very high self-esteem, and it's very difficult for them to take a blow."

In most places in the United States, success translates directly into dollars. But not Washington. Madonna makes far more in one night than the president earns in a year.

The chief currency of Washington is political power, and few have more of it than members of the Senate.

"Being a U.S. senator is the best job in the world. Better than

being president," contends Mr. Proxmire, who retired in 1988 after three decades as a senator from Wisconsin. "You're your own boss. You do what you want to do. You don't get blamed for everything that happens."

The Senate is where most of the best-known figures in Congress are found -- Edward M. Kennedy, Bob Dole, Bill Bradley, Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond. But every senator is treated like a celebrity, in Washington and back home. Staffers regard them with awe. Reporters constantly seek their opinions. Ordinary citizens are pleased to shake their hand.

"There are only 100 senators at any one time, and you become very full of yourself; and the longer you're there, the fuller you become," says Ross Baker, a congressional scholar at Rutgers University. "Even the most modest and down-to-earth person has his hat size enlarged by 2 or 3 inches when he's been there as long as Packwood has."

During debate over his diaries this week, Mr. Packwood offered a glimpse at the seductions of a senator's life: "My first meeting with President Nixon by myself . . . and we went back for 45 minutes, I guess, the two of us . . . Meetings with President Reagan, President Bush. A wonderful description of the meeting with President Carter when Desert One failed. These are all history. . . ."

Unlike the 435 members of the House of Representatives, most of them anonymous outside their districts, senators hold considerable personal power, even when their party does not.

Tremendous power

Any senator, through the filibuster, can stop debate -- and potentially kill a piece of legislation. Individual senators can block any nomination by the president and force the entire Senate to deal with the senator's objections.

A little-known device known as the blue slip -- so named because that is the color of the paper -- gives senators veto power over presidential appointments in their home state for such jobs as U.S. attorney or federal judge, even if the president is from the other political party.

And there are the many personal perks: free parking spaces and good tables at restaurants, private elevators and hideaway offices in the Capitol and upgrades on frequent flights back home.

As the senior Republican on the Finance Committee, Mr. Packwood could have significant influence in shaping health care reform and other major issues of the Clinton presidency. But his ethics problems have effectively sidelined him. He was not a major player, for example, in this year's budget and tax deliberations.

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