The new morality

September 12, 1995|By Maggie Gallagher

THE VOICE from the airwaves was anonymous -- it could have been Everyman, or in this case every woman distressed about lingering adultery charges against presidents Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy and Gary Hart: "We've got to stop obsessing about the private affairs of politicians."

What about Bob Packwood?

"Oh," she says, "that's different. That's really bad."

Suddenly I was transfixed. That's it, I thought, the new emerging morality in a nutshell: What you do to your wife doesn't matter; it's how you treat your employees that counts.

As Sen. Bob Packwood's resignation after the Senate Ethics Committee's unanimous vote to expel him makes clear, a new sexual melodrama is unfolding throughout the land. Bits and pieces of puritanism mingle with floating fragments of feminism and Playboy "philosophy," creating a new moral code that seems to me -- am I the only one? -- incomprehensible.

Like many Americans, I find myself confused and ambivalent about sexual harassment cases. On the one hand, the kind of behavior usually lumped under that charge is indisputably gross. On the other hand, there is a strange and growing gap between the new moralists' sexual code and my own. The lesson I gleaned from the Anita Hill incident, for example, was this: You can leave your wife for your junior law partner and it is nobody's business but your own, but you may not say dirty words to your secretary.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not sorry to see Mr. Packwood packed off the political stage. He was a self-righteous, boozy, womanizing political hack, and my biggest regret is that the good people of the great state of Oregon won't have the chance to give him the boot themselves.

His last hurrah was particularly distasteful, a self-eulogy lauding his "lonely" courage in fighting for abortion rights, which in the glaring light of his diaries is revealed as mere self-interested strategy (of course a man who behaves like that would support abortion -- it's either that or children).

But still the Senate Ethics Committee's unanimous vote for expulsion troubles me. In the history of the United States only 15 senators have ever been expelled. The first, in 1797, was Tennessee's William Blount, kicked out for conspiring to incite .. Indian uprisings in Florida and Louisiana. The other 14 senators were all expelled for supporting the Confederacy during the Civil War. Until recently, in other words, treason was considered the appropriate grounds for expulsion. Lesser sins were left to NTC prosecutors or to voters.

In that context, Bob Packwood had a point when he complained, "I am accused of kissing women. On occasion of perhaps overeagerly kissing women, and that is the charge -- not drugging, not robbing, kissing. And when rebuffed never approaching them again."

You gotta give the s------ this much credit: A Bob Packwood scorned responded not with fury, but with indifference, simply moving on to his next prospect, whatever random female happened by.

Meanwhile, last time I checked, the hallowed halls up on Capitol Hill still contain people like Ted Kennedy, whose negligence killed a young woman and whose drunken sexual antics are legendary. Or for that matter Newt Gingrich, one of many powerful men who've traded in first wives for a younger model.

According to Mr. Packwood's nemesis, California Sen. Barbara Boxer, the Ethics Committee's vote sent "a very clear message that the Senate has zero tolerance for the type of behavior he exhibited." But one can't help but get the impression that, under the new rules, the disgrace lies not in seeking sex in the workplace, but in failing to get it.

Maggie Gallagher is a syndicated columnist.

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