The Senator Who Mistook His Errands For History

September 25, 1995|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN STAFF

Forget sexual harassment. Sen. Bob Packwood is guilty of cluelessness in the first degree, felonious Neanderthalism, exposing himself (as a bore) and, most of all, DWI, diary-writing while intoxicated by power.

For this, he has been dealt the most capital of punishments, one both cruel and unusual: Volumes of incriminating evidence that lay him bare to the world, in the black and white of the printed page. In the cruelest of ironies, Bob Packwood is the star of two recently published books but won't even get a book tour out of it.

There is the $10, 325-page quickie book that just arrived in stores, "The Packwood Report," a Times Books reprint of the Senate Ethics Committee report that would have led to his expulsion had he not resigned on Sept. 7. But, for the true plunger into this heart of darkness, there is the 10-volume, 44-pound and 10,145 page "Documents Related to the Investigation of Senator Robert Packwood," printed and sold by the U.S. Government Printing Office for $429.

Mind-numbing yet fascinating, wonderful yet awful, these pages upon pages of testimony, original and altered diary entries, legal briefs and interview transcripts provide a glimpse into the walled community that is Washington, as well as the rise and fall of one of its supreme sultans.

And the picture that emerges is highly unflattering: of a ham-handed, heavy-drinking man who viewed himself as a Lothario of Capitol Hill, of an office and campaign culture that takes the workplace stereotype of the powerful man and the subordinate woman to the extreme, of a world that either breeds or tolerates such a person and such behavior.

But here's the kicker: This unattractive image is a self-portrait. It is the Oregon Republican's own diary, after all, that lifts the veil of decorum that usually shrouds Congress and sets this report apart from the dry transcripts and procedural citations more commonly issued.

There are so many perversely delicious levels of enjoyment in reading the diary, where to begin? The first and most headline-grabbing aspect, of course, is the powerful senator revealed as a graceless clod when it comes to sex. He writes of a drunken occasion when he and a staff member make love and dance nude around his desk in the office. And, there is the bridge tournament where one of the female players is wearing a jacket "showing, as best I could tell, bare breasts. God was she a good player. I was so fascinated in watching her bid and play that I could hardly concentrate on the breasts."

Equally comical is this portrait of The Senator Who Mistook His Daily Errands as Historic Events. This is one self-absorbed man, like a baby who has just discovering his toes, recording for posterity his tales of shopping for stereo equipment at Myer-Emco, puffing up his hair with a blow-dryer and going to Hechinger's and ending up with the wrong kind of telephone cord.

Finally, there is Senator Packwood's breathtaking lack of reflection, of seeing any forest beyond the trees, heck, even any trees beyond the pile of sawdust. For all the accounting of the minutiae of his days, this is a woefully unexamined life. There is almost no self-awareness, no sense of a world beyond his own little fiefdom, no comprehension of how others might view him.

At one point in the diary, he discusses a "pastoral meeting" with an unnamed "cleric" -- whom later news accounts identify as then-Sen. John Danforth. He is the decent Episcopalian minister who also counseled his friend Clarence Thomas through similar travails, when Anita Hill's charges of sexual harassment nearly cost him a seat on the Supreme Court. Senator Danforth keeps trying to explain to his colleague that it's wrong to engage in extramarital sexual relationships -- especially with subordinates in the office. But Senator Packwood, in the now-cliched slogan, just doesn't get it.

An unvarnished life

A diary is a funny thing. It presents the writer with perhaps his only chance to star in his own life story. Yet, precisely because it's a diary -- and meant for your eyes only, or perhaps a future, suitably respectful biographer -- it is an entirely unvarnished account. Most of us could use several coats of varnish; most of us should not be seen in public without it.

And so it is with Senator Packwood. The man who triumphantly marshaled the 1986 tax reform bill through the Senate should have let his legislative bills rather than his diary be his legacy. (Ironically, the government printing office says, the final report of the tax bill has sold about 30,000 copies to date, far outstripping the 20-some sets of the Ethics Committee's Packwood report.)

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