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Catching a 'Chameleon': Senate Wrestles With Packwood : Politics: Opponents have long fallen to the wily Oregon bulldog. Now a diary is the fight of his life, and his colleagues face the bared teeth.

November 03, 1993|KAREN TUMULTY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — When Democratic challenger Les Au Coin accused Sen. Bob Packwood of "peddling . . . garbage" about him during their bitter race in Oregon last year, the senator neither denied it nor apologized for it.

"Les, I wasn't going to let you throw the first low blow in this campaign," Packwood shot back.

Toughness and a fierce survival instinct have been the hallmarks of Packwood's 30-year political career. Indeed, many would argue that they are the very traits that have persuaded Oregonians to send him to Washington again and again since 1968 and that have made him an effective senator.

The attacks against Au Coin worked, just as they have against every other political opponent. Packwood narrowly won a fifth term, only to have allegations that he had sexually harassed more than 20 women explode shortly after the election.

Now, the Republican faces a scandal that could destroy his quarter-century career in the Senate--and to the dismay of his colleagues, he is doing it in typical Packwood fashion.

"He doesn't care what people think of him. He only cares what the outcome is," said one former political foe.

In the battle over his diaries, the 61-year-old Packwood first resorted to what many regarded as thinly disguised blackmail, warning his fellow senators that his journals would shed light on their sex lives as well as his.

When that did not work, he took to the legislative trenches, putting an institution that prides itself on collegiality through an ordeal that has had senators attacking each other's motives and judgment.

As the exhausting and embarrassing battle dragged through its second day Tuesday, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) told a reporter for the Cedar Rapids Gazette: "I wish he would just go away."

But that, according to all who know him, is precisely what no one should ever expect from Packwood.

"This is Bob Packwood's life. This is what there is to it. The last thing he's ever going to do is give it up," said David Sarasohn, a columnist and associate editor of the Portland Oregonian newspaper.

When the debate started this week, virtually everyone on Capitol Hill was predicting a rout. With Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Ethics Committee showing rare unanimity in demanding the diaries, it seemed that senators would be politically foolhardy to vote any other way.

Nevertheless, perhaps in part because of Packwood's tenacity, the debate wore on for two days before the Senate voted to back the subpoena.

Packwood's strategy apparently was to find the soft spots in his colleagues' resolve, attacking it from all sides with one message: If this could happen to him, it could happen to any of them.

He delivered the message in many ways. At some moments he seemed oddly detached, discussing legal points as though the matter before the Senate was merely an ordinary piece of legislation and not his own political future. At others, he was highly emotional, rambling on about episodes of his personal life.

"He has more moves than Dame Judith Anderson," said William Lunch, an Oregon State University political scientist who describes Packwood as "a political chameleon."

Packwood has often succeeded by knowing just when to switch his tactics and his political stands. "He essentially moves with the political tides," Lunch said.

What Oregon voters like most about Packwood, however, is his toughness, Lunch said.

Packwood has a well-earned reputation "as a very, very cool, detached, rather distant kind of person," Lunch said. But when he runs for election in Oregon, he comes across as "a sheriff who can stare down all the bad guys."

Packwood arrived in Washington almost half his lifetime ago as an obscure state legislator who had upset incumbent Wayne Morse. "He has defined himself by being primarily an opportunist, but what else can you do in politics?" said one longtime acquaintance.

He has bucked his party in his support for abortion rights and has been an ardent ally of Israel.

But his most famous moment came when he was chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. In what has become a Capitol Hill legend, he and an aide single-handedly saved President Ronald Reagan's tax reform effort by rewriting the bill over a pitcher of beer.

The gesture was as ironic as it was dramatic. Packwood had initially opposed the whole idea of tax overhaul, saying: "I kind of like the present tax code."

And only three years after the tax bill was enacted, Packwood was allied with President George Bush in a drive to lower the tax rate on capital gains--which would have undone a key element of the earlier tax reform effort that is still regarded as the senator's greatest achievement.

Similarly, Lunch said, the once-ardent environmentalist has been one of the timber industry's chief allies in the fight over the habitat of the endangered northern spotted owl.

But for all those skills at survival, it remains to be seen whether Packwood can prevail this time.

In years past, the maximum punishment for alleged sexual improprieties might have been a round of snickering in the cloakroom. Today's Senate is eager to prove to a skeptical public that it can discipline its own under a set of standards that are far less forgiving.

But even if Packwood is eventually forced out of his beloved Senate, it is clear that he plans to be of no assistance to those who would like to see him go.

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