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Senate Slams the Door on Fairness

August 13, 1995|ROBIN ABCARIAN

No one should have been surprised when the U.S. Senate voted to keep the privacy curtain pulled tight around accused sexual harasser Sen. Bob Packwood. This is, after all, the testosterone-rich environment where quadrupling the number of women members since 1992 meant going from merely two to merely eight.

Packwood's peers have spared him from facing the nation as he faces his 17 accusers--women who have provided "substantial credible evidence" against the Oregon Republican, according to the Senate Ethics Committee.

Packwood has also been accused of altering his diaries and of improperly trying to find work for his ex-wife.

If found guilty by the ethics panel, he faces the possibility of losing his chairmanship of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, or rebuke, or even--heavens--expulsion from the Senate.

Even though new allegations were made this week by two women--including one who was a minor when she says the senator "laid a juicy kiss" on her--the Senate is not likely to reverse its position.

In fact, lawmakers appear to have forgotten the sensitivity lessons they professed to have learned in the wake of Anita Hill's accusations of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas.

Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), for example, expressed remorse four years ago after attempting to demolish Hill's credibility. But just last week he directed this outrageous statement to Packwood's accusers:

"They are going to have their lives examined as they never have had before. This is not a threat, but when you go out to bring another person down, you subject yourself to the same scrutiny."

The 52 senators who voted against open hearings in the Packwood scandal seem to think that it is disclosure enough to release all relevant documents in the case.

It is not.

Instead, releasing documents while holding closed hearings in effect silences the many women who say they have been victimized by an elected official who, if the charges are to be believed, is a compulsive harasser.

(A restaurant hostess claims he ran his hand up her leg and grabbed her crotch, a Senate elevator operator says he pushed her against the elevator wall and kissed her more than once, and his own children's baby-sitter has accused him of kissing and fondling her.)

Until these charges were leveled, Packwood was an effective advocate for women's issues. In 1970, he introduced the first bill in Congress to legalize abortion. He supported the Equal Rights Amendment and the Family Leave Act. He was the first Republican senator to announce his opposition to Robert Bork's Supreme Court nomination because of Bork's hostile stance on Roe vs. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.

I have read that some Packwood supporters say their man is a victim of "mass feminist hysteria," whatever that is. The fact is, feminists were among his greatest supporters until it became clear that privately he seems to have violated so much of what he has stood for.

Back in the fall of 1992, when the harassment accusations were first published, Packwood didn't seem to see himself as a victim. It appears from the record that he was perfectly willing to admit he had some sort of problem . . . but only if saying so made it go away.

At first, he denied the harassment stories. Then he admitted that he had a "drinking problem" and checked into Hazelden Foundation in Minnesota, an alcohol treatment center, but left early. At about the same time, his ex-wife said alcohol was "a major factor in our divorce," but Packwood publicly insisted he was not an alcoholic.

Sometime later, Packwood issued a formal, public apology in which he said his behavior had been "just plain wrong." He said that perhaps because of the era in which he was raised he "just didn't get it."

Only after that, when his contrition did not succeed in putting the harassment matter to rest, did he say his apology was not "an admission of guilt."

Inevitably, the controversy has devolved to the level of partisanship, a charge that has been leveled against Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who forced the entire Senate to vote on whether the hearings should be open.

I don't believe for a minute it is partisanship alone that motivates Boxer, who, back in 1991, was one of a group of House women who demanded the Senate delay its vote on Thomas until Hill's charges could be examined.

Sexual harassment by a senator is as important an issue as bribery or influence peddling (both of which have been addressed by the Senate in public hearings).

When is the U.S. Senate going to figure that out?

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