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COLUMN ONE : Hard Fight Led to a Hard Fall : Bob Packwood's pugnacious defense finally alienated even his closest Senate colleagues. The master negotiator lost his job by losing his ability to play the political game.

September 09, 1995|JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — At the end, standing drained and exhausted in the well of the Senate to announce his capitulation, Bob Packwood tried to summon up memories of the good days spent and good battles fought with his comrades in arms. The 1986 fight for tax reform. The countless efforts to protect Israel. The rafting trip with fellow-environmentalists and the fight to save the Hells Canyon gorge from a massive dam.

Ringed by his peers though he was, Packwood was as alone as anyone has perhaps ever been in that storied chamber. A public lifetime of achievement had been washed away, overwhelmed by revelations of personal conduct so tawdry his friends could only avert their eyes.

The collapse came in a way that defied all expectations of both Packwood and the Senate itself.

Beyond his wit and intelligence, beyond the talent for campaigning that had won him five terms in the Senate, he had been admired on Capitol Hill for his skill as a legislator. On even the most divisive issue, colleagues said, he could read the Senate and its members so well that he found compromise and agreement where others saw only confrontation.

Yet the story of Packwood's fall is, beyond everything else, the story of a man blind to the world around him, blind to the evolving values of American society, blind most of all to the attitudes and feelings of those he supposedly knew best, his fellow senators.

Given the seriousness of the charges, the massive nature of the evidence and the state of public opinion about the issues involved, severe punishment was almost inevitable for Packwood. Senate Ethics Committee Chairman Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he believed it would never be less than censure and loss of the Finance Committee chairmanship.

If Packwood had taken a different tack, however, some think he might have avoided his ultimate humiliation: his resignation Thursday under threat of expulsion.

The dramatic heart of Packwood's fall is irony: At the most critical crossroads of his public life, the senator's greatest talent failed him--his vaunted ability to read the institution he had made his life. In the end, that institution was full of people who saw a man losing his grip on decorum and on dignity, and dragging them along with him.

Faced with a hard-hitting Ethics Committee investigation into charges of repeated sexual harassment of women, of misuse of his office and of obstruction, Packwood responded with unremitting aggressiveness. He took the Senate to the Supreme Court to keep investigators from getting his personal diaries. Even before he lost in the high court, he began altering the diaries to remove incriminating passages. He seemed unrepentant in his testimony before the committee. He persuaded his Republican colleagues to oppose public Ethics Committee hearings on the matter--which they did at significant political sacrifice; then, reversing himself, he demanded open hearings and accused the Senate of denying him common fairness.

It was a strategy that again and again made life politically and personally difficult for his fellow senators--Republican allies and long-time friends on both sides of the aisle--who all wanted more than anything to avoid the whole issue.

"It was counterproductive," said a well-placed Senate source. "It became more and more counterproductive. He thought he could bully his way through it."

Codes of Conduct

By the end of the investigation, Packwood had been found guilty not only of violating the Senate's formal code of conduct with his behavior over the last quarter-century. He also violated a more informal code of conduct--the tradition of comity and collegiality that softens the edge of partisanship and permits the Senate to function.

That the tortuous saga lasted three years and produced a far harsher result than anyone had anticipated is a measure of how high the stakes became.

The issue of sexual misconduct was especially sensitive for the Senate, seared as it had been by the widespread indignation among women at its handling of harassment allegations against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas by law professor Anita Faye Hill in 1991. On Thursday, when Ethics Chairman McConnell released the panel's devastating report on Packwood, he paid tacit tribute to how long a shadow the Hill-Thomas episode had cast.

"I know that at various points in this case there were those out there who wondered whether the Ethics Committee would 'get it' in the Packwood case," McConnell said. "Well, there can be no doubt today that the Ethics Committee got it concerning the gross and persistent misconduct demonstrated by Senator Bob Packwood."

Packwood's hard-ball response to the investigation also seemed to many senators to challenge their will to maintain the basic integrity of the Senate's rules and procedures. Thus, for McConnell and others, the most offensive charge against the Oregon Republican was that he had brazenly altered tape-recorded diaries that the committee was seeking.

'Crime Against Senate'

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