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National Perspective | Politics

Packwood Inches Back to Esteem

However, the disgraced former Oregon senator all but rules out making another run for public office.

April 14, 1998|TERRY McDERMOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PORTLAND, Ore. — Whatever else he had hoped to accomplish with his little toe-dipping tour around Oregon this spring, former U.S. Sen. Bob Packwood returns to Washington with at least one modest achievement--the ability to appear in public in his home state without a lynch mob in hot pursuit.

That might seem like being damned with very faint praise, but there was a time not long ago when Packwood could not have hoped for even that much.

He resigned from the Senate in disgrace in 1995 after the Ethics Committee found he had made a series of unwanted sexual advances over a period of decades. His resignation brought to an abrupt and ignominious end a 32-year career in Oregon politics.

At least that is what most people assumed. After Packwood, a Republican, left the Senate, he opened a Washington lobbying office, made lots of money and largely stayed away from Oregon. That changed this spring, when he began accepting speaking engagements. At several of them, he joked about plans for a new campaign and he told a reporter he would "never rule out" running for office again.

Few people even bothered to ask what office before speculation and response followed one another in a familiar cycle of escalation. Packwood abetted the speculation by saying he was "dipping his toe" in the political waters to gauge reaction to a possible future campaign.

"That was an inadvertent expression," Packwood said in an interview Monday.

While he is adamant about preserving his options--"I would never, never, never ever say I would not run again," is the way he put it most recently--he says he is a long way from making any plans for a renewed political career.

He intends to continue his lobbying business until he retires. At least two years, he estimates.

On this trip, the 65-year-old Packwood has spoken to civic groups, party activists, and Monday to a closed luncheon at one of Portland's most exclusive private clubs.

An accomplished storyteller, Packwood has been regaling the largely friendly audiences with backstage dramas from his long career--an anecdote about confronting Ronald Reagan here, one about kibitzing with Cary Grant there. He has mixed such tale-telling with his own diagnosis of policy issues.

He appears to be operating completely on his own. He has no staff, no circle of advisors. He arrived by himself for Monday's luncheon, just another man in a gray suit walking down the sidewalk.

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He was in a bantering, coy mood, pretending not to understand what all the fuss is about. He clearly enjoys being back in the public eye. He has been received respectfully and at times with some genuine, back-slapping enthusiasm. It is a sharp contrast to his last tour of the state four years ago, when hecklers and pickets greeted him almost everywhere he went.

Much has changed since then, most particularly the unstinting barrage of allegations about President Clinton's own sexual travails and the apparent public indifference to them.

Long regarded as one of the Senate's most adept strategists, Packwood declined to speculate on changes--if any--in the political climate or what effect such change would portend for his own tattered reputation.

"I haven't even thought about it," he said.

Others have.

Deanna Smith, chairwoman of the Oregon Republican Party, said she welcomed Packwood back to the fray.

"It's so ridiculous now that Clinton has been exonerated and Packwood did nothing near what Clinton did," she said. "I don't know why Packwood can't run. He was one of the best senators we ever had."

Others foresee a bit steeper climb toward respectability with voters. One local pollster called him delusional to even consider running again.

A number of political professionals speculated that Packwood was fully aware of what he was doing and, while he might not have a future office in mind, was definitely in the midst of a campaign. The goal of the campaign is rehabilitation of his reputation, they say, and he appears to have made good beginning toward achieving it.

The problem with playing a game like that, one Republican politician said, is you can dupe yourself.

"Pretty soon you're thinking, 'Hey, they really like me. Maybe I should run.' "

If he does, he might run and suffer an embarrassing loss--even for a lesser office, such as the state Legislature.

There is also the possibility of winning. Then he would have to go to Salem, to serve in the state capital where he started his political career.

Nobody here thinks Packwood would regard a return to the decidedly smaller stage of statehouse politics as a triumph. Cary Grant didn't play state capitals.

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