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The Case of the Kissing Senator

Documents Related to the Investigation of Senator Robert Packwood Senate Select Committee on Ethics

US Senate 104th Congress, first session
US Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1995, Volumes 1–10

The Packwood Report

by the Senate Ethics Counsel on Senator Robert Packwood, Introduction by Helen Dewar
Times Books, 325 pp., $10.00 (paper)

1.

Strom Thurmond, who will turn one hundred in the Senate if he wins his eighth term next year and lives through it, gives a speech designed, Ronald Reagan—style, to poke fun at fears about his age and mental faculties. “If I’m ever struck insane,” he says, “I hope it will be in Washington because the people there won’t know the difference.” Having completed the ten-volume, ten-thousand-plus-page Documents Related to the Investigation of Senator Robert Packwood, I have to say that the distinguished senator from South Carolina has a point.

The “Investigation,” of course, refers to the thirty-three-month inquiry conducted by the Senate’s Select Committee on Ethics which began as a look into allegations by “a number of women that Senator Packwood had engaged in sexual misconduct.” It branched out into a look at whether or not he tried to intimidate or discredit those women, got waylaid during a protracted battle over whether or not the senator was required to turn over his personal diaries, resumed and expanded into an examination of “possible alteration of the diaries,” and ultimately included an investigation into whether or not he had approached lobbyists about creating jobs for his wife, whom he was divorcing, in order to minimize future alimony payments.

The investigation began on December 1, 1992, eight days after The Washington Post published a piece in which seven women accused the senator of making unwanted sexual advances, and one day after Los Angeles lawyer Gloria Allred sent a letter to the committee on behalf of the Women’s Equal Rights Legal Defense and Education Fund filing a formal complaint against the senator and requesting the investigation. Allred, who once represented the boy whom Michael Jackson was accused of fondling, did not actually represent any of the women, and none of them had contacted her, but she was “concerned that maybe they didn’t know how to file a complaint, concerned that the senator might be let off the hook.”

On September 6, 1995, twelve days after Packwood reversed a previous position and requested public hearings on “all pending Ethics Committee matters” concerning himself, the committee effectively denied that request by finding him guilty of “engaging in a pattern of sexual misconduct in at least 18 instances between 1969 and 1990,” “intentionally altering diary materials he knew the committee had sought,” and “inappropriately linking personal financial gain to his official position.”

The “Documents” consists of every piece of paper related to the committee’s investigation, which was conducted by five lawyers, an “investigator,” and an expanded committee staff of six. They include, for example, hundreds of pages of mind-numbing legal correspondence, but also the many festive notes exchanged by the senator and some of the complainants. “Happy Birthday,” the senator writes to former campaign volunteer Gena Hutton in what are obviously less stressful times. “Life just gets better and more exciting.” The complainant referred to only as C-1 (except when the committee staff forgets to black out her name) muses about Frank Sinatra (“I wonder how he must feel. It is such a responsibility to be imitated, listened to, memorized. I hope he is still able to feel melancholy, feel happy”), and thanks him for some Sinatra/Doris Day videotapes he made for her (“You have been very important to me because you made me feel that in the tens of thousands of eager faces mine was special”). “You and I,” Packwood writes back, “must have been born twins seventy years ago.”

There are depositions taken by a committee lawyer, Linda Chapman, which include a four-page exchange with the senator on the length of C-1’s skirts as well as on the exact amount of cleavage visible above her necklines, a great many questions to various complainants about types of kisses (“Was it a French kiss or a regular kiss?… Did he put his tongue in your mouth?”), and a long exchange with a complainant regarding the senator’s technique of slow dancing (Q: “How long after you started dancing did he start moving his hands around your back?” A: “I don’t know.” Q: “Was it right after or as soon as you started?… Did he push his pelvic area into your body and then back away or did he stay there?… Did you dance for the entire song?”).

There is a protracted discussion regarding a 1969 leg-patting incident (Q: “Do you remember how many times he patted you on the leg?… Where did he pat you?…Do you remember if he patted you on your knee or on top of your skirt?… And do you remember how long the pats lasted? For example, was it rubbing, was it patting? What type of contact was it?” A: “I don’t believe that it was rubbing…”), and a series of questions about where exactly the senator put his hands on a piece of clothing that counsel, later in its summary, primly refers to as an undergarment and the complainant calls a girdle. At one point in his testimony the senator admits that he did in fact kiss complainant Gena Hutton, with whom he had a “warm, bumpy, touchy, hugging relationship,” because she was “excited” about how well a day of campaigning had gone. “Was it customary to kiss your campaign workers on the lips?” the vigilant Chapman wants to know. “In some cases,” the senator responds, “yes.”

And finally, there are the excerpts from the infamous diaries, the discovery of which provides the only moment of drama in the whole ten volumes, and which occurs when, on the second day of his deposition, Packwood defends himself against an alleged incident by almost casually remarking that it didn’t show up in his diary. Reading the testimony after the fact is not unlike watching the classic horror-movie scene in which the girl is about to go in the house and meet a bad end, and everybody in the movie theater knows it, and they all scream “Don’t go in the house,” but of course she goes in anyway and he does, too. And from that moment on, he resorts to increasingly desperate measures, all painfully documented here, to protect himself and safeguard his precious diaries, more than eight thousand single-spaced pages of transcribed tapes he has dictated since 1969, and which he keeps in ringed binders locked in a safe in his office.

He gives the committee “relevant” diary entries with passages regarding family matters and “consensual sexual relationships” blacked out, and then they find entries in which he writes that he’s talked to lobbyists about jobs for his wife. He quits giving them anything, they subpoena everything. He pleads with his colleagues to vote against the subpoena, he loses the vote 94 to 6. He gets new lawyers and appeals the decisions from increasingly higher courts that the diaries should be turned over, while frantically changing incriminating entries just in case he loses. He offers to resign if the committee will drop the investigation into whether he solicited the lobbyists and leave the diaries alone, but withdraws the offer hours later when the Justice Department launches a separate investigation anyway.

Taken as a whole the ten volumes of transcript are a fascinating record of the actions of people, who, if not insane, are at the very least suffering from some very serious delusions. Chief among the latter is Packwood’s sense of himself as an historic figure—included here is an elaborate trust agreement giving the diaries, eight years after his death, to the Oregon Historical Society “for research and scholarly purposes.” There is no question that he has been a key supporter of women’s rights—in 1970 he introduced the first bill to legalize abortion and led the filibuster ten years ago against his own party’s bill to equate abortion with murder when both Bill Bradley and Pat Moynihan refused. He is by all accounts a conscientious senator whose chairmanship of the Finance Committee was marked by an eager grasp of the kind of minutiae that most people find tedious. During one of his two stints as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, he read in its entirety a detailed forty-page report on advertising testing instead of the usual “executive summary” which had been prepared for him. Afterward, he sent the report’s author a note complaining that “I expect my consultants to write in Churchillian prose.”

He told the senators on the Ethics Committee that the way he “operates around here with facts and issues is like filling a bathtub with water. I fill up my head with facts and boy, I’m ready for the issue. When the issue is over, I pull out the stopper and the facts run out. I put in the stopper and I fill up my head with other facts for other issues.” It’s difficult to integrate or even retain knowledge with this particular technique—which may explain why he had to read a dirty joke to one of the women who later complained about him—but when the facts are still inside his bathtub of a brain, he is a dedicated man. He was chief architect of the 1986 tax reform act. He calls himself a “deregulation hawk” who tried to break up AT&T before the courts did, was a staunch supporter of NAFTA, and has one of the strongest pro-environment records on the Hill.

He was loyal to his causes and never afraid to buck the tide of his party if it went against his own conscience, but it is doubtful that “the historians” he constantly refers to in his diaries will care quite as much about the details of his life and work as he seems to believe. “At this time,” reads a 1992 entry, “since I’ve got a little time to kill, I might as well review the office so the historians will know who’s in it, although they’ll have those lists of all the employees we’ve had over the years.” He goes on to describe “my impressions of how things are working,” the “perky, young scheduling receptionist” who is “doing fine,” the “milk toast who tilts toward the environmentalists so much the timber industry hates him,” and a beloved employee who “does an excellent job covering areas I hate to cover, the handicapped and the lame and the blind.”

In his diary he reports that he infuriated retired senator and Episcopal priest John Danforth during one of Danforth’s “pastoral” visits by continually asking, “What did I do wrong?” He might well wonder, since his colleagues in the Senate have lately included Brock Adams (R-Washington), who was accused (once in an actual police report) of drugging several women before molesting them—but was never investigated by the Ethics Committee—as well as the members of the Keating Five, who got off with barely a slap. Adams and the three worst Keating offenders chose not to run again, on the grounds that they wouldn’t stand a chance of re-election, which is the way the system used to work. But that was before Anita Hill told a riveted viewing public that Clarence Thomas said he had found a pubic hair on his Coke can and almost every man in the Senate was roundly accused of not getting it. Since then, proving that, by God, they’ve got it now has become a leading priority.

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