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.
Not surprisingly, Anita Hill pops up quite a bit in these volumes. When Georgie Packwood is asked if she knew of her husband’s antics, she says that once a woman implied that he might not have been “true” to her, but that “this was prior to the Anita Hill terminology…. We did not discuss it under the topic of sexual harassment.” A complainant tells the committee that “the whole Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings” had made her realize she had “a lot of baggage around this issue that I had not owned.” In her interviews with Packwood, the reporter who broke the story in The Washington Post repeatedly asks him the same question. “I assume you saw the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings. What was your view of those hearings?”
In one of the multitudinous ironies in this saga, it so happens that Packwood was one of two Republicans who voted against Thomas’s confirmation, but he responds to the question by asking, “What’s the relevance of that?” His colleagues know. Arlen Specter, for example, one of Hill’s toughest questioners, has taken to calling the hearings a “learning experience.” They were not, in fact, a seminar; they were supposed to be hearings on whether or not Thomas was qualified to serve on the Supreme Court. But that question has taken a back seat to the harassment issue. The Packwood inquiry was never really about getting at the truth of one man’s actions. It, too, was a reaction to an issue. When simple court cases, hearings, official inquiries become referenda on issues, then real information becomes secondary and is, usually, lost. The day after Lorena Bobbitt cut off her husband’s penis with a kitchen knife, National Organization of Women President Patricia Ireland called her a “heroine” and she became a symbol of oppressed women everywhere. Forgotten—or, worse, simply not important—was the statement she made to the arresting officer: “He always have orgasm and he doesn’t wait for me to have orgasm. I don’t think it’s fair so I pulled back the sheets and I did it.”
By the time the debate on whether or not to enforce the subpoena to turn over the diaries hit the Senate floor, almost a year into the investigation, the rhetoric was flying. The women were referred to as the Packwood 26 (only twenty-two had actually testified to the committee, the other four jumped on the bandwagon anyway), half of them had appeared on talk shows from Sally Jessy Raphael to Larry King Live, and they had been fêted by General Motors heir Stewart Mott, who has not been so inspired since George McGovern lost the presidency. At the party, a fund-raiser for the twenty-six attended by Patricia Schroeder and former Packwood fan Gloria Steinem, buttons were handed out bearing the sentiment “Thanks Anita, Bye Bob.”
As for the Senate debate, it was never actually a debate at all, but a contest to see who could get the most remarks on the record about their own longtime personal hatred of and vigilance against sexual harassment. This took fifteen solid hours, brought the Senate to a standstill for two full days, and produced such nuggets as the admonishment by Senator Patty Murray (Brock Adams’s replacement) that “the victims,” the “brave souls” who came forward, were “waiting,” that a vote against the subpoena would be nothing less than “a tragedy.” Even a visibly nervous Teddy Kennedy made a speech, but he had already gotten to the real point earlier in a steam-room conversation Packwood reports to the diary: “You know in that rape situation, that girl said I saw her raped … as soon as that story came out, my approval rating dropped 24 points in 36 hours.”
When the Senate did not protect him it must have been a terrible blow to a man who had cut himself off from everything but that institution. He owned no property in Oregon, and sold the house trailer on his uncle’s land he had used as his Oregon address when his legal bills began mounting. When he finally left his wife after ten years of counseling and twenty-six years of marriage (the same number he ultimately served in the Senate), he told her that he no longer wanted the responsibilities of home and family. “I only want to be a senator, that’s all there is for me.” He left on his son’s birthday. He told the committee that in his first couple of terms he got to his office as early as 4:00 AM and that he never arrived later than 6:30. Most evenings were spent in the office as well. Before a post-accusation trip to Hazelden to dry out, he spent hours entertaining reporters and staffers, drinking cheap wine boxed like fruit juice and playing music. He tells the committee that he had been “captivated” by C-1 because they shared a love of Rudy Vallee and Russ Colombo. He says he loved her “irreverent sarcasm” and her “nostalgia,” but “the thing I remember most about her is that she would drink with me frequently.”
He describes long days of campaigning after which he would be loath to separate from “the group.” After the evening when complainant Gena Hutton says he kissed her in a parking lot, the two of them sat in a parked campaign bus with the rest of the staff, drinking wine, eating pizza, playing charades—his favorite game—and singing “silly, ditty songs” for more than four hours. Even the consensual sex partners he mentions in his diary seem to come largely from his office pool. He describes an encounter on his office floor with a staffer known as S-1, who tells him, rather implausibly, “Senator, from the time I went into politics I wanted to work for you…. I believe in your issues and I heard you speak once, and you didn’t know it but I wanted to be with you.”
The senator’s defense against the charges that he hustled the lobbyists to hire his wife is that they weren’t just lobbyists, they were close friends who had offered to help him in a difficult time. Packwood’s own father was a lobbyist in Oregon, and the five men involved in the inquiry were indeed among his closest friends. One was the husband of the first woman he ever hired in his office (she still makes frozen soups for him, which he critiques in the diaries and compares to other soups friends bring him); another started out as a low-level staffer who drove for him. Practically the only people he knows work for him or used to work for him. Even when he goes shopping for bath towels he takes along Elaine Franklin, his chief of staff. But mostly he seems to spend time by himself, prowling the aisles of electronics and hardware stores, checking out the local supermarkets (“God the Safeway is such a much better store than the Giant”). He is so self-absorbed that he reports to the diary how many times he goes to the bathroom at night, and when. This is a man who still fondues—alone.
Both Packwood’s father and grandfather were alcoholics. His ex-wife tells the committee that during their marriage her husband’s “binge drinking” was a problem, but that he insisted he needed alcohol to be “charming.” It is clear from his diaries that he has a certain appreciation of women (“She is a sexy thing. Bright eyes and hair and that ability to shift her hips”). But Georgie Packwood concurs with his statement to the committee that “All my life I have been afraid of being rebuffed by girls when I was a kid, and a boy, and then women, that I fear for being rebuffed and I am not physical.” Perhaps that’s why he resorts to proposition by ambush: the rebuff time is shorter. He seems to also rely on success by numbers—if he kisses enough women maybe one will kiss him back—and he rarely wastes a moment, though he does have a type, best described as wholesome but “sassy.”
He kisses the babysitter while his wife waits in the car, and the Senate elevator operator every time he takes a ride, signaling his intentions, she tells the committee counsel, by cocking his head and saying “Kiss!” before kissing her “mushily.” When his dinner partner’s husband goes to the bathroom, he leans over and kisses her, and when he checks out of a motel he leans across the counter to kiss the clerk. But he is not entirely incapable of the romantic gesture. For C-1 he tapes “Didn’t We?” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Your Face,” and sends her a note reading, “You are wonderful, warm, and wise beyond your years…. Are you sure we didn’t know each other in 1955. Didn’t we meet under the Biltmore clock?”
Almost every one of the complainants speaks of his genuine surprise when he is rejected, and when a Washington Post reporter tells him that the complainant Mary Heffernan saw his kissing her as “an exploitation of the power between the two of you,” he says, “Oh, no, she’s too nice a person.” He will never make the connection the reporter is trying to get him to make—he just wanted to kiss the girl. C-1 testified that when she told the senator that a freelance writer was working on a piece on sexual harassment and that it might center on him, he was “frightened and perplexed and confused about whether he had harassed anyone. I remember him posing a number of hypothetical questions and asking if that constituted harassment.” His lawyers, in fact, ask the committee for a “standard” by which to judge harassment, which is never provided, though lawyer Linda Chapman does provide some helpful guidelines: “Senator, when I say a situation that was not consensual or involved an improper advance, I’m talking about one that may have ended up consensual but that began as nonconsensual … for example, a situation where you may have made an unwanted advance that then later changed to a consensual situation.”
With reality that complicated, no wonder he resorts to fiction. In his diaries, even before he alters them, his kisses are always returned “fulsomely.” Unpleasant encounters didn’t happen. “Actually least of all damaging,” he tells the diary, “is probably the diaries, because in it, there would be nothing about being a rejected suitor, only my successful exploits.” This screenplay version of the senator’s life is a running theme. He explains to the committee that in his diaries he may say that he and Senator Exon hammered out a problem, complete with conversational details, when in actuality their staffs did it and he never talked to the man. After he tells chief counsel Victor Baird that he keeps a separate schedule of each day’s events (also in binders and locked in the safe), Baird wants to know if he dictates the diaries “from that schedule and your memory.” “Yeah,” says the senator, “memory, I suppose, real or imagined.”
Even the committee senators are confused when they finally get around to questioning Packwood themselves. When Senator Richard Bryan (D-Nevada) asks Packwood why he would bother to “fictionalize any account” if he thought “no person would see the diary until after the Oregon Historical Society would have it,” he misses the point. The fantasy of Packwood’s diary is far better than the reality of tawdry old life. In the diary, unencouraging dinners with his lawyers didn’t happen, he slept with twenty-two staffers instead of maybe a handful, and, in the example he gives to Bryan, he got tough at a dinner, reciting macho lines to the diary that he did not deliver. When the senators press on, Packwood tries again, telling them that in “some cases it is dreams or hopes I put in conversational [form] … some cases where I think someone is appreciative of me and I’ll put in that he said ‘Packwood, you’re a great American,’ but he never said it or never even, maybe never even thought it.”
When Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota) asks, “Why did you not destroy them?” it is clear he has not been paying attention. Packwood has been so careful about not destroying them that he made a copy of each tape he dictated, keeping the “most mechanically secure” one for himself, often making a third tape “on the assumption that the new tape would be the most secure of all to keep for permanence.” He is so compulsive that even when he “alters” the tapes by taking incriminating passages out, he can’t resist putting things back in, sometimes more incriminating than what he removed, and sometimes simply for the benefit of the committee: “I really am kind of looking forward to settling in for these last five months and working hard and voting for what’s good for America and leaving a legacy that everyone can be proud of if I can get this ethics thing behind me.”
When the senators are not trying to make sense of their colleague’s diary habits, they express great interest in his newfound sobriety. Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland wishes him well in his recovery and informs the rest of the committee that, “by the way,” it is the week of the thirtieth anniversary of Alcoholics Anonymous (Packwood has to tell her it is really the sixtieth). Senator Bob Smith of New Hampshire wonders, for example, “just out of curiosity, how does a public figure get in and out of an AA meeting anonymously?” Packwood tells them that he has not had a drink in almost three years, a remarkable achievement, since he has not yet made it through that all-important first step of twelve. “Senator,” Senator Mikulski asks, “Are you an alcoholic?” “Yes,” he says. “I think so.”
But Packwood is not alone. It seems the complainants are not entirely in touch with their feelings either. When Senator Dorgan says that these women, the twenty-two women who made allegations to the committee, “did not just emerge,” he doesn’t realize how right he is. They were tracked down and rounded up, sometimes at great expense and effort, by a single journalist who convinced them that they had not properly worked through their “injuries,” and that the best way to do that would be to share their stories. Instead of the popular repressed memory syndrome, they all seem to be suffering from repressed injury syndrome. They remember everything, they just didn’t know how traumatic it had been until they were told. But it is not a psychiatrist who performs this service, it is a free-lance journalist, Florence Graves.
Florence Graves was the founding editor of Common Cause magazine, and more recently the editor of the Boston-based New Age Journal, which usually sticks to such subjects as “Do-It-Yourself Talismans,” and “Building Your Own Straw-Bale House.” In the wake of the Clarence Thomas hearings, Graves discussed with Vanity Fair the possibility of doing a piece on sexual harassment on Capitol Hill. She apparently didn’t find much, until another free-lance journalist in Oregon who had been researching a book on Packwood put her in touch with Julie Williamson, the woman whose girdle Packwood tried to get off in 1969. Williamson had been telling the story “on the cocktail circuit” for years, according to Packwood, who says he doesn’t remember the incident. But when Graves contacted Williamson in Oregon in April of 1993 she wasn’t so sure about telling it for the record. (She had already given it to an Oregon journalist who didn’t use her or the senator’s name, and who wrote it up, she says, as “something that happened to somebody once.”) Graves pressed and finally flew to see her, when Williamson was on vacation in New Hampshire, at the end of the summer. “She did this gigantic long interview with me,” Williamson tells the committee counsel.
And at the time, she was talking about the psychological impact of not being believed … and I thought she was researching an article for a woman’s magazine about not being believed in situations like [mine]…. She would call me occasionally and ask who might know things about Senator Packwood, and so I had the impression that she was digging around a lot, trying to track down rumors…. She’d call me up and read me a list of names and ask me if I knew where these people were…. And then she called and said she was at the Washington Post.
Vanity Fair had told Graves that the magazine would not cover her costs if she were sued for libel, so she took what she had from Williamson to the Post, which hired her on a temporary basis and teamed her with a reporter from its investigative unit named Charles Shepard. In October 1992, she and Shepard flew out to Oregon to see Julie Williamson together. “Oregon as you know is a very small state,” Williamson told the committee. “By now everybody knew about Florence Graves and this story. It was just all over. I was having people calling me saying, ‘You ought to call this lady named Florence Graves because you used to work for Bob Packwood.’ “
One of the names Graves and Shepard got in Oregon was that of Jean McMahon, a woman who approached Packwood about a speechwriter’s job “in 1976 or 1977” and got chased around his hotel room instead. They couldn’t find McMahon, but they found her marriage certificate at the Portland courthouse along with a Social Security number and an old address. From post office change-of-address forms they “just kind of followed me around,” she told the committee counsel, from different addresses within Oregon to Texas and finally to Philadelphia, where Shepard “called up one day and I was home. And I said, ‘How did you find me out of 230 million people or whatever?’ and he said, ‘Well, the resources of the Post, they can find a lot of people.’ ”
Eventually they managed to find seven women and planned to write a story detailing the women’s allegations that would run a day or two before the closest race of Packwood’s career. When Graves and Shepard met with the senator himself on the Friday evening before the Tuesday election, they told him what they had and that if he had stuff to prove the allegations wrong he had better get someone to dig it out of his office in Washington and send it overnight. Packwood cried foul to Post editor Len Downie, who held the story until after the election, and spent the remainder of the year defending his decision. Shepard and Graves continued their “investigation,” and a second story naming ten more women ran in January.
By that time, of course, the Ethics Committee had started its own investigation, sending out a letter and questionnaire to 293 female former Packwood staff members, but only two women reached by that method came forward with allegations of misconduct. Florence Graves had better luck. A former caseworker in Packwood’s Portland office known only as C-13, who charged that the senator had chased her around a desk “sometime in the early seventies,” went to the committee after Graves, whom she describes as “persistent,” called her and included her in the first Post article.
Mary Heffernan, a staffer at the National Abortion Rights Action League, had known Packwood since 1978, when, according to the senator, she “just worked her heart out” to defeat a state ballot issue preventing state funding of abortions. She volunteered for his campaign in 1980, and in “1981 or 1982” he gave her a “sensual” kiss on the mouth at the end of the meeting. She says it never occurred to her to tell anybody about the kiss until Graves asked her on the phone, “Did you ever have an incident?” and suddenly “there was like this flash, this image immediately in my mind that was ‘well, as a matter of fact I did.’ ”
Paige Wagers was kissed by Packwood on two occasions, once in 1975 while working for him as a mail clerk, and again in 1981 when she was employed by the Department of Labor. She ran into Packwood in the Capitol, he steered her to an office, pressed her against the wall, kissed her, stroked her hair, and told her she was “young and beautiful and innocent.” She slipped out when he leaned over to plump some pillows on the sofa and that was the last she saw of him. But when Graves called her, she says she realized that her life in the twelve years since the encounter had “remained frozen in time,” that she had been “affected by it emotionally, financially, intellectually.” She told the committee she had come forward because “Florence said…maybe you don’t know how badly you’ve been injured yourself. And she was right…. In retrospect I never worked through that injury.”
When Graves and Shepard found Jean McMahon in Philadelphia, she told them that immediately after her encounter with the senator, she had been “devastated” and “in shock,” and felt like she was “in a movie.” She couldn’t remember the year of the encounter or the motel where it happened, and she recovered at least enough to still want the job—she told the committee she called the next day to see if she’d gotten it. The latter details did not interest the reporters as much as McMahon’s going on the record with her story. In order to persuade her, they enlisted the help of their first convert, Julie Williamson, who helped to convince other women to go public in conference calls initiated by the Post. “[Graves] called me and said, ‘All right, there are other women with incidents and we want to put you on the phone,’ ” Williamson told the committee counsel. “So there were three times when I talked to women that they hooked me up with by phone, [and they] told me about their situation, what they would say if they went public, and I told them what I would say if I went public.”
Two of the women Williamson helped convince during these group therapy sessions were Jean McMahon and Mary Heffernan, and after their phone chat, McMahon told the committee, they “thought it would be kind of fun to meet.” Graves and Shepard met them at the Post, took them on a tour of the newspaper, and bought them a drink nearby. After dinner, CNN interviewed the three women. Williamson and Heffernan had already appeared on Good Morning America and Prime Time Live. Williamson alone had appeared on Sally Jessy Raphael, Larry King Live, and local Oregon stations, and had done a radio interview with NPR’s Nina Totenberg. “Half the time,” she told the committee, “I didn’t know what network I was at.”
Jean McMahon appeared on television because “generally I’d like to see this kind of behavior, not just Packwood, become less,” she told the committee. “I can only give examples of subjects that come up on these daytime talk shows. You know, stuff like child abuse. For a long time, people didn’t want to talk about that sort of thing. And then some issue would come up and it would get aired endlessly. And as a result it would become easier for many people to say, ‘Yes, it happened to me.’ ”
And it did become easier. Gillian Butler, the former desk clerk who told the committee Packwood gave her “a very brief…friendly, rather than passionate or French” kiss in 1979, said she hadn’t heard from her ex-boyfriend in ten years until he called her after seeing the other women on TV. Butler told him she thought the incident “wasn’t a big deal,” but he convinced her to call Holly Pruett, head of the Oregon Coalition Against Domestic Violence, who also acted as a self-appointed liasion between the women and Florence Graves, and who filed a complaint with the committee the day after Gloria Allred did. Sharon Grant, a woman who had gone to Packwood’s office in 1969, “I think,” to discuss job possibilities, said the senator asked her to have a drink and “spend the evening” with him. But his look was “too bold,” she said, so she left the office without incident, and twenty-three years later she saw an article about Julie Williamson headlined “Woman Urges Other Women to Come Forward,” called Pruett and Graves, and ultimately went before the committee.
And then there’s C-1, Packwood’s tape-exchanging “twin.” On the night he kissed her they drank wine in his office, and later joined staffers at an Irish bar for several pitchers of beer. At the end of the evening they returned to his office to look at his list of labor contacts—which they actually did—and he put his arms around her, said, “God, you’re great,” and kissed her. In her testimony to the committee, she said she had been traumatized, yet she stayed in the senator’s employ, received a promotion and a routine raise, invited him to a Mel Tormé concert as well as her wedding (he gave her what she describes as a set of her favorite Sinatra movies), and sent him a Christmas card with the message.
You know everyone in Washington DC has an agenda or motive. It’s nice to know I have one friend in this town that reminds me of George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” who knows that what really matters in life is having friends.
According to Packwood they remained so friendly that a year after the first kiss she gave him one. He told the committee that he recalled the kiss clearly because “when a big, lanky woman comes over and puts her arms around you, you remember,” and because she had said, “You;re wonderful,” to which he responded “warts and all?” figuring she’d “get the reference to Cromwell.”
C-1’s change of heart was actually more complicated than the others’. When Graves and Shepard first approached Packwood with the charges, they included C-1 in their list although she had refused to talk to them and they had only heard her story from a friend of a friend. As soon as they mentioned her name, Packwood immediately tried to discredit her, telling them she had a big mouth and couldn’t be trusted, and ultimately showing them the notes he and C-1 had exchanged. When Graves and Shepard told C-1 what the senator had said about her, she told them it made her feel “like the lowest form of life.” She retaliated by agreeing to talk after all, and it was Packwood who had unknowingly handed her to them.
These are the kinds of nuances that make it difficult to reduce communication between two people to facts on paper and almost impossible to reduce it to a legal reality. The Ethics Committee staff summarizes the entire proceedings in a separate 199-page report that contains absolutely no nuances at all. Written completely from the point of view of the lawyers conducting the investigation, it is devoid of any individual voice other than the odd excerpt from the senator’s testimony or his diaries, and of any mention of Florence Graves. This distillation (prepared in part for the senators themselves, who, unlike Packwood would almost certainly not take the time to pore over more than ten thousand pages of evidence) was later published almost verbatim by Times Books as The Packwood Report, over-billed in Washington Post staff writer Helen Dewar’s introduction as a “story of sex, power, and pathos.” In fact the only mention of sex in these pages comes in a totally gratuitous “publisher’s appendix,” the three-page diary entry detailing the “famous night” with S-1, who was neither a complainant nor a witness. Presumably this was added to heighten the public’s “prurient” interest, which the book’s editor told me he hoped The Packwood Report would tap into and which justified a first printing of 100,000 copies, twice as many as was warranted by Newt’s Contract With America and the Pope’s Encyclical on Human Life.
As it happens, sales of The Packwood Report are now characterized by its publisher as “horizontal,” which is hardly surprising, lacking as it is in human drama. Only by reading the forty pounds of unedited, unexpurgated “documents” is it possible to get a sense of the senator’s monumental self-deception, the cynicism and fear of his colleagues, the self-righteousness of the committee counsel, the crusade of Florence Graves, the often baffling behavior of the women who testified against Packwood. They are portrayed as so helpless—and hapless—that their protectors, Gloria Allred and Holly Pruett, cannot even trust them to file their own complaints. In more than a few cases they attribute everything that has gone wrong in their lives—depression, divorce—to a single encounter with the senator. Paige Wagers told the committee that since the senator kissed her she has been reduced to teaching dance, a statement that the committee lawyers include in their summarized report with great solemnity.
Like almost everybody else in this sad story, they mean well. Wagers told the committee she wanted “to contribute something positive to the world…. I am at a point in my life now where I care very much about the world and specifically the next generation.” But they also seem to be entirely lacking in free will. They complain of being manipulated by Packwood, but then they proceed to allow themselves to be manipulated by everybody else: by publicity-seeking lawyers like Allred, by a journalist with a cause, by television interviewers who happily turn them into talk show queens.
It was the last incarnation that the, Senate reacted to and that assured Packwood’s demise. Immediately after the first Post story broke, a member of another senator’s staff, asked to speculate on Packwood’s future, said, “There is the danger that it could become a huge spectacle. I think it’s going to depend on the women.” They did not disappoint, but, as usual, it was Packwood himself who drove the final nail into his coffin when, in the final hour, he insisted on public hearings. The Senate majority had protected him—and themselves—by voting against public hearings, and they were betrayed. They were also horrified at the prospect of women telling other senators what they had already told Montel and Sally Jessy and Oprah three years earlier: tales of narrowed eyes and slobbery tongues broadcast on national television at a time when the country’s distrust of elected officials is at an all-time high. The senators, after all, were well-meaning, too. The Ethics Committee’s mandate is to punish “improper conduct” so “notorious” or “reprehensible” that it would discredit the institution as a whole. After the committee recommended expulsion, Alan Simpson remarked that “I looked around [the Senate Chamber] and saw people who had done things much worse than that.” Perhaps. But certainly the institution would not have been served particularly well in an election year if Senator Dorgan, say, had been forced to ask a complainant in front of cameras—as the committee counsel did behind closed doors—“Do you remember whether he was grabbing the girdle or grabbing you?”
Since the question won’t be asked after all, for the record it was only the girdle, left side.
February 1, 1996