Scoundrels: Political Scandals in American History—Bob Packwood
Robert William “Bob” Packwood was a long-time Republican United States senator from Oregon when multiple women alleged that he had sexually assaulted them. As a progressive Republican and chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, Packwood had done much to aid women’s rights. He supported causes near and dear to their hearts: abortion rights, equal opportunity in the workplace, and family leave. Yet it became clear in 1992 that the senator had two faces: a public one and a private one. In private, he had compiled a long, dismal record of unwanted kissing, touching, and groping women, many of whom worked for him. He was a Dorian Gray-like character: handsome and engaging on the outside while he was corrupt and rotten within.
Before the charges emerged, Packwood was widely respected as a hard-working centrist Republican, a vanishing breed of pragmatic lawmaker able to bridge the chasm between Democrats and Republicans. He parlayed his ability to reach across the aisle and get things done into a 26-year-career in the United States Senate. He had become an elder statesman of his party before the allegations surfaced. I discuss the Packwood scandal in my upcoming book, Scoundrels: Political Scandals in American History.
A successful lawyer and state legislator, in 1968 Packwood agreed to run for a United States Senate seat against the Democratic incumbent United States senator, Wayne Morse. Packwood was taking a major chance in challenging the incumbent. Morse was a legend in Oregon politics. He had served in the Senate since 1945, and he had developed a reputation as a maverick, bucking his party when it suited his purposes. He had been a Republican early in his career before declaring himself an independent and finally becoming a Democrat. One issue especially caused a rift between Morse and his fellow Democrats: The Vietnam War. President Lyndon B. Johnson insisted that Democrats support the war, but Morse was bitterly opposed, becoming a strong voice against the administration.
For all the advantages of incumbency, Morse was a surprisingly vulnerable candidate in the 1968 election. As a Washington Post editorial noted, the “Senator’s sharp tongue, his skill in debate, his astonishing ability to filibuster all by himself, and his disposition to speak his mind regardless of what the consequences might be tended to make him something of a lone figure.” Packwood shrewdly recognized the political advantage in attacking Morse where he was weak, namely on his party loyalty. The young upstart argued that Morse, a Democrat, was reckless because he would not vote to fund the war effort of a Democratic president. Packwood pointed out that the attention Morse devoted to the war was attention that he did not devote to the needs of Oregon’s citizens.
No one expected Packwood to pull off a victory. He had little name recognition and he could not match Morse’s contacts, despite the senator’s mercurial nature. Yet the seemingly impossible happened. On election day, November 5, 1968, the margin of victory was razor thin. Packwood initially appeared to have won by 3,445 votes. Morse demanded a recount of about 100,000 ballots, as did Packwood. The recount spilled into December. Morse narrowed the gap, but the finally tally showed that Packwood had won by 3,263 votes, which meant that he had captured 50.2 percent of the vote to Morse’s 49.8 percent. Morse’s advisers informed him that he would have won “if several thousand illegal ballots had not been counted.” Yet he had run out of options to contest the results. Wayne Morse officially conceded the election on December 30, 1968.
The 36-year-old Bob Packwood arrived in Washington in January 1969 as the youngest member of the United States Senate, replacing Edward M. Kennedy, who had been the youngest senator until that time. Packwood was determined to be a good Republican, but he never aligned himself with the conservative wing of the party. As a moderate, he supported common sense gun restrictions and favored civil rights legislation. When Republican President Richard M. Nixon nominated two southern Supreme Court nominees, Clement Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell, Packwood voted against confirmation in both cases because the men favored racial segregation. More importantly, Packwood also became the first Republican to break with his party on impeaching President Nixon.
His pro-choice position impressed many women’s organizations. Here was a Republican member of Congress who could be counted on to treat women as persons, not infantilizing them with paternalistic legislation telling them what they could and could not do with their bodies. Throughout his career, he received awards from groups such as Planned Parenthood and the National Women’s Political Caucus for his progressive agenda.
Packwood was in the thick of many Senate battles as he was reelected in 1974, 1980, and 1986. He often went his own way, defying easy categorization. He was an ardent environmentalist, which was unusual for a Republican. As chair of the Senate Finance Committee, he helped rescue President Reagan’s 1986 tax cut legislation, which appeared to be headed for defeat. In 1993, he threw his weight against President Clinton’s health care reform bill, assuring that the measure would not pass. His admirers saw him as that rare breed of politician who makes decisions based on his reading of the bill, not on party affiliation. Detractors viewed him as a prickly iconoclast who was difficult to deal with owing to arrogance and inconsistency in his positions.
In his personal life, Packwood was married from 1964 until 1990. Later, his ex-wife, Georgie Oberteuffer Packwood, remarked that she never knew the dark side of his personality. Even as he sponsored legislation benefiting women and families, the senator lived a “shadow life.” He became a shameless sexual predator. “This shadow life made a mockery of my marriage, 25 of the prime years of my life,” his ex-wife bitterly reflected.
Bob Packwood’s long pattern of sexual harassment and assault was well known among congressional staffers and interns, who were warned to avoid being alone with him. To the public, however, his façade was secure. Yet the secret, so carefully concealed for so many years, could not remain hidden from the public forever.
His transgressions came to light beginning in October 1992. Packwood was running for reelection against a popular Democratic congressman, Les AuCoin, in what promised to be a close race. In the meantime, reporters from The Washington Post were investigating allegations from 10 women that Senator Packwood had forcibly kissed and groped them during a series of incidents stretching back 20 years. The Post contacted Packwood’s office in October about the incidents. Chief of Staff Elaine Franklin, fearing an “October Surprise” with information about sexual abuse charges appearing in newspapers a month before election day, dismissed the allegations as part of a politically motivated “witch hunt.”
Much to the senator’s relief, the Post reporters told him on October 31 that they would not finish their investigation before election day. Therefore, any news stories on the allegations would wait until later in November. It was a welcome development because the election was too close to call on election night. When the ballots were all counted, Packwood had won with 52 percent of the vote. Had the allegations surfaced before election day, he knew that the vote might have gone against him.
Safely reelected, the senator hoped the story would die a natural death. It did not. The women told their stories to reporters, and the stories were remarkably consistent. In 1969, Julie Williamson, a 29-year-old legal secretary, came to work in Packwood’s Senate office in Portland. One afternoon not long after she joined his staff, Williamson was on the telephone when Packwood slipped behind her and kissed her on the back of the neck. Stunned, she wheeled around. “Don’t you ever do that again,” she admonished him.
In the mid-1970s, 30-year-old Jean McMahon, then an employee of the Oregon Department of Education, applied for a job in Packwood’s Portland office. They initially met in his hotel room to talk about having McMahon draft a speech for the senator. A few weeks later, Packwood was in town, and he asked her to meet him again in his motel room so they could discuss her work on the speech. McMahon later admitted that she was naïve to meet the senator in his hotel room. During the first visit, however, Packwood had been a perfect gentleman. The second visit was far different. As she recalled years later, the visit “ended up in one of those classic unpleasant situations where it was obvious he had other ideas on his mind and didn’t want to talk about the speech,” she said. Packwood was out of control. “I can remember being chased around the table and being grabbed and kissed once.”
She tried to leave, but the senator blocked her exit. “There didn’t seem to be any way to calm him down and get him back to what I thought we were going to do,” she said. ‘The feeling I remember is of him trying to get power over me both physically and psychologically.” When McMahon later contacted Packwood’s staff to discuss the speech, no one was aware that she had been assigned to complete that task.
Paige Wagers was a 21-year-old college graduate who snagged a job as a mail clerk in the senator’s Washington, D.C., office. Working in the least prestigious position in the Senate office, she was surprised when Packwood noticed her and invited her to play bridge with several aides. Later, he buzzed her on the intercom and asked her to enter his office. He was her boss, of course, and so she complied with the request.
As soon as she came into the office, Packwood locked the door and embraced her, running his fingers through her hair, and kissing her on the lips. He said he liked her wholesome good looks. “It was very clear that it was a sexual thing,” Wagers remarked during an interview years later. “It was very hard to get him to let go of me.”
She eventually talked her way out of the office. Shaken, she described the encounter to other staffers. Their nonchalant attitude surprised her. It was common knowledge among the staff that Packwood was a sexual predator. They recommended that she simply refuse any requests from the senator to enter his office alone. Wagers followed their advice when Packwood twice summoned her into his office following the initial incident.
On and on it went. Each story sounded almost the same.
Following the November 22, 1992, publication of a Washington Post article detailing Packwood’s 20-year pattern of behavior, the senator was under enormous pressure to issue a statement explaining his behavior. “If any of my comments or actions have indeed been unwelcome or if I have conducted myself in any way that has caused any individual…embarrassment, for that I am sincerely sorry,” the initial statement read. Critics immediately pounced on the statement, which they argued was too little, too late. A New York Times editorial opined that the statement “betrays a basic misunderstanding about the charge against him. It’s not just about embarrassment. It’s that he used the power of his position for sexual purposes.” The editorial noted that Packwood’s behavior did not exist in a vacuum. Many powerful men in the United States Senate, and in a variety of elected positions, used their power to coerce unfortunate subordinates to endure all manner of sexual harassment and assaults.
On December 10, 1992, in his first public appearance since The Washington Post article appeared, the senator went further than he did in the original statement. Saying that he accepted “full responsibility” for his actions, Packwood acknowledged that his conduct went far beyond inappropriate or offensive behavior. It was, he admitted, “just plain wrong.” Earlier in the month, he had entered a clinic for alcohol treatment and evaluation, although Packwood said that his drinking problem was not an excuse for his behavior.
The U.S. Senate’s ethics committee launched an investigation shortly after the Post article appeared. During an appearance before the committee in October 1993, Packwood did himself no favors when he mentioned that he had kept a diary for years. Investigators seized on this admission, arguing that they needed to see the diaries to determine the nature and extent of his contact with women during his time in the Senate. Packwood resisted, contending that the diary contained private information that should not be open to public scrutiny. Constitutional advocates questioned whether requiring Packwood to divulge the content of his diaries constituted a violation of his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. Despite these concerns, the Senate voted 94 to 6 to require him to turn over the more than 8,200 pages of the document to the ethics committee.
On December 16, 1993, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson ordered the senator to turn over the diary because the material was, in the words of the ethics committee, “unquestionably relevant” to the investigation. Concerned that the diaries contained all manner of personal material, including the senator’s sexual fantasies and his unvarnished opinion of his colleagues, Packwood appealed Judge Jackson’s decision. He lost on appeal. A court-appointed special master, Kenneth Starr, was directed to sift through the material and determine whether any entries contained material that was purely personal, involved medical records, or disclosed confidential information between Packwood and his attorneys. The ethics committee eventually received over 5,000 pages of material.
After reading through the submission, the committee realized that Packwood had edited the diary, removing passages, and omitting some pages. Committee members insisted that the senator turn over an additional 3,200 pages—essentially, everything from the diary—but Packwood resisted. He knew that the entries included not only incriminating statements about his sexual assaults, but potential criminal violations such as Packwood’s decision to skirt campaign finance laws. If he edited the entries to alter or interfere with the congressional investigation, he also might face obstruction of justice charges. Moreover, if Packwood’s testimony under oath before the committee contradicted information contained in the diary, he might be guilty of perjury.
Some senators, most notably California’s Barbara Boxer, urged the committee to hold public hearings as they explored Packwood’s transgressions. After much wrangling, committee members declined. It was one thing to air dirty laundry behind closed doors, but senators were reluctant to shine a public spotlight on misconduct by one of their own. For some senators, Packwood’s actions hit uncomfortably close to home. For others, they feared opening a Pandora’s box if they held public hearings on what they viewed as an internal Senate matter. While public hearings would have increased transparency, it probably would not have altered the outcome. In May 1995, the ethics committee concluded that “substantial credible evidence” existed that Senator Packwood had engaged in sexual misconduct, tampered with evidence, and solicited favors from business people on several occasions, such as when he attempted to secure a job for his ex-wife to reduce his alimony payments.
The ethics committee had several options for punishing Packwood’s misconduct. The committee might have recommended that he be stripped of his Senate Finance Committee chairmanship permanently, or that the Senate censure him. The committee chose the harshest recommendation possible. On September 7, 1995, the ethics committee unanimously recommended that Bob Packwood be expelled from the Senate.
The full United States Senate still had to vote on the expulsion, but it was likely that most members would accept the committee’s recommendation. Realizing that his expulsion probably was inevitable, Packwood approached Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and offered to resign if he could have 90 days before it went into effect. The majority leader did not immediately reject the proposal, and he promised to consider it. He was sympathetic to Packwood’s situation. Following the exchange with Packwood, Dole met with the Democratic majority leader, Tom Daschle of South Dakota, to negotiate the terms of Packwood’s departure.
After members on both sides of the aisle rejected the plan, Packwood agreed to depart on October 1, 1995. He could vote before he resigned, but he could not manage any bills or speak on legislation. He was removed as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
As planned, he left the United States Senate in disgrace on October 1, 1995. A Democrat, Ron Wyden, won a special election to replace him. Although Packwood went on to enjoy a successful career as a lobbyist, he had lost the power and prestige that came with a seat in the world’s most influential legislature. His name was forever blackened by his decades of misconduct
A New York Times editorial concluded that “the Ethics Committee reached a proper judgment, and Mr. Packwood departs, too late, but with the burden of shame he has earned.” Perhaps Maura C. Roche, one of the 19 women who eventually came forward to charge the senator with sexual abuse, expressed it best when she reflected on Bob Packwood’s fall from grace. “What I learned from all this,” she said, “is that it is possible to go up against someone that’s far more powerful than you and prevail.”