Sex row gets too hot for the senator

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The Independent Online
MOST American politicians are in the habit of spending Christmas and new year near their constituents, but Bob Packwood, the Senator from Oregon, has just spent the holiday in Washington. The 60-year-old Republican knew that if he returned to his home state, he would face increased demands for his resignation over accusations that for two decades he sexually harassed women who worked for him.

Packwood blames his problems on alcohol. In the year since Anita Hill accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment, however, the issue has moved so far up the political agenda that such excuses no longer carry much weight.

The treatment of Ms Hill at the hands of male senators during hearings that eventually approved Thomas's nomination, and the way they disbelieved her allegations, have led to a change in attitudes. The senator's career has been derailed, regardless of his qualifications, because such behaviour is no longer considered acceptable. His accusers have been believed where Ms Hill was not.

When the Washington Post first ran allegations of sexual harassment in November, just after Packwood was re-elected for another six-year term, he tried to smear the women who accused him by sending the newspaper what he claimed were details of their sexual histories and personal lives. But in a series of admissions, he finally agreed that the claims against him were true.

Packwood's routine groping of women who worked for him over a period of 24 years has become symbolic of workplace harassment. In 1976 Paige Wagers, a 21- year-old college graduate working as a mail clerk in his Washington office, was surprised to be invited to play bridge with the senator and two of his top aides.

Later, Packwood called her into his office, locked the door and embraced her, running his fingers through her hair and kissing her on the lips, speaking as he did so of her wholesome good looks. Ms Wagers was able to get out of the office and was warned by another aide not to enter it alone again. She ignored other invitations from Packwood and soon afterwards changed jobs.

Five years later, while working for the Labor Department, she ran into Packwood while walking through one of the Capitol's subterranean passageways. Memories of the previous encounter had apparently faded, and she spoke to him about her work. Suddenly the senator opened an unmarked door and ushered her inside. On shutting the door, he kissed her and started pushing the cushions off a sofa. Again she escaped.

Friends advised Ms Wagers not to complain, saying that she, not the senator, would suffer. 'That's the way Washington is,' she said. 'You have to build, you can't have enemies, you can't be discredited. Because only the two of you were in the room, there is no way you can prove it. You're vulnerable. You're totally out on a limb.'

Newspapers investigating Packwood quickly discovered that many of his victims had told their friends about such incidents. Then the Anita Hill furore in 1991 revived old memories. One of Packwood's former aides, who did not want to be named, actually wrote to Ms Hill praising her for having more courage than herself. 'My disillusionment with a man and a position I had previously held in such high regard overwhelmed me,' she said.

The Oregonian newspaper publicly berated itself for failing to investigate the stories properly, even after the experience of its Washington correspondent, Roberta Ulrich: during an interview with Packwood, who had plied her with wine, he had suddenly kissed her on the lips.

The Packwood case has confirmed the change in public attitude since the bitter Thomas hearings. The Thomas nomination turned out to be one of the more pyrrhic victories of the Bush administration. The Republicans suffered at the polls in November when three women candidates for the Senate said they had decided to stand directly as a result of the revelations about Thomas.

In the Illinois primary, Carol Mosely Braun, a minor official, defeated Alan Dixon, a sitting Democratic senator who had voted to confirm Thomas as a Supreme Court judge, and went on to defeat the Republican incumbent. Arlen Specter, the Republican Senator from Pennsylvania, who had been the chief interrogator of Ms Hill, had to fight for his political life against a woman candidate before winning narrowly.

And in Washington state, Patty Murray easily won the seat previously held by Brock Adams, a Democrat who had decided not to run again after eight women made signed statements accusing him of sexual harassment. The Senate ethics committee had refused to pursue the matter, even though Adams had by then been accused of drugging and molesting a woman in Washington in 1987.

This is probably the last time the ethics committee will deal so leniently with one of its own members on sexual harassment charges. Now that the electoral consequences are more evident, the investigation of Packwood will be more rigorous.

Since the Thomas hearings, public attitudes towards the case have continued to change. During the hearings, polls showed that a majority of men and women disbelieved Ms Hill's story of harassment. But a poll last month showed that 53 per cent now believe that she told the truth, and 37 per cent still believe Thomas.

(Photograph omitted)