Many of us are remembering Anita Hill’s trailblazing courage these days, as the dams are breaking and so many women are telling their stories of sexual harassment and sexual assault.
What is rarely recalled now is that the 1991 Senate confirmation vote was a huge fight, with six Democratic senators switching their “yea” votes to “nay” over the weekend after the hearings. It wasn’t enough, and Clarence Thomas was confirmed by a vote of 52-48.
Only two Republicans voted against Thomas. One was James Jeffords from Vermont. The other was Bob Packwood from Oregon.
One year later, we Oregonians realized the great irony of Packwood rebelling against his party to prevent a sexual abuser from being seated on the Supreme Court. Ten women, most former lobbyists or Packwood staffers, came forward to accuse him of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault. The Washington Post had the story but held it until after the November election, in which Packwood defeated Democratic challenger Les AuCoin. (I remember that race well.)
For three years, my state was roiled by the ongoing investigation into Packwood. Eventually, a total of 19 women were willing to follow the example of courage that Anita Hill burned into our national consciousness.
Packwood’s diary became a topic of water-cooler conversation and considerable legal wrangling. Could it be subpoenaed, or was it covered by the Fifth Amendment? He eventually turned over 5,000 pages to the Senate Ethics Committee, but when it became obvious that those pages were edited, the committee demanded another 3,200 pages. Packwood refused.
And here is where Packwood made his fatal mistake. Angry at what he perceived as being singled out, he issued a veiled threat to the effect that many others in the Senate had done the exact same thing (which of course we know was true) — and demanded that his hearings be public.
That did not go over well. The Senate Ethics Committee recommended that Packwood be expelled from the Senate “for sexual and official misconduct,” a truly nuclear option that forced Packwood to resign.
In the special election to replace him, Oregon elected then-US Representative Ron Wyden, a Democrat. He has since become a powerful voice for affordable health care, human rights, and civil liberties, while voting against the war in Iraq and the reauthorization of the Patriot Act. He has done a great deal to raise awareness of, and attempt to limit, the vast American surveillance state currently spying on its citizens. In short, he has been everything I could hope for in a senator.
Meanwhile, Bob Packwood retired on a comfortable $90,000/year pension with full benefits. For years, I had a printout of one of his diary entries on my office wall, because it was so indicative of the entitled mindset that eventually brought him down. It was from November 8, 1993, and said:
“Well, I did wrong, and I know I did wrong, but I’ve been caught, so I’ll call it misjudgment.”