Packwood's Folly

updated 12/14/1992 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/14/1992 01:00AM

"I COULD FEEL MY SKIN CRAWL," SAYS Paige Wagers, recalling the events that she says she has spent 16 years trying to forget. Fresh out of college, the young congressional aide had just walked into the office of her boss, a man she admired, when he shut the door, she says, grabbed her and forcefully kissed her on the lips. "I was paralyzed and trying to push him away and he was saying he liked my wholesome good looks and my innocence and my hair," she says. "I never dreamt he would do that to me. He was my boss, and he was married, and it never should have happened."

The man who Wagers, now 39, says attacked her that day—and again five years later—is Sen. Bob Packwood, the Oregon Republican narrowly elected to a fifth term last month. Back then, after extricating herself and fleeing, the stunned young woman told a few coworkers what had happened. "Everyone advised me to never ever speak of it, that it would be his word against mine," says Wagers, who left Packwood's office later that year for the first of several Washington posts. "They all advised me to forget it."

But she couldn't. Last month, Wagers joined nine other former Packwood staff members and lobbyists in charging this public champion of women's rights with privately making unwelcome sexual advances for more than 20 years. (Most of that time, the Senator was married. He and his wife, Georgie, who have two grown children, divorced after 27 years in 1991.) Wagers and other accusers say they are willing to go before the Senate Ethics Committee, which last week launched a preliminary investigation into the allegations. Meanwhile, Oregon-based women's groups are spearheading a drive to send Packwood packing.

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, the 60-year-old Senator checked into an undisclosed private facility for treatment of a reported drinking problem, which he said "at best can only be a partial explanation, not an excuse" for the incidents. Although he initially denied any improprieties, Packwood now says he did so because he ""honestly believed these events had never occurred." Pledging to request a Senate investigation, Packwood said, "If I lake the proper steps, I hope my past conduct is not unforgivable." It will be, however, it Wagers has anything to say about it. "He thinks if he can blame it on alcohol," she says, "he'll get off with a slap on the wrist."

Packwood becomes the fourth Senator within the past year to be publicly charged with sexual misconduct. It is a development in keeping with the change in the political climate since Anita Hill's testimony at the Clarence Thomas hearings. Many women have decided they will no longer put up with the "put out or get out" mentality that has long been common on Capitol Hill.

In March, Sen. Brock Adams, a Washington State Democrat who also had a strong record on women's issues, decided not to seek re-election after eight women claimed he had sexually molested them. Shortly before the election, charges surfaced that Hawaii Democrat Daniel K. Inouye had fondled a number of women, including his hairdresser: the Senator denied the allegation sand won re-election. And last month, Sen. Dave Durenberger, a Minnesota Republican, was hit with a paternity suit by Joyce Rauscher, who claims he raped her 29 years ago while serving as her divorce lawyer. He denies being the father of Rauscher's son and says their relationship was consensual.

In the wake of these events, Senator-elect Patty Murray, who won Adams's old seat in Washington, vowed to propose legislation to end the longstanding exemption of Senators and Representatives from the federal law prohibiting sexual harassment of government employees. "It's as if being able to harass women is a perk of their job," says Mary Heffernan, executive director of the Women's Foundation of Oregon and one of those who claims Packwood fondled her. "Our leaders must be held accountable when they abuse women."

Ironically, Packwood would probably have been among the first to agree. For years feminists considered him one of the "good guys" and helped him build hefty campaign funds. He has a solid record of hiring and promoting women to the top levels of his staff and is staunchly defended even now by several current and former female aides. He bucked the party line to support abortion rights and family leave and was one of only two Republicans to vole against confirming Clarence Thomas. In fact, Packwood was one of the few Senators to adopt an office policy against sexual harassment prior to the Thomas affair.

"Often someone who has an intellectual understanding of the issues of equality doesn't necessarily translate that into the way they handle themselves in private life, observes Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women. "Even the best of men sometimes just don't understand or are unwilling to give up the privileges of power, and one of those privileges historically has been taking advantage of the women who work for you."

Packwood's record seems to be one of the reasons his accusers took so long to come forward. Not only did some alleged victims believe his reputation would make their charges less credible, they still considered him a valuable ally on women's issues. "I stood by him for years because I thought, 'He is a good Senator, and I have no right to interfere in his career,' " explains Wagers. She refused to talk on the record before the election to Washington Post reporters who broke the Packwood story because, she says, she "did not want to be involved in party politics."

Perhaps because her own experiences have been so painful for Wagers, now a fitness instructor who is taking graduate classes in social work and hopes to become a dance therapist, she maintains she wants to make it easier for other women to speak out. "I choose who touches me," she says. After Packwood's attempted intimacy, in 1976, the Baltimore-bred Wagers avoided being alone with her boss. For his part, he says, he acted as if nothing had happened.

It was five years and as many jobs later when Wagers, by then a newly married Labor Department legislative assistant, ran into Packwood in the Capitol basement. "He said 'Come tell me about your job,' " Wagers recalls, sitting amid unpacked boxes in the new suburban Virginia home she shares with her 7-year-old son. (She and her husband separated four years ago.) "He stopped at an unmarked office and said, 'Step in. and we'll finish this conversation.' I had no idea it would be just a cubbyhole with a couch. As soon as I got in the door, he locked it and grabbed my hair and kissed me. I pushed him away until he stopped. I kept saying to myself, "I low could you be so stupid?' But I realized it was not my fault."

Once again, Wagers confided in coworkers, and again she was reminded who would be most likely to suffer it she tried to blow the whistle. Disheartened, Wagers left the job she was finding increasingly frustrating to make a fresh start as a dance instructor.

Change the dates and names, and Wagers's account is startlingly similar to that of several other women who, independent of each other, told Washington Post reporters that Packwood had made unwanted advances. Mary Heffernan, 40, says that in the early 1980s, when she was a Washington-based abortion rights lobbyist, the Senator grabbed her arms and kissed her and he backed off when she said no. Why didn't Heffernan go public then? "Abortion rights were on the line," she has said.

Julie Williamson tells yet another story. Back in 1969, when she was a 29-year-old secretary, she says she was alone in a Portland office with Packwood and talking on the phone when she felt him kiss the back of her neck. Though Williamson says she told her boss, "Don't you ever do that again!" she claims he followed her into a back room and tried to pull off her girdle. "I kept struggling," recalls Williamson, 53, who has since become a prominent Oregon political consultant. "He finally gave up, but he said, 'II not today, someday.' " Frightened, Williamson told the story to her then husband. He replied that it couldn't have happened. "If your own husband doesn't believe you," Williamson remembers thinking, "how is anyone else going to?" She quit within two weeks.

Today, Williamson and Wagers are among the growing chorus calling for Packwood to own up to—and alone for—his behavior. Vindictiveness, they say, is not their motivation. "If someone's character is so flawed in his private life, then it must affect his public life," Wagers explains. "I want to see him understand he was wrong."

PAM LAMBERT
LINDA KRAMER in Washington, D.C., and BILL DONAHUE in Portland

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