ASHLAND, ORE. — AFTER more than 30 months under an ethical cloud, Sen. Bob Packwood (R) of Oregon finally emerges to make his case.
Appearing behind closed doors before the Senate Select Committee on Ethics, Mr. Packwood tomorrow will answer charges that he committed 18 incidents of sexual misconduct with women between 1969 and 1990, that he obstructed the committee's inquiry by altering his personal diaries, and that he asked lobbyists to provide a job for his former wife.
Following a lengthy investigation, the committee, made up of three Republicans and three Democrats, last month found "substantial credible evidence" that Packwood "may have abused his United States Senate office."
For most Oregonians it's a relief just to move toward resolution of what has been a long and embarrassing episode.
Voters here are sharply divided over whether their veteran senator should remain in office. About half (47 percent) say he should resign, according to the most recent polls, and the other half (48 percent) say he should stay in office. But only about 25 percent view him favorably enough to reelect him.
"In those terms, he's clearly in very deep trouble," says Oregon State University political scientist William Lunch. "On the other hand, he's had an extraordinary run of being able to bounce back from political reverses that would have knocked off a lot of lesser politicians."
Finds new footing
For example, in 1986 Packwood narrowly survived a primary election challenge by conservatives opposed to his pro-choice stance on abortion. Since then, he has sloughed off his moderate-liberal image on such issues as the environment and health care.
This means that while he has lost support in urban counties, he has gained a strong following in rural areas.
When a Senate subcommittee held a recent hearing in Roseburg, Ore., on the Endangered Species Act, which Packwood wants to amend to include business interests, hundreds of timber workers gave him a standing ovation.
"He's become quite an advocate for us, and we really appreciate his involvement," says Tootie Smith, state coordinator of the Oregon Lands Coalition, a grass-roots group of ranchers, farmers, timber workers, and other natural resource users.
Following the initial revelations of sexual misconduct, shortly after Packwood was elected to a fifth term in 1992, there was an unsuccessful effort to have the vote declared illegal. Since then, the senator has kept a very low profile in his home state.
He refuses to talk to the state's largest newspaper (the Portland Oregonian, which called for his resignation), and he carefully selects the audiences before which he appears.
Back in Washington, he has cultivated the support of Senate majority leader Bob Dole (R) of Kansas and other colleagues who may have to vote on his political future - including whether he remains chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee. Still, this has not prevented him from taking an independent stand on some issues.
Last week, for example, he was one of only 11 Republicans in the Senate who joined Democrats in trying to cut off a filibuster by Sen. Phil Gramm (R) of Texas over the nomination of Dr. Henry Foster for surgeon general.
"The one thing on which he's been a consistent person throughout his career - and it's highly ironic - is that he has been a supporter of women's rights," Professor Lunch says.
Many women in Oregon consider Packwood unfit for public office based on his own admission of "terribly offensive" conduct involving former staff members, campaign workers, and other women. But others are willing to overlook events of the past.
"I'm not saying it was right, but that's just the way things were in the past," says Rita Kaley, recently laid off after eight years with a lumber company in Hood River, Ore., and a leader of the Oregon Lands Coalition.
"He's not perfect. But I still believe him to be very effective on all the issues that he's dealing with both in Oregon and on Capitol Hill."
The ethics committee may order public hearings, and eventually the Senate could vote to reprimand, censure, or expel the Oregon Republican. If he survives this political ordeal and chooses to run for a sixth term, Packwood would face voters in 1998.
"Three years in politics is a very long time, and this guy has been an extraordinary escape artist," Lunch says. "It's hard for me to imagine how he could extricate himself, but on the other hand people couldn't figure out how Houdini got out of those trunks either."