The Packwood Case And Society's Choices

THE mail the other day brought us an anguished note from a reader who felt we had reached a "new low" in reporting the Washington Post's allegations of sexual harassment by United States Sen. Robert Packwood (R) of Oregon.

That reader may have changed her mind now that the senator has implicitly acknowledged the charges, and apologized, albeit inadequately, for his behavior.

The rest of us may be left with mixed feelings - disgust with such abuses of power, dismay that they were committed by someone who has made such a contribution to public life, especially to the benefit of women.

How do we choose to respond?

The man himself has, in his apology, co-opted the phrase that has already been used against him. said that now he does "get it," does understand why people were unhappy with his behavior, but is going to tough this one out and not resign.

How Packwood behaves from here on may be more important in winning back the trust of the people than how he has behaved hitherto. They may find humility more becoming than defiance.

Oregon's leading newspaper, long a Packwood supporter, has joined state Democratic leaders and women's groups calling for his resignation. The Senate Ethics Committee has launched a preliminary investigation, although viewers of the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings may remember the impression that sexual harassment is not an issue where the Senate can be counted on to "get it," either.

Individual failings can make an official such a public embarrassment as to diminish effectiveness on the job. Then resignation is the only honorable course.

But remember when Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts got into trouble over a relationship with a male prostitute. The sages said, Frank has become an issue, it's time for him to go. But he didn't go; he just lay low for a while. Then the storm blew over, and people focused on other things.

Is there a statute of limitations on our moral indignation? The distinction to be drawn may be between urging resignation because of certain behavior and urging resignation because of the controversy surrounding the behavior.

If Bob Packwood hangs on, will he be able to convince Oregon, and Capitol Hill, that even diminished, he is more effective than others who could be elected in his stead? Maybe so. Others under comparable clouds have won their way back into elective office - but generally not to top leadership positions.

Whatever misgivings we may have about setting up any particular moral failing as the one from which there is no redemption, a report like the Post's, with 10 women going on the record, forecloses the option of pretending we are unaware of the charge.

But our response should be tempered by our awareness of mitigating circumstances - not that the harassment itself was anything other than straightforwardly wrong. And we don't want to be so horrified by an offense as to neglect due process or to direct so many of our resources to fighting that one evil that we have nothing left with which to combat other wrongs.

Sexual harassment is an area where standards have been rising; behavior that one generation took for granted is offensive to the next. This is not a bad thing: The unwillingness to brook this bespeaks a fuller appreciation of the dignity and rights of all members of society.

In recent years election coverage has tended to focus on certain presumed indicators of character that are more or less objectively verifiable: tax returns, military service records, memberships in clubs that may or may not be open to Jews or blacks or women. We can expect journalists in coming years to sniff for charges of sexual harassment, too. These items alone will never give us the full story, though.

All other things being equal, we would prefer to have public officials on the right side on these issues. But all other things are almost never equal. As we face the choices presented to us by something like the Packwood case, we must not let a reflexive checklist approach take the place of fully formed moral judgment.

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