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Wednesday, November 22 Opinion

Why politicians got away with sexual misconduct for so long

My Harvey Weinstein was a U.S. senator. We were never alone together or even had a private conversation; he never harassed me. But Sen. Bob Packwood of Oregon was a textbook case of "everyone knew" when I served as press secretary for his 1992 challenger, Les AuCoin. I watched with dismay as our campaign and the press corps covering the race grappled with the knowledge of Packwood's sexual misconduct - well beyond the adulterous realm of Gary Hart - without knowing what to do about it.

Anyone wondering how Weinstein's dealings with women could have been kept from the public for almost 30 years need look no further than the 1992 Oregon Senate race - and the 1991 confirmation hearings at which Clarence Thomas's former employee Anita Hill accused the Supreme Court nominee of workplace sexual harassment. Together, they were a crash course in the politics of sexual harassment.

After the Hill/Thomas controversy, I assumed that the senator's predatory behavior toward women would be a major issue in his 1992 reelection race. Unfortunately for most of the voters of Oregon, it was not. They were kept in the dark.

Packwood's "skirt problem" - an anachronistic term for varieties of sexual misconduct ranging from adultery to rape - was as well known in political circles as Weinstein's was in the entertainment world. The stories about Packwood ranged from trivial to terrifying. I heard the most devastating account from a reporter for a Portland TV station; the incident had happened to one of his friends, who said the senator assaulted her in his office during a job interview. The public accounts of Packwood's offenses eventually ran the gamut from inappropriate sexual conversations with young interns to unwanted, intimate physical conduct. Local and national journalists routinely asked me off the record whether AuCoin, a respected member of the House, would make an issue of the "skirt problem" in his campaign.

My answer, as decided by the campaign brain trust, was no. In the May primary contest, we had run hard-hitting, controversial TV ads attacking our chief opponent over an unrelated issue. This prompted numerous outraged editorials about "negative campaigning" and angry public feedback; now, we were all of one mind about ignoring anything but Packwood's voting record, political alliances, public statements and campaign finances. In most races, this would have been enough to build a strong case against an incumbent.

But Packwood was ruthless, and he owned a huge campaign war chest and powerful positions on the Senate Finance and Commerce Committees. AuCoin was an underdog who had spent most of his campaign money to survive the brutal Democratic primary, in which Packwood also ran ads attacking him. We worried that winning might require an extra boost from voters repelled by reports of the senator's sexual misconduct. But for them to find any stories credible, we all thought the accounts needed to come from a third party: That meant either women's rights groups or the news media.

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Unusual for a Republican even then, Packwood was considered an ally on "women's issues." A rare GOP supporter of abortion rights, he also backed measures such as the Equal Rights Amendment that were controversial in the 1970s and early 1980s. His former wife had been on the board of the bipartisan Women's Campaign Fund. According to People magazine, Gloria Steinem, no less, had raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for his 1980 reelection. More recently, he had cast an unusual (and, for Packwood, unusually quiet) GOP vote against Thomas's Supreme Court nomination. It turned out to be a sad irony, but he was seen as one of the good guys by many mainstream women's groups. The AuCoin campaign fought several of their endorsements to a draw, but it lost others, such as NARAL's. Incumbent Republican senators were considered more important to the cause than Democratic challengers, despite AuCoin's leadership on abortion rights in the House.

The Oregon press corps also showed surprisingly little enterprise when it came to Packwood, and sexual harassment is a tough subject to report. After the harsh treatment of Hill, it was difficult to imagine that going public would be worth the risk to any woman with a story to tell. Reporters were more skittish in those days about digging around in a public servant's sex life, and sexual harassment still felt more National Enquirer than family newspaper. One of my colleagues observed that it had a high "ick factor." Even I - who believed what I'd heard about Packwood's behavior - considered the issue maybe a little too tawdry for prime time, and I didn't talk about it with campaign reporters. Before 1992, voters had not been asked to assess whether they believed that a U.S. senator was capable of what Packwood was rumored to have done. It seems laughable now, but it wasn't then.

One journalist did try to broach the issue - but without mentioning Packwood by name. The Oregonian, the largest newspaper in the state, ran a column in March 1992 by Steve Duin quoting an anonymous former staffer about her all-too-close encounter with a "Northwest politician." Duin wrote that the politician had pulled his employee's hair and started to remove her clothes in a 1969 attempt to coerce her to have sex with him in his office. Virtually all the reporters and many in Oregon politics knew that the unnamed pol was Packwood. (Even though Duin's source had shared her experience with other people - including journalists - over the years, she was still unwilling to go on the record. Later, she did so.)

Another Oregonian reporter, Holley Gilbert, was assigned to look into Packwood's harassment but left the paper over the summer without having turned up any stories, according to a 1993 account in the American Journalism Review. The investigation was not reassigned, according to a later postmortem.

Finally, in September 1992, a freelance investigative journalist named Florence Graves convinced The Washington Post that allegations of Packwood's sexual misconduct warranted serious scrutiny. Graves and Post reporter Charles Shepard conducted many interviews in Oregon and Washington as the Senate race continued to tighten. By mid-October, they had persuaded multiple women - all former staffers, volunteers or lobbyists - to tell their stories on the record; word of this reached both campaigns. As Tom Bates wrote in a 1993 Los Angeles Times Magazine piece that reconstructs the entire series of events, Packwood complained to Post publisher Katharine Graham. Top editor Len Downie then urged the senator to give his side of the story to Graves and Shepard, who had been seeking an interview.

Packwood agreed but cleverly put them off until five days before the election. He denied all the allegations, and the delay had given him time to gather dirt on his accusers. (It was the same tactic allies of Thomas had used to undermine Hill's credibility; Weinstein tried the same approach with less success.) After the interview, according to the L.A. Times Magazine piece, the Packwood campaign faxed pages of supposedly incriminating claims to the Post reporters and to Downie's home. Failing to check out the allegations against their sources could have put Graves and Shepard on risky ground both legally and journalistically. Packwood's ploy made it impossible for The Post to publish the story before the election.

As Oregonians cast their votes on Election Day 1992, Duin's oblique column was the only public hint of Packwood's serial sexual harassment. The senator won reelection with 52 percent of the vote. The front-page Washington Post exposé by Graves and Shepard ran almost three weeks after Packwood's victory. It included on-the-record accounts of the senator's unwanted sexual overtures to 10 women over more than two decades. A Portland TV station made the final call to AuCoin's Capitol Hill office on the evening the phones were turned off in December 1992. Did we have any comment on its recent poll showing that AuCoin would have defeated Packwood if the election had been held after the Post story came out?

Packwood's fate closely resembles the Weinstein saga, though it took almost three years to play out. Public outrage ensued, even without social media to disseminate or encourage it. The senator blamed his bad behavior on having been raised in an earlier era, then he left town for in-patient "treatment." Other accusers came forward. Packwood's feminist supporters - such as NARAL and eventually even Gloria Steinem - abandoned him, offering minor mea culpas about their years of silence but playing down any hint of complicity. ("We did trust him," Oregon NARAL leader Diane Linn told the L.A. Times in December 1992. "We just feel betrayed at this point.") A coalition of women's and good-government organizations called for a Senate Ethics Committee investigation of Packwood. His peers in the Senate abandoned him, though not all at once. His influence dimmed as the scandal intensified. In September 1995, he finally resigned, following an extraordinary unanimous vote by the Ethics Committee to recommend his expulsion.

Oregon news outlets - especially the Oregonian - were much criticized by the public, Portland's alternative weeklies and the national news media for having missed the Packwood story. The Oregonian's top editor retired as the paper played catch-up with The Post. It sent a team of reporters to cast a wide net for Packwood harassment stories. After The Post broke the ice, it was not that hard to find them. Graves wrote in The Post shortly after Packwood's resignation that she knew of "more than 40 women" who had been subjected to various forms of his unwanted attention. Almost half of those came forward publicly. Among them was a 64-year-old Oregonian correspondent, on whose lips Packwood had planted an unwanted kiss following an interview in his Washington office.

Today, news organizations are more willing to tackle these problems, thanks in no small part to the Weinstein scandal, which has set off a chain reaction against sexual harassment extending from the entertainment industry into politics, both in Washington and in state capitals. Social media also makes bottling up a story like this impossible, and a challenger campaign like ours would now have options for disseminating it that were unthinkable in 1992. That power carries with it responsibility for verification that used to be the province of the news media - a responsibility well worth bearing so that the stories "everyone knows" can finally be told.

Packwood's predatory behavior toward women belonged front and center in the 1992 Senate race because it raised grave questions about the senator's attitudes toward half the population, his respect for the law, his hypocrisy and perhaps most important, his abuse of power. A candidate's history of sexual predation is an electoral issue as valid as public corruption, conflicts of interest or campaign finance violations. It took Harvey Weinstein for me to fully embrace this, all these years later.

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Gorlin, a political media consultant at Tipping Point Strategies in Washington, worked for years on Capitol Hill.

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