Scenes from a sexualized Senate
Ours, actually. Gertrude had left Packwood's employ shortly before I finished high school in 1973. But on hearing that I was at loose ends that summer, which wasn't strictly accurate (I'd made plans to read and masturbate), she got Bob on the phone and swung me a job as a summer intern. Packwood was happy to do Gertrude a favor, and why not? They were quite fond of each other, after all.
I very much doubt that I feature in either the authentic or the doctored version of Packwood's diaries, unless they include a stray complaint about having the worst -- dressed intern on Capitol Hill. But I'm pretty sure Gertrude's in them somewhere, and so, with some rueful amusement, is she. She's elderly now, but she was a vivacious woman in her early forties when she joined his staff. I don't know how long their involvement lasted, because she's always been coy about the details.
Gertrude, incidentally, is not among the complainants in the Packwood case. Besides liking her boss, with whom she stayed friendly for many years, she also, as far as I can tell, enjoyed the glamour of the situation, with its beach -- reading trappings -- the basement office, the ardent senator. Since the scandal broke, she's been, I think, privately tickled by her inside angle on the news -- it's a little like having been with Napoleon on the advance to Moscow. This spring, at the request of Packwood's lawyers, she wrote a letter for the committee's files that affirmed -- in all honesty, so far as I know -- that she's never seen him force himself on anyone. But totting up his conquests as of 1993, which for a man in his sixties is a revealing bit of delayed adolescence -- aside from compulsive Lotharios, how many people are still notching the Johnson by then? -- he claimed liaisons with 22 staffers and 75 other women. From my own memories of working in his office over two decades ago, I have no trouble believing that tally.
Nineteen seventy-three was the second and best of the Watergate summers. Packwood was still a callow, genial first termer -- a far cry from the decrepit, petulant urchin of recent C-SPAN fame. As for my internship, I don't have any flagrante delicto episodes to recount. Nor do I recall which woman in the office was then carrying herself with the special St. Elmo's fire attached to being Packwood's favorite of the moment, although I'm pretty sure there was one. Nonetheless, I was vividly if nonspecifically aware that at some level I was going about my risibly inconsequential duties in a harem.
There weren't any bimbos in sight. The women who worked for Packwood were brainy, and most of them were high-level staffers, not secretaries; in fact, I can only remember two or three male employees in the whole office. That most of the women were also really terrific -- looking was just lagniappe, and did I find anything objectionable in that? Get real! I was 17, and I thought it was grand.
Back then, I didn't have a clue that I was observing the Indian summer of a style, and neither, all too evidently, did Packwood. In the outside world, the revolution in sexual politics was already well along; 'male chauvinist pig' was such a routine term of opprobrium that it was usually shortened to MCP. But in the phallocentric Brigadoon that was Washington then, it was still commonly understood that the price extracted from personable, attractive young women for their interesting jobs in the corridors of power was to suffer being put on exhibit as office trophies, not to mention put on the spot anytime Senator Blow or Congressman Hard got that lubricious glint in his eye.
Beginning three years ago, when the Washington Post -- which had obligingly sat on the story until chum Packwood was safely reelected -- printed the first allegations of his sexual misconduct, his defenders portrayed him as a scapegoat for changing sexual mores. That's not an unreasonable argument, but neither is this: Even a quarter -- century ago, for a senator to hit on a 17-year-old female intern -- to cite only the charge that was the final straw for many, and that the Ethics Committee believed -- was unacceptable. Besides, that incident is supposed to have occurred in 1983; if Packwood hadn't heard by then that sexual mores were changing, it could only have been because he was too fucking dick-brained to take notice.
Then again, you could say he was issued that particular set of monogrammed blinders on the day he took his Senate seat in 1969. In many fields, eminence has a way of congealing the minds of its new inductees at whatever stage of social and emotional understanding they were at when they got the big nod. Many years ago, in her folk -- festive youth, an ex-wife of mine once turned down a pass from none other than Bob Dylan, or so she always claimed. Leslie remembered being startled that Dylan came on to her like the dorkiest high school greaser -- but why should that have surprised her? The life of a high school greaser would have provided him with his most recent information about communication between the sexes; ever since then, he'd been Bob Dylan.
Congress is filled with such human time capsules, walking around with perceptions frozen on the day they got sworn in. Ted Kennedy is the most famous example -- and when you think of the uncommon opportunities he's had over the years to familiarize himself with the revised parameters of public disapproval, you realize just how durable the obliviousness of eminence can be. The rubbish arrested in Packwood's noggin dates to roughly the same era; when he left private life, the acme of masculine success was still Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, validated by the Playboy philosophy and given a hefty boost in prestige from Teddy's late big brother Jack. For a socially gauche and not especially worldly Portland lawyer, the realization that his new title was a passport to being a swinger must have been heady brandy. As to why he never tired of it over the next 26 years -- well, politicians aren't real imaginative.
From The Village Voice (Sept. 19, 1995).