Bob Packwood’s Harem Boy

Last Thursday evening, after Bob Packwood resigned, I tried to
phone Gertrude in Oregon, where she was visiting some old friends.
But it was still afternoon out there, and after six or seven rings
(don’t retirees have any use for answering machines?) I gave up. So
I missed hearing what my relative, whose name isn’t really
Gertrude, thought of the disgrace of her former boss.

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).

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