Normally one can quibble about who had the worst week in Washington. This week, though, Vice President Joe Biden has gaffed his way to the undisputed championship. However, Chris Cillizza’s award still came a few hours too soon, because Biden may have saved his best and most embarrassing gaffe for last, to the amazement of CNN’s Dana Bash:
Come again? @JoeBiden speaking at a women's conf-to boost/reach out to women-just singled out BOB PACKWOOD as the kind of Repub he misses.
— Dana Bash (@DanaBashCNN) September 19, 2014
Nothing says “outreach to women” more than getting nostalgic for a man bounced out of office for sexual harassment. Right?
Packwood resigned from the Senate in 1995 under threat of expulsion after stories like this emerged:
While running for reelection in 1980, Bob Packwood was eager to meet his campaign chairwoman for Lane County, Ore. The Senator invited Gena Hutton to dinner at the motel where he was staying in Eugene for a get-acquainted meeting. Hutton, a 35-year-old divorced mother of two, had brought along pictures of her children and even her cats.
Then it was time to go and Packwood offered to walk her to her car. “As I started to put the key in the car door,” Hutton recalls, “he just reeled me around and grabbed me andpulled me close to him.” For an instant, she thought he was offering a good-night hug. But then the Senator planted a full kiss on her lips, wriggling his tongue into her mouth.
Hutton’s first reaction was shame: she didn’t think she had given any hint of a come-on. Then she thought of the scandal that might ensue if Packwood, a married man, was recognized by a passer-by. Hustling him into her car, Hutton drove the Senator across the motel parking lot to his room, where he tried to talk her into coming inside. “You really don’t want me to do that,” she said firmly. Eventually Packwood retired alone. …
Hutton, a political novice in Oregon, hadn’t heard the rumors swirling for years around Bob Packwood, the graying boy wonder and maverick of the United State Senate. Tales of Packwood’s exploits as a masher, often involving members of his staff, had long been served up for the delectation of insiders, like canapes at a political cocktail party. In the years before sexual harassment became a national catch phrase, such incidents were usually winked away.
Then came a seismic shift in social values that relocated the fault line between what was private and what was seen as justifiably public. For Packwood, the rumors acquired flesh and blood last November, three weeks after he narrowly won re-election to a fifth term. An article in The Washington Post cited 10 women who accused Packwood of making unwanted sexual advances, spanning from 1969, his first year as a Senator, to 1990.
The timing was particularly bad for the White House, as Jeryl Bier noticed on Twitter:
— Jeryl Bier (@JerylBier) September 19, 2014
The timing was so awful that Chris’ colleague Aaron Blake couldn’t believe it:
The Oregon Republican resigned from the Senate in 1995 while facing a threat of expulsion due to allegations of sexual harassment and assaulting women. Again, Biden made this comment at a women’s conference. …
Yes, Packwood was seen as a bipartisan operator who lots of fellow senators probably liked on a personal and professional level. That’s fine to think that in private.
But for a Democratic Party who has made such a big deal of the GOP’s supposed “war on women,” praising someone with Packwood’s history is a really bad idea.
Democrats have recently pushed the idea that sexual harassment didn’t end in the Senate with Packwood’s departure. Kirsten Gillibrand complained last month about male colleagues in the upper chamber making references to her weight and appearance in ways that demeaned her status, although when challenged refused to specify the sources. The retelling of the stories, though, were supposed to reinforce just how much more difficult women still have it in today’s workforce, even at the highest levels — which is not coincidentally a theme that the White House wants to highlight as part of its “war on women” meme.
Or at least they did, before their #2 decided to wax nostalgic about one of the Senate’s most memorable creeps. Maybe Biden’s not the only Democrat having a bad week.
Addendum: Actually, there’s no need for Biden to miss Packwood, because he’s never really left. He has spent most of the last 19 years as a lobbyist — you know, the very creatures that Biden and Barack Obama blamed for partisanship, gridlock, and corruption. And even while he was in the Senate, when Biden admired him so much that he still misses Packwood to this day, the Oregon Republican had plenty of dealings with lobbyists:
The committee took a different view of his profligate affections and recommended unanimously that he be expelled from the Senate for ethics violations. Packwood went ahead and announced his resignation in October of 1995, leaving Congress as a “pariah in his state,” observed the New York Times. But while the lion’s share of the negative publicity focused on the senator’s sexual appetites, his promiscuity of a different kind—with Washington’s lobbyists—was also remarkable. In one instance documented in the diary,he arranged to have a cash retainer paid to his then-wife by a lobbyist; in another entry, he pledged to a lobbyist working for Shell Oil that he’d pass a special oil tax bill to thank him for raising campaign cash. “Ron, I still hate the oil companies,” he told the gentleman, “but I’ll do you a favor.”
Indeed, Packwood was in a good position to do favors. The chairman of the powerful Finance Committee, he had spent his career serving as one of those now-extinct species called a liberal Republican, currying favor with friends on both sides of the aisle—and growing powerful with the lobbying community. A spokeswoman for Shell once acknowledged in an interview that the company hired a particular lobbyist because it believed he had “a way to get in and meet with” Packwood’s top staffers. Another lobbyist, according to Packwood’s diary, once told the senator that he could offer Packwood’s wife $37,500 for five years of part-time work, adding, “If you’re chairman of the Finance Committee I can probably double that,” Packwood then became chairman of the committee, though he had his sights set on an even better job. He confided to his diary that he dreamed of working on K Street, hoping one day to “become a lobbyist at five or six or four hundred thousand” dollars annually.
He did better. Soon after departing office amid the diary scandal, Packwood founded the Sunrise Research Corporation, a lofty-sounding one-man-lobbying shop that has routinely made as much as $1 million per year for that one man, who works on issues ranging from health care to food regulations to tax policy. “My clients have come from across the political spectrum, from the AFL-CIO to United Airlines to the Court of Ohio,” he told me, explaining that he finds a way to be useful to all comers.
By any measure, life is pretty good for Packwood these days. He spends half the year in Washington—about 80 percent of the time Congress is in session—and the balance of his days in the posh Portland suburb of Dunthorpe. As a lobbyist does, he fills the weeks he’s in D.C. trudging up to Capitol Hill to buttonhole congressional staffers or lawmakers. The work reminds him not of his own days in Congress, but of his first career. “It’s similar to my time as a lawyer,” he says, explaining how he discerns what his clients could benefit from on the Hill and then presses their interests vigorously (“in clear, Anglo-Saxon language”). His old connections and his once-powerful perch count for very little in his new line of work, Packwood would have me believe. “There really is very little legalized bribery inside or outside Congress,” he says, and his tone is even and earnest as he says it. “I find people vastly overrate the importance of money and power.”
How many different ways did Biden step on the White House’s narratives today?