I don’t know why, but this weekend I was thinking about Bob Packwood.
For those of you who don’t remember that name, Bob Packwood was the long-time U.S. Senator from the state of Oregon who was the first true Congressional “champion” for abortion rights. Elected in 1968, he actually introduced legislation legalizing abortion before the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v Wade decision. Unfortunately, Packwood got absolutely no support for his legislation but the Court ultimately came forward enshrining this important right.
Once abortion was legalized, Packwood became the point person for the pro-choice movement. He led the battles against the forces of evil that sought to restrict abortion rights, endearing himself to all of the pro-choice organizations. At a time when even pro-choice legislators were running from the issue, Packwood stood alone. He courageously stood on the floor of the U.S. Senate and defended the rights of women to have abortions. Of course, this also made him a target for virulent anti–abortion attacks, including hundreds of personal threats.
In the early 1980’s, Packwood was the lead pro-choice strategist in the fight against a proposed constitutional amendment that would have overturned Roe v Wade. As the chief lobbyist for the National Abortion Rights Action League at the time, I (along with my pro-choice colleagues) met with Packwood regularly as we discussed our vote counts, field strategy, how to talk to the media, etc. At one point, despite the fact that it looked like we would easily defeat the measure, Packwood suggested that he filibuster the proposal. We could not say no to him, so we went along with him, letting him have his day in the spotlight. Indeed, when we suggested that we could get other Senators to join him, he demurred, saying he could do it alone. So, we watched him read the U.S. Constitution with a catheter attached to his leg.
Ultimately, we handily defeated the constitutional amendment and today I have hanging on my wall a copy of that day’s Congressional Record signed by Senator Bob Packwood. It was a truly historic vote and the greatest victory ever experienced by the pro-choice forces on Capitol Hill.
Throughout this time, however, there were always rumblings that Packwood was having affairs with several women. He was indeed an attractive, articulate man who no doubt was approached by numerous aggressive women. In fact, I
remember the more cynical feminists suggesting that he was leading the way on abortion rights merely to get laid. I never had that impression, but it unfortunately was out there. I should add for a fact that one of my best friends confided in me that she had had an affair with Packwood.
Then, in November 1992, the Washington Post ran a story detailing the claims of sexual abuse and assault by ten women, mostly former staff people and lobbyists. In September 1995, he resigned from the U.S. Senate in disgrace. He then disappeared from sight for many years.
In 1998, when I was at the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, we were planning a 25th anniversary party for Roe V Wade in Washington, D.C. and we decided to invite all of the pro-choice “heroes.” My old friend, Susan Hill, suggested that we invite Packwood. I ran it by some others and got very mixed reactions so Susan simply said that she would bring him as her date. Personally, I was thrilled because, despite his private behavior, he was our champion for many years.
He came that night to the Mayflower Hotel, handsomely clad in his tuxedo. When I ran into him in the hallway outside the ballroom, he appeared very nervous, it being the first time in many years that he would be with his former friends and colleagues. He thanked me profusely for “inviting” him and I actually escorted him into the room. Much to my delight, he was immediately surrounded by well wishers, old friends and the generally curious. He was back in his element.
I do recall, however, that three or four female clinic owners were so offended that Packwood was there that walked out of the party in disgust. That, of course, was their decision but I personally felt like it was a bit of an overreaction. Still, it was their right although they missed one hell of a party.
In later years, Bob Packwood came back to Capitol Hill where he made some serious bucks as a lobbyist for numerous corporate interests. I haven’t seen him for years.
What Packwood did totally sucked, there was no excuse for his personal conduct. On the other hand, he was the only one there when we needed a champion. I wish him well.