Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

The Browning of Bob Packwood

Suggested Citation: Kerr, Andy. 1995. The Browning of Bob Packwood. Cascadia Times. Vol. 1, No. 6. 8-9. 

(This is the shortened version as published in Cascadia Times. The long version contains more sexual details.)

By Andy Kerr

"Sometimes I'm a whore!" said a defensive Bob Packwood in his capitol office over a glass of wine with three shocked national environmental group leaders. I didn't go to the meeting, but my colleagues all were amazed by the whoring remark. I wasn't.

The three had been trying to lobby Packwood, a Republican from Portland, on limiting log exports from public land (he was in favor of limits) and saving our own forests (he was not in favor). They employed a tired-and-true lobbying technique—pointing out inconsistencies in a politician's positions. My colleagues thought they had him, but Packwood copped to the inconsistency in a vulgar, yet colorful and honest way. The three had never heard anything so forthright out of the mouth of a United States senator. I explained that it's part of what I called his "residual honesty."

In the beginning Packwood was as regular a guy who ever thinks about running for office, except he used environmental issues. He was a liberal (then called a "moderate") Republican. He sought power because of a passionate desire to do good. Over time, like essentially every other politician, he came to seek power for its own end—the consummate politician.

What follows is a very personal and narrow look at Bob Packwood and the environment. I once respected him greatly. Later I lobbied him. Then I came to loathe him. Now I pity him. This is a saga of two Packwoods: the Passionate Packwood and the Political Packwood. A good politician needs both. Packwood started out with lots of passion, but passion's evil twin has won the duel for his soul. When the charges of sexual harassment first surfaced, I was disbelieving. Why would he do these things? "Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac," observed Henry Kissinger. But of course, it wasn't about sex; it was about power.

And now, as the Senate Ethics Committee concludes its three-year investigation into allegations of sexual harassment leveled against Packwood by more than two dozen women, and this tragic, comedic drama unfolds to its inevitably ugly conclusion, I want Packwood to get what he deserves. But I won't forget a time long ago when the Passionate Packwood was stronger than the Political Packwood, and there was a senator who went to Washington to do some good.

1968 First Election: New and Unknown

In 1968, Liberal Democratic Senator Wayne Morse had been in the U.S. Senate longer than I had been alive (I was 13 at the time). The "Tiger of the Senate" was challenged by moderate Republican Bob Packwood. It was the first political race in which I ever took an interest. Morse was being attacked for his staunch opposition to the Vietnam War and his old age. The election was so close that it went into recount. I supported Packwood because he was young and an underdog. Vietnam was far too esoteric an issue for this teen-ager growing up in Creswell, a small lumber town south of Eugene. It was two years before the first Earth Day, and the environment wasn't yet a political issue.

1969-74 First Term: Dark Green

In his first term and in those times, there wasn't an Oregon politician better on environmental issues than Bob Packwood. He was the first senator calling for population control. But then, as now, the issue in Oregon politics was trees: to keep any standing or not. As a very junior senator, Packwood favored protecting French Pete Valley as part of the Three Sisters Wilderness near Central Oregon. This greatly annoyed Oregon's senior Senator Mark O. Hatfield, who was in favor of logging it, as was every other politician in Oregon, including Morse before his defeat. Packwood was blocked by Hatfield from getting on the committee with jurisdiction over natural resources. He couldn't get the committee to hold a hearing on his bill to save French Pete, so environmentalists hired a stenographer, set up an empty chair for Hatfield and held one anyway in Eugene. Packwood later inserted the transcript into the Congressional Record.

The significance of an Oregon politician in 1970 coming out for French Pete must be emphasized. At that time, French Pete held a symbolic importance to the environmental movement nationally at least ten times what the threatened Opal Creek ancient forest holds today. The Forest Service had plans to cut essentially every old growth tree in the state. None were to be saved, even as museum pieces, let alone as functioning forest across the landscape and over time. Packwood came out for French Pete because, in his heart, he knew it to be right; and (even though it annoyed the hell out of the political status quo) it put him in good stead with the emerging and increasingly influential environmental movement.

Packwood also fell in love with the landscape of Hells Canyon, and became friends with the few courageous environmentalists then in northeast Oregon. Packwood had very much wanted to save Hells Canyon. His bill to preserve it prevented the damming for hydroelectric power the last 100 miles of the free-flowing Snake River. I first saw Packwood in the flesh at the dedication of the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area in 1976. Of all the politicians who spoke, Packwood was the most passionate. He said these words that I will never forget: "If we save all the wilderness still left today, in it won't be half enough 50 years from now." At that point, I, and the environmental movement, would have walked through hell for the junior Senator from Oregon.

1975-1980 Second Term: Hesitation

In 1974, Morse tried to take back his old seat and died trying. His replacement on the ballot was Democratic State Senator Betty Roberts, who was ranked as voting correctly 86 percent of the time by the Oregon League of Environmental (now Conservation) Voters. (Roberts is now a leader in today's get-Packwood effort.) OLEV chose to give a joint-endorsement, which deeply offended Packwood. He thought he deserved the sole endorsement, after all he had done for environmentalists. The street fighter in Packwood valued loyalty, and the environmentalists let him down. As a result, during his second term, the junior senator was very quiet on environmental issues. He still supported French Pete, but not much else. Ironically, it was Hatfield who got the credit and glory for the passage of the Endangered American Wilderness Act of 1978, which returned French Pete to wilderness status.

In his second term, Packwood concentrated on some very safe environmental issues, like whales (not a lot of people in Oregon want to cut up whales). A clearly discernible voting pattern was beginning to emerge. His national League of Conservation Voters record had peaked in the years of his re-election, and was the lowest the year afterward. The political Packwood was beginning to dominate the passionate Packwood. The election of 1980 brought forth another Democratic state senator with an even better OLEV voting record (95 percent), Ted Kulongoski. This time, the OLEV board voted to endorse just Kulongoski. It was the Republican landslide year of Ronald Reagan, the first President to make the environment a partisan issue. Packwood was increasingly distanced from environmentalists, whom he increasingly viewed (and in my opinion, accurately) as knee-jerk Democrats.

1981-1986 Third Term: The End of the Packwood Curve

The biggest and most difficult issue in Oregon environmental politics was still wilderness for federal lands. Packwood took no significant role in what became the Oregon Forest Wilderness Act of 1984. And what role this former great lover and defender of wilderness did take was negative. As he considered his re-election bid for 1986, Packwood knew he needed to split the liberals (in order to win, statewide Republican candidates in Oregon always have to do this—witness Hatfield, the pacifist, anti-nuke timber beast). Challenging him this time was Jim Weaver, a populist Democratic congressman from Eugene and darling of the environmentalists. Weaver had championed French Pete and many other wild areas; that the Oregon Wilderness Act of 1984 contained nearly one million acres is testimony to the tenacity of the man. Packwood was confident of beating Weaver. He had tons of money and a better campaign organization. But he still wanted to split Weaver's base, just to be sure.

Sensing this, two other Oregon Natural Resources Council staffers and I seized an opportunity: James Monteith, then Executive Director and Chair of Conservationists for Packwood; Tim Lillebo, ONRC's Northeast Field Representative (most times a Democrat, occasional Republican); and myself (then a reluctant Democrat and much more so now, but sure as hell not leaning Republican) concocted a scheme to designate an additional 300,000 acres of Wilderness in the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. The first Packwood bill had saved the river from dams, but not the forest from chainsaws. Our strategy was to bring Bob Packwood back to the environmental fold because we knew Weaver had no chance of winning the Senate race.

We also knew Packwood was damn good when he was your champion, and we hadn't yet "lost" him. We persuaded Packwood to introduce the Hells Canyon Wilderness bill in early 1986. We had held a 10-year anniversary re-dedication of the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area at Buckhorn Lookout, north of Hat Point and equally spectacular. Packwood said it again: "If we save all the wilderness still left today, in it won't be half enough 50 years from now." No longer would I walk through hell for the guy, but it was politically necessary for him to say it and act like he meant it. He further said he didn't want his place in history to be the passage of the Tax Reform Act of 1986; he wanted it to be Hells Canyon.

That spring, Hatfield did what he said he'd never do again: hold another wilderness hearing in Oregon. After the hearing, the three of us, as principles in the Conservationists for Packwood political action committee (all on our own time, since ONRC's tax status prohibits participation in electoral politics) met with Packwood and Elaine Franklin (his infamous aide and protector) in John Day. We were helping him hustle votes at the county fair. When it was time for Packwood to leave, we went up the hill to the John Day airport.

While waiting for the plane, we huddled and worked out a deal. Packwood would move the bill through the Senate immediately after Labor Day. We talked frankly about Hatfield, no fan of wilderness. Packwood most confidently and clearly said, "I'll handle Mark. It won't be a problem." As we watched the Senator and his aide fly off, we were feeling pretty good. We'd wired up another wilderness bill for Oregon, just two years after Hatfield had said "never again." We were pumped. The August recess passed quietly for us, but not for Jim Weaver. He dropped out of the race for senator. The Democrats chose State Rep. Rick Bauman (yet another state legislator with a good environmental record) as the fill-in. It was absolutely no contest.

When Lillebo and I went to see Packwood in his Capitol Hill office the day after Labor Day, we got the run-around. "The senator is quite busy . . ." We knew something was up. Lillebo, who has haunted the halls of the Hill more than any of us, staked out a place Packwood must pass in the course of his business. He buttonholed Packwood in the hall and the ugly truth became evident. There would be no Hells Canyon Wilderness bill. There was no need with Weaver out of the race. The 300,000 wilderness acres of insurance that Packwood (and Hatfield) were willing to pay to ensure a split in the environmental community no longer had to be paid. We were in shock. We were hurt. We'd been had.

1987-1992 Fourth Term: Dark Brown

The political Packwood crushed the passionate Packwood. He was through with environmentalists. They couldn't be relied upon, nor for that matter could environmentalists rely on him. He sized up his potential next election opponents (the guy's default setting in running his political calculus is, like any other politician, the next election) and they all appeared to be greener than he. Of course, we're talking relative here, but Reps. Les AuCoin, Peter DeFazio or Ron Wyden or Gov. Neil Goldschmidt had all out-greened Packwood (not by much for half of them). In 1989, environmentalists were successful in their first big court injunctions. The following April, at the timber industry's peak moment, Packwood spoke to an estimated 10,000 disgruntled timber workers in Pioneer Square in Portland, and conveniently painted environmentalists as the same people as those who opposed the Vietnam War and favor gun control. Environmentalists had fallen a long way from the heady moment in 1976 at Hat Point; they no longer could claim friends in the Northwest congressional delegation.

In 1992, in his fifth bid for election to the Senate, Packwood made no pretense of courting the environmental vote; in fact, he ran against the environment. The Democrats had chosen Au Coin to challenge Packwood. Packwood had gobs more money than AuCoin. Environmentalists were backing AuCoin as the lesser of two evils, but with none of the vigor they would have had for Harry Lonsdale, the forest lover and former board member of ONRC whom AuCoin had edged out in the Democratic primary.

I'd figured that AuCoin would be better than Packwood, even though both had whored for Big Timber (such have historically been the choices facing Oregon environmentalists). The fact that Packwood once really believed in wilderness was immaterial. He didn't any longer. Then I heard the Washington Post was running the sexual harassment story. But with Packwood and his lawyers at full bark, the Post was extra nervous about checking the facts, and delayed the story. Its blockbuster ran November 22Ctwo weeks after the election.

1993-199? Killed Off or Born Again?

The morning after his re-election, in his inimitable way, Packwood mused to the press that we could no longer cut as much timber as we once did in the Pacific Northwest; that Big Timber would have to compromise. As I heard this, I marveled at the man. What a consummate politician! He sleeps with Big Timber before the election, and doesn't even have breakfast with them in the morning! He was already positioning himself for 1998, when he would run again for the Senate, in a time when he knew that Big Timber would be a much smaller political force. I called Lillebo to discuss this, and we decided that we should go see Packwood. As Ted Kulongoski once told me, "With Bob Packwood you have a 50-50 chance on any issue at any time." This totally amoral politician was floating, and we saw the opportunity for him (the political Packwood, not the passionate Packwood) to start greening again.

But then the Washington Post story did finally hit, and the firestorm began. It would not have been politic for us to start siding up to Packwood again, and in fact I joined the crowd trying to force him from office. Packwood's political friends were abandoning him in droves. Nobody wanted to be associated with this philandering political pariah. Nobody except Big Timber, who was as badly in need of friends as Packwood. Packwood thus was thrust back into the arms of the clearcutting crowd, who offered sanctuary when all others were calling for his head.