Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Packwood Hearing Could Be Circus

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Packwood Hearing Could Be Circus

Article excerpt

For some weeks, I've conducted a friendly running argument with female friends about the Senate Ethics Committee's inquiry into the sexual behavior of Sen. Bob Packwood of Oregon. As everyone must know by now, the senator has been charged by a score of women with making inappropriate and offensive advances to them (usually, it seems, impulsive kissing).

My female friends invariably think the hearings should be open.

Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, who speaks for them, has been crusading to get them opened. But the Senate has voted narrowly to keep them closed. Until last week, Packwood himself had - on the advice of his lawyers, he says - urged that they be closed. Now, suddenly facing fresh charges from a young woman who was in her teens at the time she claims Packwood tried to kiss her, Packwood has himself changed his mind. What is one to think?

I still think the same thing, even if Packwood himself doesn't any longer. As with the disgraceful Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the Anita Hill charges against Clarence Thomas, deliberative bodies wishing to live up to the adjective should have the character to resist trial by television. The O.J. Simpson circus shows what happens when video exposure transforms judicial proceedings into circuses, although when criminal charges are pending, trials must by constitutional command be open. The only question is how you define openness.

There are, however, all sorts of false analogies kicking around here, and Boxer has made good use of them. The case for openness seems undebatable when derelictions of official duty are credibly charged - as they were, for instance, in the Iran-Contra matter. Sen. Sam Ervin's select committee showed in the Watergate hearings in the summer of 1973 that openness needn't be inimical to the public interest.

But when the charges, often vague and unsupported by corroborative evidence, concern lapses in private behavior, the situation seems to me fundamentally different. Indeed, perhaps the paramount question in such a case is whether the misbehavior charged against a public figure is so serious as to entail the loss of his public office. …

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