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September 16th, 2009 | Q & A
 

Bob Packwood

What one of Oregon’s once-most powerful Republicans thinks about the party now.

     
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IMAGE: Mike Perrault

The last time Bob Packwood visited our office 15-plus years ago, he was one of the country’s most powerful elected officials.

A U.S. senator who had amassed more than a quarter century of seniority, Packwood was a moderate Republican at the time who championed abortion rights and wrote far-reaching tax policy as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

Within a year, it had all collapsed. That’s when revelations of sexual improprieties surfaced, mostly charges that Packwood had kissed female staffers and other women—including a reporter for The Oregonian—without their consent.

He resigned from the Senate in 1995 under threat of expulsion and became a lobbyist, avoiding the press and most public appearances, buying a home in Dunthorpe and a townhouse in D.C. He just turned 77.

When we called to ask for an interview about what’s happened to moderates in the GOP and the current political landscape, he couldn’t have been more gracious.

WW: As a general matter, have you approved of what Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke have done?

Bob Packwood: Yes. Would I have voted for the second one? Probably. I would have. Would I be convinced that it would work? We don’t know now. Could you say, everything’s just fine, sooner or later the system will ride itself out and we just won’t worry about it? I don’t think that was an option. … I hesitate to think what would have happened considering AIG’s standing… if we had not bailed them out.

And cash for clunkers?

I don’t know if I would have voted for that or not. As a one month stimulus… I guess it worked.

What do you think about the state of the Oregon Republican Party, which cannot seem to win a statewide race or even find candidates?

[Laughs] The nice thing about political parties is that eventually they like to win. So, sooner or later, either the party changes so that it can win, or it disappears…. Could we win the governorship of Oregon? Under the right circumstances, you bet.

The state Legislature raised taxes on business and the wealthiest Oregonians; those increases will most likely be referred next year to voters. Are we chasing away existing businesses and scaring away others who aren’t here?

I think it’s a modest impediment. And you can tell this by the advantage that Clark County residents have. Maybe it’s a tremendous advantage when you have no income tax; buy your clothes and groceries in Oregon anyways without sales tax. But I think it’s a modest impediment. Do I think that a major business — that its primary factor in locating a business is the tax structure in that state? I don’t think that’s the primary factor. Especially if you’re any kind of a business that requires a relatively educated labor force, I think you would be more concerned with what kind of education, and if you’re technical, what kind of physicists and engineers you turn out than what is the tax rate. Having said that, can the tax rate get high enough that if some company can make a decision between two states, and it’s relatively equal in all other considerations, then the tax break can hurt you … If we really could afford a sensational higher education system that would be a greater factor in many businesses decisions.

Can we ask you to give a fair assessment of some of the state’s leaders?

Probably not.

Let’s start with our governor.

This is a no-win situation for me. Every now and then, somebody in Washington [D.C.] will want me to comment on the Oregon delegation, and I say, ‘are you out of your mind?’

So, there’s virtually nobody in public life you would be willing to discuss? Really?

Maybe the county treasurer in Harney County.

It’s been a long time since you had to resign from the Senate. Do you think what happened to you was fair?

All professions, all games, have rules. You violate the rules, you’re out. And the rules change from time to time. But I was in politics long enough to realize that if in a particular time, you have violated what they perceive to be the rules, even your friends will turn to you and say, “Tough luck, you’re out.” And that happened to me at the time. I really can’t complain about it, because I knew as long as I was in politics…that you don’t violate the rules. Even if you haven’t violated the rules but you caused a public embarrassment, you’re out. The end. You should not go into politics or any other profession if you don’t understand that.

In the case of our mayor, it looks like he’s violated the rules you’re talking about. But it looks like he’s not out.

We’ll just see what happens. If he runs again, we’ll see what happens. The public was reasonably forgiving, and time indeed does heal wounds. My hunch would be, if he comes out as being done a good job in the public’s mind, he’ll have a good chance for re-election.

What do you make of Republican Gordon Smith losing his Senate race last year?

Gordon’s such a decent guy. Interesting situation with him also, he refers to it in his book. There’s a woman, Kay Jamison, maybe America’s leading writer, teacher on manic-depression, bipolar disorder. She teaches at John Hopkins, and I met her 10 years ago at a party. For whatever reason, we hit it off and about every two weeks we had breakfast. And after the suicide [by Smith’s son], I was talking to Gordon one day and I said, ‘she’s written a book on suicide, that in her younger days she tried suicide, and I asked Gordon if he’d like to meet her,’ and he said ‘very much,’ so I took her in. Gordon and his wife were there. He says how much it has helped him. She said, ‘this is not your fault.’ Every parent says, ‘this is all my fault, then where did I go wrong?’ She said, ‘there’s nothing you could have done. You did everything you could have done.’ I think no matter what, as a parent you’ll always feel for the rest of your life, what could I have done differently. Gordon was popular with the senators. The one rap on him. And I won’t tell you who said it [was] you would more often find him in Berlin than you would in Burns. And in politics, you never, never, never, never should forget coming home. I used to find a sensational way to stay in touch, especially in the one high school towns, because by the time you’ve done the city council, and the labor council and spoken with the Lions and gone to the high school where the kids were, and talk to the parents in the one high school town, at the end of the day, you’ve got a pretty good feel of what’s going on and you understand the problems in Newport with fishing are not the same problems as those in Umatilla County with wheat. I don’t know any other way to stay in touch except to do that. That was the criticism of him. He didn’t do that enough.

Will he run again for any office?

I would doubt it. He’s taken a job at a significant law firm, and I’m sure it pays fine.

What do you think of [former Gov. John] Kitzhaber running again?

The man who said this state is not governable? My hunch would be that statement would be replayed several times by whomever the Republicans nominate. You think you can run it better this time than last time?

What will happen on the Republicans side?

I don’t know. I talked to Greg [Walden] several times, and avoided advising. I said, ‘do what you want. Do not let yourself be talked into running.’ For years I recruited candidates when I was in the Legislature. And when I was in the Senate several times with the senatorial campaign committee, and the worst candidate was the one that got talked into running by his friends.

Did you go to Dorchester, anymore?

Yes.

Weren’t you the creator of Dorchester?

Yes, I was. It’s a different Dorchester now than when I created it. When I created it, it was a purely liberal organization; conservatives were not invited, except for the Republican members of the Legislature. Bear in mind, it’s 1965; Goldwater, we’d been clobbered nationwide. If you think Obama was a sweep, Goldwater lost Oregon 64-36, that’s about as much as you can lose a state. So it was a very liberal organization by the state party. I intended it to be controversial and it worked out well. But today, I go, and it is not that cutting edge.

What do you do for fun?

I used to play squash three days a week, but then my knees finally wouldn’t twist properly anymore. I tried to work [out] three days a week at the Multnomah [Athletic] Club. I play a fair amount of bridge; I got a consistent partner I play with, on the computer.

Senator, can we ask you to comment a little on the rise and fall of Gov. [Neil] Goldschmidt?

Neil was an absolute joy to work with. ... I was always impressed with him. And then working with him on this issue, he’s one of the best, quickest, brightest, and it reminds you a bit of Ted Kennedy.

And the rest?

You know the rest as well as I do.

How did you feel when the news came out about him?

I felt badly for him. I like him. I like the guy. I felt badly. It was interesting. From 1980 onward, of course you always poll, “How well would I have to do if I had to run against, you know, whoever?” And although he had only been in congress two years, Ron [Wyden] always polled better against me than Neil did. And that’s when he was just a congressman from Multnomah County, so he didn’t have state familiarity. I would beat them both, but Ron would poll closer. This is just a guess. Neil was a very strong leader. You take strong stands, you pick up enemies. When you stop the freeway from going through Southeast Portland, stop it at the Morrison Bridge. When you stop it there and a lot of people wanted that freeway, they don’t forget. … You cannot help but pick up, when you’re a strong leader, enemies.

One of the big issues today is the potential new bridge to Clark County at a cost of $4.2 billion. People are trying to make that a replay of the Mt. Hood Freeway debate. What are your thoughts about that?

I’m not sufficiently up-to-date. I’m more concerned with the Sellwood Bridge, which is where I live.


FACT: Packwood collected $200,000 in 2008 lobbying for Molina Healthcare, a managed care company.
 
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