Harassment in Congress far from surprising

WASHINGTON — Does becoming a member of The Club mean you have to accept its rules?

The buzz over a new book by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., last week was all about her revelation that some of her male colleagues seem to have a fixation about her weight. She recounts that one expressed concern that she might become “porky,” and another made the backhanded suggestion that she was pretty even when she was fat.

Then came the debate: Was she under an obligation to name names? At least one reporter, Politico’s John Bresnahan, found the allegation so far-fetched that he tweeted that he didn’t believe it really happened. (He has since apologized.)

But to anyone who has spent more than a few minutes on Capitol Hill, none of this should seem surprising. Change comes far more slowly there than in just about any other workplace.

When I started covering Congress in the 1980s, it had been nearly 70 years since the first woman had been elected to the institution. Yet, the most sacred bastion of male bonding — the House gym — was still closed to female members. Not until 2011 did the 76 female members of the House actually get their own ladies room off the chamber. (Before that, they had to go halfway across the House side of the Capitol for a members-only lavatory.)

Gillibrand’s book brings to my mind a complicated, curious incident that occurred not long after the much-heralded “Year of the Woman” — the 1992 election that swept 55 women into Congress, amid anger over Anita Hill’s treatment when she lodged sexual harassment accusations against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

The Capitol was forever changed. Or so people thought. Then in 1993 came the Senate’s investigation of allegations that Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., had made unwanted sexual advances on female lobbyists and former staffers.

One of the most electrifying moments of that saga came as the Senate was debating whether to subpoena Packwood’s diaries. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who had been elected as part of that 1992 wave, took the floor and warned that for the Senate to close ranks around one of its own “sends a clear message also to every woman in this country: If you are harassed, keep quiet, say nothing; the cards are stacked against you ever winning.” The next day, 94 senators took the vote that doomed Packwood’s Senate career.

A disturbing incident happened after that — one that C-SPAN cameras did not capture.

As recounted in journalist Clara Bingham’s 1997 book “Women on the Hill,” Murray found herself alone in an elevator one evening with 91-year-old Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., who did not recognize her as a colleague. He inquired whether the “little lady” was married — and then proceeded to grope her breast, Bingham wrote.

I received a pre-publication version of the book to review for the Los Angeles Times. In that version, Bingham wrote that the outraged Murray had confided the incident to her colleague and fellow Class of 1992 member, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who laughed it off. I wrote in my review: “It seems that the tribal rituals of the place are not so offensive to Boxer now that she is a member.”

But between that version and the actual published one, Boxer secured a change in the text. In the second telling, duly noted in a Los Angeles Times letter to the editor, Boxer: “took the conduct seriously and urged Murray ‘to go public with this. Who knows how many more people he’ll do this to?’ Murray decided she would handle the episode herself and Boxer respected her colleague’s request.”

Either way, Murray herself told Bingham that she was not offended by what she regarded as a “non-incident.”

So here we are, more than 20 years later. Gillibrand says of one of the unnamed colleagues who made a boorish comment: “I believed his intentions were sweet, even if he was being an idiot.”

Once again, we are left to accept her judgment of what the private actions of a public official really tell us about his character — and the institution that has not changed so much after all.

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