March 22, 1982 12:00 PM

In Washington every whisper can take wing to the wrong ears. But these words landed with the subtlety of a wet dishrag. “President Reagan,” erupted the Senator, “is on a totally different track than the Republican leaders.” Why? Because he has written off working women, blacks, Hispanics and Jews: “That will hurt us more in the long run than the economy.” The Senator then embellished his dismay by telling of a meeting with the President in which Senate leaders complained of a $120 billion budget deficit—and Reagan replied with a familiar anecdote about a young man who entered a store, purchased an orange with food stamps, and used the change to buy a bottle of vodka. At such presidential woolgatherings, worried the Senator, “We just shake our heads.”

Much of Washington rolled its eyes. Oregon Sen. Bob Packwood, 49, the only rival to Lowell Weicker as the Senate’s leading Republican maverick, was at it again. By leading the fight against the sale of AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia last fall, he earned the enmity of the Administration. By losing that fight, he gained the distrust of many Democrats who followed his lead. Then, two weeks ago, he committed what may be the most notable Washington indiscretion since David Stockman’s visit to the woodshed. As chairman of the Senate GOP Campaign Committee, Packwood was plainly concerned about his 12 Republican colleagues up for reelection this fall. He delivered his evaluation of Ronald Reagan into a journalist’s tape recorder—only to have to apologize in a phone call to Air Force One. “I’m pretty upset about it,” the President groused, “but I accept your apology.”

The damage may have been done. “Packwood’s in trouble all right,” says a senior—and conservative—Senate aide. “I think he will be removed as chairman of the Republican campaign committee.”

Packwood himself is silently hunkering down. The attitude reflects the pragmatism he has shown in 13 years in the Senate, most recently as chairman of the Commerce Committee. Even his latest move may not have been totally foolhardy. “I don’t think what Bob said was improper,” says political ally and fellow Senator Larry Pressler (Rep.-S.Dak.), who predicts that Packwood will sustain no serious damage. “The general sense here is that the Senate must assert itself much more.” A Reagan aide dismissed Packwood’s lèse-majesté as “just a dumb thing to do.” A Senate Democrat sees a more calculating motive for Packwood’s actions, particularly his opposition to AWACS: “Maybe his pro-Israel stance arises out of true conviction, but it also serves his political purposes. For that matter, he supports women’s rights, but as you know, Gloria Steinem drummed up $600,000 for Packwood in his last election.”

Robert Packwood emerged from the ornery tradition of Oregon politics. His father, Frederick, was a lobbyist for the Associated Oregon Industries for 30 years—until he disagreed with it on the administration of workmen’s compensation. He was fired and promptly started lobbying for the AFL-CIO. The family’s Portland home was a political nursery for Bob. Armed with degrees from Willamette University and New York University Law School, Packwood launched his career by serving three terms in the state legislature. As a successful lawyer and bright young man in Northwest politics, Packwood challenged liberal warhorse Wayne Morse for his Senate seat in 1968.

In a stunning upset, Packwood won by 3,500 votes and seemed to be on the way to political stardom. His office bookshelves, stocked with British history and biographies of Disraeli and Oliver Cromwell, mark him as a serious student of his profession. Despite impaired eyesight—he has had two cataract operations—Packwood is still a voracious reader. Pundits mentioned him as White House material. But today the moderate Packwood seems out of step in the conservative Reagan age—and determined to make his name as a political curmudgeon.

His partner throughout has been his wife, Georgie, 51, who met Packwood while working on his first campaign. She has since pursued an independent course by serving on the board of directors of the Women’s Campaign Fund, an organization that promotes women politicians of both parties. “People always ask me how I can belong to a bipartisan funding group,” Georgie Packwood says. “I tell them: ‘When the day comes that 50 percent of the public officials are women, I will go off and form a Republican Women’s Campaign Fund.’ ”

To this day Georgie sits in on her husband’s strategy sessions. “You know aides usually despise their boss’s wife,” says Mimi Weyforth Dawson, once a Packwood aide and now an FCC commissioner, “but Georgie is one of the finest policy advisers around.” Packwood’s trusted adviser Jack Faust, a Portland lawyer, traces some of the Senator’s concern for women’s issues, including his support of a woman’s right to abortion, to Georgie. “Bob used to say, ‘We have all this intelligence, all this energy we refuse to use.’ ” Packwood’s Senate staff currently has only three men, a source of considerable amusement to the 16 women.

Four years after their marriage Georgie had a stillborn child. “After Bob was told our child was dead,” Georgie relates, “he arranged for me to be in a private ward so I wouldn’t be around babies who had lived. It was typical of him and one of the most precious moments of our lives. We both shed tears, and then he said, ‘Don’t you worry—let’s adopt a baby.’ It gave me something positive to think about.” The Packwoods soon adopted two children, Bill, now 15, and Shyla, 11.

Packwood denies any quest for higher office, at least for now. “I’m not prepared to give up the last shred of privacy I have,” he says. “My kids are young; in 10 years, who knows? But at the moment I want to go to Shakey’s Pizza with my family without being recognized.” His more likely short-term goal, say friends, is to become Senate Majority Leader, a path currently blocked by the incumbent, fellow moderate Howard Baker. If Baker ever realizes his dream of the Presidency, Packwood will still have to convince his colleagues that he is the right man to lead the Republican Party. He insists his credentials are in order: “On a scale of one to 10 of conservatism, I would be about six or seven,” he muses. But to make the race, he might have to temper his ways: “On the issues where I differ, I apparently do not do it quietly—or maybe the issues are not quiet issues.”

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