Human, All Too Human : WOMEN ON THE HILL. By Clara Bingham . Times Books: 208 pp., $21

Karen Tumulty covers the White House for Time magazine

The handful of people who were in the Senate Gallery on that evening in November 1993 will never forget it. For hour after windy hour, the members of the institution that calls itself the world's greatest deliberative body had talked about legal precedent, Senate procedure, privacy--everything, it seemed, but the issue at hand.

The Ethics Committee wanted to subpoena the diaries of Oregon Republican Bob Packwood, which contained evidence they needed to confirm dozens of claims of sexual harassment against the senator. But the members of the club were closing ranks around their own. Until a tiny woman, who had listened silently all afternoon, rose on one edge of the chamber and began to speak in a reedy voice that barely carried to the balcony.

To side with Packwood, Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, warned, "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."

It was that rarest of moments in which one person shifts an entire institution--not as far as many would have liked, perhaps, but permanently. The next day, 94 senators voted to back the subpoena and sealed Packwood's downfall.

Today, with voter attention span being what it is, Murray's speech already seems to be of another era. But several political eons ago, before pollsters had discovered soccer moms or even angry white males, there was a time that was known as "The Year of the Woman." In her book "Women on the Hill," journalist Clara Bingham chronicles four Democrats--Murray and three House members--in those first two years after the 1992 elections swept 55 women into the two houses of Congress. It is an enlightening, largely unsentimental account, not only of their idealism and their gains but also their naivete and even their hypocrisy.

Only a few pages after Murray's dramatic floor speech, the reader finds her alone one evening on an elevator with South Carolina's 91-year-old Strom Thurmond, who apparently fails to recognize her as a fellow senator. He inquires whether the "little lady" is married and then, Bingham writes, proceeds to do what he has long been rumored to have done with any number of hapless and defenseless Senate aides: He gropes for her breast. Stunningly, when Murray tells Sen. Barbara Boxer of the incident, the California Democrat who stormed the Senate Chamber during the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings laughs it off, according to Bingham's account. It seems that the tribal rituals of the place are not so offensive to Boxer now that she is a member.

And what does Murray do? It was her own anger over Hill's experience, after all, that convinced her to run; it was the voters' feelings about the same episode that helped elect her. She agonizes some but opts not to roil the waters of Senate collegiality. Murray has her chief of staff call Thurmond's and ultimately accepts his non-apology for her misunderstanding and her embarrassment over what he considered a friendly overture. Later, directly questioned by Bingham, Murray says she was not offended by what she describes as a "non-incident."

In the more plebeian House, Bingham focuses on two veteran members--Colorado's Pat Schroeder and New Yorker Louise Slaughter--and flamboyant newcomer Cynthia McKinney, elected from a new black-majority district in Georgia that she had helped draw while in the state Legislature.

Bingham's view of Schroeder is a decidedly unflattering portrait of a lawmaker whom decades of Capitol Hill reporters had sought out for the sardonic quote that would reflect the women's point of view on any issue from family leave to arms control. Again and again, the most senior woman in Congress refuses to compromise and achieve the attainable, ignoring the basic realities of practical legislating and then blaming her failures on institutionalized sexism.

Schroeder, who retired from Congress last year, is depicted as not entirely happy to see the arrival of a new generation of women with whom she will share the limelight, and she shows an unseemly preoccupation with protecting her position as head of the largely symbolic congressional women's caucus. She spearheads an effort to overturn the Hyde Amendment banning federal funding for poor women's abortions, and it turns into a fiasco as the veteran legislator is tripped up by basic parliamentary procedure.

The book's most complex character is McKinney, a woman of admirable grit and tenacity, most single-minded when it comes to wringing Washington for the projects that are badly needed in her poor district. But she also shows an overarching ambition that is at times comical.

The day of President Clinton's first State of the Union address, McKinney shows up in the House Chamber 10 hours early and plants herself in a seat on the center aisle that will assure she gets a presidential hug and fleeting television exposure as the chief executive makes his grand entrance. Her instincts prove lacking, however, when she arrives at the White House for a negotiating session over important legislation. Clinton is first offended because she shows up with her fiance in tow and then because she uses the occasion to harangue him with a laundry list of her wants on a wide range of issues.

Slaughter proves the least interesting of the profiles, in part because her role in Congress is largely behind the scenes and in part because hers is simply a less memorable story. In the end, one wonders why Bingham included Slaughter, as the author never seems to take her off the sidelines.

Ultimately, the book's greatest failing is that it leaves the reader unprepared for what happens in the final chapter, which deals with the next election, a political moment more significant even than 1992. Voters not only rejected the Democratic Party in 1994 but also turned out many of the women lawmakers they had elected only two years before. In their place was elected a smaller, decidedly different class of freshman women: conservative, antiabortion rights, anti-gun control.

Bingham explains the reversal merely as a combination of Clinton's then-unpopularity, a rightward tide and a backlash of alienated male voters. But the message of 1994 was far more than that. What fueled the Year of the Woman was a national yearning for real change in how business was conducted in Washington. The Democrats--including that bumper crop of women lawmakers--simply didn't deliver it. If the reader fails to see in this book what was coming, perhaps that is appropriate. The Democrats in Congress didn't either.

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