Two years ago, Sen. Robert W. Packwood (R-Ore.), just re-elected to the Senate for a second term, thought that he faced blindness from rapidly progressing cataracts in both eyes.
To read he had to turn his eyes to the side and look through the edge where the cataract was thinnes. He had difficulty driving. Sometimes at meetings he had difficulty recognizing people he'd known for years.
Some politiicans might have thought their careers were over, but Packwood, then 42, says he never did.
Instead, he said in an interview yesterday, he started to think about what it would take to handle the job, and even run for re-election, if he were sightless.
"I thought, if worst came to worst, I could handle this job blind."
"I thought, what are the components of the job - being able to listen, pick up the facts, and dictate. Other people can read to me. I've been trained most of my life as a good listener. I've been around blind people and I've seen them function. One long-time aide joked, 'My God, if you go blind you'll just dictate all the more.'"
"As for, campaigning, I thought I'd do it the same as now. Go to a rotary or a high school and speak. I consciously thought the voters of Oregon were not going to turn me down because I was blind - so long as I could do the job."
As it turned out, Packwood didn't go blind.
He was referred to Dr. Charles Kelman of New York, Pioneer of a new technique, in which a needle vibrating at 40,000 cycles a second "Sandpapers" or "emulsifies" the cataract off in 10 to 12 minutes while fluid is shot into the eye to prevent a heat buildup.
During the August recess of 1976, Delman removed the cataract from Packwood's right eye, restoring good vision although glasses are needed to focus at less than six feet. He was back in his Senate office working within 48 hours. A few days ago, he announced that because the cataract in the left eye has ceased progressing, a planned operation on that eye has been postponed indefinitely, though it may someday be needed.
In the year before last summer's operation, Packwood's vision got progressively worse. He had to be driven home by aides if it was dark. A member of the Finance Committee working on the big tax hill from January to August last year, he was often unable to ream amendments in committee fast enough to follow the discussion. He took to coming in at 5 in the morning so he could have several hours extra to read, painstakingly with his head slanted sideways, materials that were to come up later in the day.
Packwood said that Laurence N. Woodworth, now assistant secretary of the Treasury but then staff director of the Joint Committee on Internal Revenue Taxation, somehow leanred of his handicap. Woodworth made a special effort - without ever revealing that he knew of Packwood's difficulty - to brief him orally both at the committee and in Packwood's office on complicated material he knew Packwood would have difficulty reading.
When Packwood finally revealed his intention to have an operation, he said, Sens. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) and Milton R. Young (R-N.D.) said they had had cataract surgery and sought to reassure him and allay his fears. "People in Oregon wrote saying they were praying for me. Others wrote saying they'd an operation. I shouldn't worry." His two small children, he said, took special care not to leave toys, skates or other small items around that he might fall over.
Was there never a moment, before he learned his sight could be saved by Kelman, when he lost hope?
"No," said Packwood. "There were moments when I thought I might go blind, but I never thought it would be an insurmountable handicap, I never despaired, I never felt my career and life were over."