With many women coming forward now to accuse public figures of sexually abusing them, one has to wonder how the late U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye would fare today facing similar charges.
In 1992, Inouyeʻs hairdresser, Lenore Kwock, alleged that the senator forced her to have sex with him and that he groped her in a hair salon after that. Inouye denied the allegations, as well as unsubstantiated claims that he had abused nine other women.
After a brief flurry of news reports, Inouye won re-election and emerged from the scandal largely unscathed.
In an interview Monday, Kwock said she thinks people might be more understanding today of what happened to her because many women now are are telling similar stories of sexual harassment by powerful men.
“Back in those days, it was how some men treated women,” she said. “It was purely selfish on their part without concern for the woman’s feelings.”
Kwock is 65 now and retired from her hairstyling business. She has been married for 20 years.
What is clearly different today is when women make claims of sexual harassment, people tend to support them. When Kwock alleged Inouye had assaulted and molested her 25 years ago, very few people came to her side or were even curious to find out more about other women making similar allegations.
New York Times reporter Jane Gross wrote then, “In large measure, political, civic and business leaders chose guarded silence, which some of them attributed to fear that the party machine which controls nearly all the state and Federal positions and programs here, might derail their careers or strip their projects of government money.”
Gross wondered why few in Hawaii seemed to be raising their voices when at the time there was an uproar over similar but more extensive allegations against Oregon’s Sen. Bob Packwood and Washington state’s Sen. Brock Adams, who both eventually resigned in disgrace.
“I think Hawaii remains a closed shop politically. Inouye’s supporters would continue to protect him from possible censure.” — Annelle Amaral
Even some of Hawaiiʻs most influential women leaders declined to get involved in the Inouye issue. City Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi, a founder of the State Senate Women’s Caucus, told Gross that she didn’t have time to review the allegations because she had been busy “attending functions.”
When I talked to Kobayashi about this Saturday, she said, “I always side with women. I wanted to believe her, but it was also a case of our revered senator. I didn’t think he would do that kind of thing.”
These days, public support seems stronger for women, especially when news reports show the alleged abusers engaged in repeated sexual misconduct such as Bill Cosby, Charlie Rose and Harvey Weinstein.
Kwock says after she told her story she got phone calls from people threatening her. Some of her Japanese-American clients seemed especially dismayed.
“They said to me, ‘Don’t take him down.’ Dan Inouye was their hero,” she said.
And people who came forward to support Kwock faced accusations of disloyalty.
Annelle Amaral, who at the time was head of the State House Womenʻs Caucus, said she lost her vice chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee and eventually her re-election bid after she supported Kwock.
Amaral believes if Inouye were alive today and was confronted with similar allegations of sexual harassment, his backers would be just as ready to be on his side.
“I think Hawaii remains a closed shop politically,” she said Saturday. “Inouye’s supporters would continue to protect him from possible censure. People would just shut up and say nothing.”
Kwockʻs claim that Inouye sexually abused her came in October 1992, when he was running for re-election to a sixth term in office. In a news conference, Kwock told reporters the senator had coerced her to have sexual intercourse with him in his Waikiki apartment 17 years earlier when she was 22 and starting her career as a hairdresser.
She said her boss at the hair salon at the Ilikai Hotel where she worked sent her to Inouyeʻs apartment on an errand. Kwock said as soon as she walked through the door, “he grabbed me and proceeded his advances on me.”
She remembers today, “Even though he had only one arm, he had strength. I tried pushing him but I didn’t get anywhere.”
“I was very young, inexperienced and scared,” Kwock said then. “I felt overpowered by him and the fact that he was Daniel Inouye. He removed my clothing and Iʻm just thinking, ‘This is going to happen.’”
She said back then she didn’t consider it rape because although she tried to push him back, she gave in to him. She said she was too afraid to to do anything else.
She was quoted at the time in The Honolulu Advertiser saying, “I told Inouye ʻNo I donʻt want to get pregnant’ … and he opened up the drawer and got out contraceptive foam, which I had never seen and I donʻt know how to use it so he did everything.”
Kwock said that after the incident, when Inouye came in for a haircut, as she was shampooing his hair in a partially partitioned room he reached his hand up her dress. She says he tried to do the same thing in other hair appointments, but that she was able to evade him by moving over to the right side of the basin, the side of his missing arm, so he could not reach out to grab at her.
She said sometimes he made lewd remarks, reminding her about the sexual encounter in his apartment. He repeatedly asked her to go out to dinner with him at expensive restaurants, but she says she always refused.
Kwock said she was forced to go public with her story after a former campaign worker for Republican state Sen. Rick Reed, one of Inouyeʻs opponents, secretly tape recorded her talking about the alleged sexual assault and Reed had aired the tape in an attack ad.
Kwock said that a woman with a hidden recorder got her to speak candidly after telling her she was seeking a job with Inouye and was concerned he might make sexual advances and that she wanted Kwockʻs advice.
The night that Reed’s commercial aired, Kwock says Inouye’s aide, the late Henry Giugni, called her and proposed meeting to talk about the situation.
”I told him, ‘Henry, I cannot lie,'” Kwock said Monday. “He said, ‘Well I guess you gotta do what you gotta do.’”
After she was tricked into telling her story, Kwock said she decided to go public in an attempt to prevent Reed from twisting what happened to her for his own political gain.
When Kwock threatened to sue, Reed yanked the commercial and apologized to her.
Inouyeʻs response to The Honolulu Advertiser at the time was confusing. He told reporter Andy Yamaguchi Kwockʻs allegations were untrue but “I am not suggesting she is lying.”
When Yamaguchi asked Inouye how he could deny Kwockʻs stories yet still say she was not lying, Inouye said, “Well it could be a matter of imagination.”
Amaral said she thought Kwock’s story was too detailed to be “a matter of imagination.”
Before she became a legsislator, Amaral had been a police officer in charge of teaching community classes in rape prevention. After saying on TV she believed Kwock, Amaral said she was immediately shunned by her colleagues.
“When I sat down in the caucus room, two colleagues sitting on either side of me at the table, one of them a woman, got up and moved to other seats. Nobody wanted to talk to me. I was in an icebox all by myself.
“Thatʻs how deep the support was for Inouye regardless of anything he might have done,” said Amaral.
“There continues to be a silence about what happened in the past. He was an extremely important political figure, but he was also flawed.” — Meda Chesney-Lind
Amaral was even more dismayed when women lawmakers rejected her suggestion that they get involved in the issue.
“The same women who had run to the microphone at every possible opportunity to support Anita Hill in her battle against (U.S. Supreme Court nominee) Clarence Thomas all stood back and didn’t say a word about this poor, powerless hairdresser. It just stunned me,” she said.
Amaral said nine other women called her office to say they had received similar unwanted sexual attention from Inouye, but they declined to come forward publicly.
Inouye called the claims by the nine anonymous accusers “unmitigated lies.”
He said he wanted his name cleared and urged the Senate Ethics Committee to investigate the allegations. But Kwock said she would not testify voluntarily and none of the nine other women would come forward. The panel decided to drop the case after no one filed formal charges.
Gloria Allred, the nationally known lawyer representing women in high-profile sex assault cases today, urged the Ethics Committee in 1993 to reopen a case against Inouye and also to look into whether he had intimidated or retaliated against Amaral. That request was denied.
Amaral later apologized to Inouye for what she called her “candid knee-jerk response … without specific proof and confirmation.”
On Saturday, she said she apologized because “I needed to stop the story. Inouye had immense power. The accusations were going nowhere. It was taking a toll on everyone.”
Political columnist Neal Milner, interviewed by The New York Times in 1992 when the Inouye allegations were leveled, said then that Democrats in Hawaii “don’t have to worry about defending themselves. All Inouye has to say is, ‘No I didn’t,’ and that’s enough to protect him.”
That was despite the fact a pre-election poll showed 42 percent of the likely voters believed Kwock and only 20 percent believed Inouye. And Kwock passed a lie detector test when Inouye refused to take one.
The situation would be entirely different today, Milner said Saturday.
“The sexual harassment issue has become a national story,” he said. “It has more legs. The local media would be more aggressive today about finding out the names of the nine other women. More reporters from the national media would be here, asking more probing questions. The story would not go away as quickly.”
Like Amaral, Meda Chesney-Lind, director of Women’s Studies at the University of Hawaii Manoa, believes Inouye would still hold sway if he were accused today. Chesney-Lind was one of the women’s advocacy leaders to come forward in 1992 in support of Kwock.
“We are still naming big buildings in his honor, including an international airport,” Chesney-Lind said of Inouye. “There continues to be a silence about what happened in the past. He was an extremely important political figure, but he was also flawed. Should we continue to honor him by naming more institutions in his memory or maybe we should put a question mark there.”
Inouye died in 2012 at age 88. He was remembered by The New York Times as a World War II hero and “Hawaii’s quiet voice of conscience in the Senate.”
His enduring political and business influence can be measured in the careers of the men and women who came through his office or who were mentored by him.
In Inouye’s obituaries in Hawaii papers, there were only a few lines about Lenore Kwock’s allegations.
Amaral is now president of the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs and a member of the Hawaii Parole Board.
“I am so proud of the women willing to speak publicly today about sexual harassment that happened to them in the past even though it is costing them their privacy and often their reputations,” Amaral said. “It takes a lot of courage to do what they are doing.”
Kwock says she leads a quiet life today, reading and shopping for the vegan meals she enjoys cooking.
“Today, a lot of women are coming forward and things are changing,” Kwock said. “Something is happening. It has got to happen.”