Lauri Hennessey was one of many anonymous women who accused Oregon Senator Bob Packwood of improper conduct in the 1990s. 
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Lauri Hennessey was one of many anonymous women who accused Oregon Senator Bob Packwood of improper conduct in the 1990s.
Credit: Courtesy Lauri Hennessey

Why Bob Packwood's accuser has come out of the shadows

A powerful senator and public champion of women is accused of sexual harassment. As the number of accusers mounts, his fellow senators urge him to step down. Eventually the pressure is too great, and he resigns.

We're not talking about Al Franken. We're talking about former Oregon senator Bob Packwood.

Twenty-five years ago, Packwood was brought down by a Washington Post story detailing his improper conduct with women. The story hinged on a woman who spoke on condition of anonymity. But when she realized recently that she still felt like she'd done something wrong, she knew that it was time to speak out.

Lauri Hennessey, Packwood's former press secretary, spoke to Bill about her experience and what's changed in 25 years.

In 1991, Hennessey had gone to Washington to work for one of the most powerful senators on the Hill. Before she left, she asked a friend: "How do I survive D.C.?" He told her, "The number one thing is to be loyal."

That loyalty was tested when the senator made unwanted advances toward Hennessey, and again when a Washington Post investigation brought forward more than 20 other women with similar stories of inappropriate behavior. Her story was the most recent, and made clear that this was an ongoing pattern of behavior. But she was reluctant to speak out against her former boss and mentor.

That is, until she heard an interview in which Packwood cast aspersions on her character, and she learned about the falsification of his diaries to blacken her name. In addition to entries about her, Packwood altered a plethora of salacious entries about other women staffers and lobbyists. Those entries commented on the women's bodies, and on their purported sexual activities with him.

This kicked off a Senate Ethics Committee investigation that lasted for almost three years. The investigation process carried its own heavy dose of sexism. During the deposition, Hennessey was asked by the committee to stand up so that they could certify that her hemline was an appropriate length. It was the falsification of documents – not the harassment – which eventually led to Packwood’s ouster.

Hennessey says that she’s still conflicted about Packwood as a former boss and mentor. “To this day, I still have this memory of the other person – the person that I liked,” she says. But she’s blown away by his willingness to go as far as he did to silence her.

And, she says, that instinct is still around. “The shaming of women hasn’t stopped. There’s this one-two punch that happens. First they do the right thing, and apologize. And then they start to equivocate. ‘I’m sorry if you took what I did out of context…’” We have the right classes, she says. We say the right things. But one of the first reactions is still to blame the person being accused. From Packwood to Weinstein, Hennessey says: that’s the culture we need to change.