Editor’s Page: Selecting the Best

Our new president, Island role model?
Kam Napier
Photo by: Linny Morris

We find our Best of Honolulu through two methods. One, through editorial research, consulting experts, and hitting the town. The other is through our reader poll. After all, we have thousands of smart, discerning readers to help steer us to the best this town has to offer.

I’m intrigued by our readers’ choice for best role model—President Barack Obama. Until his breakout speech in support of Sen. John Kerry in 2004, I don’t think many people in Hawaii had heard of Obama, or his Island roots, myself included. I’m not about to debate my readers on their choice—he’s an excellent role model, the proof of what every parent tells their children. Study hard, work hard, and even you can be president.

But I haven’t been entirely comfortable with Hawaii’s after-the-fact “one of us” fervor. There’s been a lot of insistence here that Hawaii, and only Hawaii, could have “made” Barack Obama. At the primaries, when Obama won the Democratic party nomination, Mayor Mufi Hannemann said, “This just goes to show that being from Hawaii doesn’t have to hold you back.” Rep. Neil Abercrombie dubbed Obama “Hawaii’s third senator.” Articles and books published locally argue that it was here, in this melting pot, that Obama learned about ethnic harmony, ohana, aloha, how to be cool, patient, forbearing, inclusive. We seem all too eager to attribute every virtue Obama possesses to his Island upbringing. If he ever appears curt, abrupt or defensive, well, he must have picked that up in Chicago.

However, there’s a flip side to all of this. Obama’s rise may be a point of pride for us, but it is also a critique. Whatever Hawaii may have given Obama for his journey, the fact is, Obama had to leave us decades ago to be what he is today. He didn’t stay for college, he didn’t run for local offices, and if he had, I doubt any of us would now be singling him out as a role model. He was never “Hawaii’s third senator.” The nation is not celebrating the fact that we’ve elected the first president from Hawaii. Two million people did not converge on Washington, D.C., to watch the inauguration of an Island son.

They arrived, heart racing, tears streaming, pride swelling, to celebrate the inauguration of America’s first black president, the senator from Illinois, from the South Side of Chicago, Harvard Law, class of ’91. Hawaii seems to overlook this, as if he leapt from Punahou to Pennsylvania Avenue in a single bound.

Could an actual senator from Hawaii win the presidency? Or, would a Hawaii candidate for president get a national welcome closer to Gov. Sarah Palin’s—a curiosity from a curious state?

Could Hawaii’s political scene even incubate a potential president? Imagine if we had a young state legislator with Obama levels of outspokenness, ambition and self-regard. (That’s not a slam, self-regard is an essential trait in a president. It takes a special ego to think, “What this country needs is more me!”) How long would it be before some avuncular political hand sat him or her down and explained the parable of the nail that sticks up? How long before the muttering: “Who does he think he is, rocking the boat, acting like he’s smarter than us?”

Instead of addressing any of this, we go overboard in congratulating ourselves for “making” Obama, as if there were no place else in America where diverse races mix, where people love their ohana and welcome strangers with aloha.

One thing I’ll say for Hawaii’s excitement over Obama—this may be one of the few corners of the nation that appreciates Obama’s hapa background as such, and not only his African-American heritage. In the racial politics of the Mainland, being half black seems to make a person black first and foremost, and so Obama’s election is America’s answer to the challenge issued by Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King for us to make this nation truly free and just for all races. But here, I think America is missing a chance to understand itself better. If whites and blacks in America have been sundered for centuries by the original sin of slavery, then how much more wonderful for this country that Barack Obama is both races, the living embodiment of this nation’s first and best motto, the motto Obama referenced in that 2004 speech.

E pluribus unum. Out of many, one.

 [Edited 3/24/09]


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