Sen. Dan Akaka Refutes Critics, Supports Thirty Meter Telescope in New Memoir

In “One Voice,” the senator recalls his roots and confronts his critics—gently, as is his style—while making the case for a lasting legacy.
Sen. Dan Akaka
Photo: David Croxford


Has any national politician in recent memory suffered more for displaying an even temperament and taking the high road than Dan Akaka? His 2006 re-election campaign mostly centered on a memorable jab by Time magazine, which called him among the “three worst” members of the Senate in terms of influence. The critique was repeated by rival and U.S. Rep. Ed Case, whose brother Steve was executive chairman at AOL Time Warner—the magazine’s owner.


Akaka, not surprisingly, would beg to differ, and his 640-page memoir explains how a Native Hawaiian, No. 8 in a large, devout and poor family, could rise from welder to diesel mechanic to choir leader to schoolteacher to politician, including a 14-year stint in the House and a 22-year Senate seat.


Akaka stood out early and seems to have had moral authority. This served him well in Washington, where he joined Majority Leader Tip O’Neill’s bipartisan Prayer Breakfast. The warm relations he established with GOP members there go far in explaining his many co-sponsorships and his success in propping up the sugar industry. Agreeing to be science geek Newt Gingrich’s co-host of a Space Caucus invited jokes but, after many years, we now have one of its cherished dreams: a private sector aimed at the stars, thanks to the Commercial Space Act.


Akaka was early to recognize the large number of homeless veterans, especially those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and was a leader on the issue his entire career. He introduced many pieces of veteran legislation and gradually saw his view prevail, as did his drive to get the war records of Asian-Americans reviewed, which would result in 21 Medals of Honor being awarded, one to fellow Sen. Daniel Inouye. And he worked for compensation for Filipino World War II veterans.


Famously, he sponsored the successful 1993 Apology Resolution, an admission of U.S. complicity in the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i, which further stipulated that Native Hawaiians “never directly relinquished their claims to their inherent sovereignty to the United States.” But the Akaka Act failed repeatedly—once by just four votes—and wasn’t fully embraced by Native Hawaiians, anyway. He also created change just by standing up as a target. When polls showed GOP challenger Pat Saiki upsetting Akaka, President George H.W. Bush came out to boost her campaign—and concluded his visit with a sudden directive to stop the bombing of Kaho‘olawe.


Akaka didn’t flinch on another day, when the roll call was taken on the vote to authorize war against Iraq. His was the very first name called and he answered with a stout “nay.” Earlier, he gave an eloquent and prophetic speech about the costs to the U.S. and the world of supporting the military intervention. Akaka remained an active and outspoken opponent of the war and the surveillance state.


The book goes out with a bang, as Akaka winds up by coming out for the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea: “Let’s allow Mauna Kea, rightfully, to become a bridge between our past, as Hawaiians, and our future. Students of stars are who we are.”


Still, the biggest takeaway is how much Akaka contributed to the bipartisan tone and civility of government—and how much we miss it now.


One Voice: My Life, Times and Hopes for Hawai‘i by Dan Akaka with Jim Borg, Watermark Publishing, October 2017, 640 pages.


*Disclosure: Watermark Publishing is a sister aio Media Group company.