Who says you can't go home again? Senator Barack Obama, arriving for a vacation in his hometown of Honolulu, proved that you could. The native son touched down Friday, August 8 around 2 pm HST, met briefly with reporters and was driven to Ke'ehi Lagoon, a park near the airport, where almost five thousand people waited patiently in the warm Honolulu afternoon.
Whether this audience was more or less enthusiastic than the hundreds of thousands - millions? - of people he's already spoken to at home or abroad can be debated. Because the weeklong trip was originally billed as a vacation with no public events, this was put together at the last minute. It was also a workday and just hours before the time-delayed broadcast of the Opening Ceremony in Beijing.
In February, the Democratic Caucus drew tens of thousands, a record number, many of whom were newcomers to politics and not sure what a caucus was. They expected to vote and leave, and had no plans to wade through party procedural rules. But wait they did, and happily. Friday's crowd, who braved limited parking, a long hot security line about 500 yards into the park from the street and more waiting in the late afternoon sun, was patient and well-behaved. They appeared to be more curious, not die-hard supporters. You know, the people who want to say they saw him, heard him, maybe briefly shake hands or get a picture, to be part of history in the making. It was not a rally.
Banners and posters were not allowed; it was really Senator Obama's chance to thank Hawaii voters officially. During the primary season there were too many tight states to risk the time to come here. He said his staff told him: "If you can't take Hawaii you're in trouble." Take it he did, 76% of the caucus votes. It's likely to be similar in November, even accounting for the high military presence, John McCain's territory.
So finally, here he was, in person, one of us (although better dressed.) Hawaii is called the Rainbow State and is a dual moniker, primarily because actual rainbows are common since it's tropical and rains a lot, but also for the wide population diversity of the state. Asians, Pacific Islanders, mainland Caucasians - called haoles - live side by side with African Americans, Europeans and military personnel who returned to live or retire. All of them were represented in the crowd. Keiki (kids) in strollers - one young man about five did not fully appreciate his Dad's explanation of the importance of the day - up to seniors.
Right on time Senator Daniel Akaka, our gracious 83-year-old junior senator, took the stage for brief enthusiastic remarks about Obama and to introduce Congressman Neil Abercrombie, who actually knew both of Obama's parents back in the day when they were all idealistic college students. He gave maybe the shortest speech he's ever given, to me a sign of the devotion he holds for Barack. Mufi Hannemann, our illustrious mayor, however, was not so brief. He harkened back to JFKs visit when he was nine. Maybe Hannemann will run for Governor. No one really listened - vehicles were slowly crawling along the blocked-off back roadway - but we're used to him so we applauded. Toward the end of his long speech Hannemann segued back to Obama, telling us how he will bring the change we need before one of those rousing introductions politicians do so well (or often, anyway) - "Honolulu's latest and greatest gift to the world."
And there he was. Show time. The polite applause of previous speakers erupted in deafening cheers. Cell phone cameras shot up with more precision than the NYC Ballet Corps. He was dressed in a black loose-fitting polo shirt and khaki pants. He introduced his wife Michelle, in a long white sleeveless top with thin black pants, to hearty applause. He called her his "partner, love and the person who knocks sense into me once in a while." The kids, Malia, 10 and Sasha, 7, had gotten off the plane with him but were nowhere in sight, were probably already happily in their bathing suits and slippahs (flip-flops) before Dad finished talking and joined them.
He gave the shaka sign - little finger and index finger wave - and hollered out, "How are y'all doing?" Before the more local opener: "Howzit?" He thanked Akaka, Abercrombie and Hannemann for being there and then he spoke warmly of our senior senator, Dan Inouye. To locals, this meant something because earlier this year Inouye, who supported Clinton, said (about Obama's local roots) that because he went to Punahou, he should not be considered really homegrown because it's "not exactly a school for impoverished children." This brought loud cries from pretty much everyone because it's a popular school even if it's expensive and private - with a waiting list - but also because Obama went through all four years on a scholarship. Inouye graduated from Roosevelt High, near in miles but not in income. Inouye had to spend several days apologizing to many people. Obama showed class and style to mention him and to spend a moment honoring the value he brings to our state.
Obama opened by talking about what Hawaii means to him, what it means to be from here, how those values shaped his growing up with a single parent, "who sometimes needed food stamps but could still give her son a good education." He talked of the country that gave his grandfather, who proudly served in WWII, money for his education and a loan to buy a home, a government that honored those who served by taking care of them. "That's the government we deserve. That's the government we're fighting for." His grandfather, Stanley Dunham, is buried at Punchbowl Cemetery, just mauka (toward mountains) of downtown Honolulu and the State Capitol.
Soon he spoke of change being scary, that people want change but maybe not too much change, and extolled everyone there that it's going to be a close race and to knock on doors and email and call friends. He said everything helped, even $5 or $10.
I told friends he spoke for about 40 minutes, but The Honolulu Advertiser\ said it was only 16 minutes. I guess they time those things. It was part stump speech, part homecoming. It was probably also a necessity. His only other scheduled appearance is a fundraiser -- $2300 for the cheap seats and $10,000 per person for a private reception, out of reach for most of us and by invitation only. I'm sure it was pointed out to his staff that some kind of open-to-the-public event had to happen. He explained he was on vacation, he would get a plate lunch, go to Zippy's, maybe get a Zip min (large bowl of meat/vegetable soup, with fresh noodles), shave ice, all local fare, and body surf "in an undisclosed location." He would watch his girls play in the water and visit his "tutu" (grandmother in Hawaiian). Madelyn Dunham is the woman who raised him when his mother remarried and lived in Indonesia, and the one he referred to in a controversial statement about her occasional fear of black men during his famous speech on race relations following the - how long ago it seems - attack on Rev. Jeremiah Wright, is now 87 years old. He says she's "sharp as a tack" but struggling with osteoporosis and can't get around. She does not speak publicly about her history-making and beloved grandson but to those who wonder where he came from, she was the first female vice president at Bank of Hawaii, a trendsetter in her time.
He didn't stay long to shake hands and work the crowd. It was hot, the trade winds kept it from being unbearable but the job you don't want is Secret Service, easily spotted in their blue blazers (Does anyone in Hawaii even own a blazer?) I suppose they get used to discomfort but seriously, someone should spring for Aloha shirts. Maybe they don't want to blend into the crowd. Here, a tank top can be considered formal wear. He did stop for the requisite photo ops with the dignitaries, including Brian Schatz, Chair of the Hawaii Democratic Party. He then waved to those us still there and on the wrong side for a handshake, and off he went. He's staying in a private home on Windward Side and I'm sure the media will track him for daily vignettes, vacation or not, co-workers will have sighting stories, but we're his Hawaiian 'ohana (family), we'll leave him be because we, like him, understand the value of family and friends time.