As Obamas vacation, a reminder that the Aloha State is making its way onto the political map
Sunday, January 2, 2011; 6:49 PM
HONOLULU -- Traveling to Hawaii with Barack Obama isn't any fun.
At least not from within the presidential bubble, where the days are a blur of tropical tropes, shave ice, the suddenly floral wardrobe of CNN correspondent Ed Henry, and cup upon caffeinated cup of Kona coffee at the Moana Surfrider hotel, where the administration and its traveling chorus of reporters have set up a command center.
But outside the bubble, some exciting things are happening in Hawaii.
Now that Alaska has resolved the Lisa Murkowski-Joe Miller-Sarah Palin soap opera, Hawaii is taking the pole position of political surrealism in the far-flung states. The new governor, Neil Abercrombie, an iconic longhair and college pal of Barack Obama's father, has decided to make knocking down Obama birther conspiracies his top political priority. Embattled Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, who won his post in part with substantial support from the United States' island territories, frequently canvassed Hawaii last year and is no doubt counting on the state's influence as he seeks reelection.
Hawaii's senior senator, Daniel Inouye, is also the most senior member of the Senate, making him third in line for the presidency. He is also, with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's imminent retirement, higher up on the list of the nation's most powerful political bosses. There is even an effort underway by the University of Hawaii - which asks cars rolling through its campus to "drive with Aloha" - to compete with the renowned University of Chicago to play host Obama's presidential library. And in November, Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are expected to join other world leaders attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in Honolulu.
Outside of politics, things have been looking up. Tourism numbers are on the rise. The University of Hawaii football team made a bowl game (where they were crushed) and then confirmed that, after 32 years in the waning Western Athletic Conference, the Warriors would do battle in the more competitive Mountain West Conference.
The loss of cultural star power after the last episode of the megahit television show "Lost," which filmed on Oahu, has received an unexpected boost from the remake of "Hawaii Five-0," which has become one of the highest-rated shows on television, and the best advertisement for the islands since Magnum P.I. cruised around the fluted hills in a Ferrari, or, for that matter, since the original "Hawaii Five-0." In September, islanders and tourists alike clamored around a beachfront restaurant on Waikiki to get a look at the stars taping scenes.
A month later, Clinton, speaking here before a swing through Asia, said, "The very diversity and dynamism of Hawaii says so much about what is possible not only in our own country but in countries throughout the Pacific."
Being the center of attention, or at least closer to it, has not been lost on some residents here.
April Freeze, a 31-year-old barista who attended the "Hawaii Five-0" premiere, said with pride that Hawaii was no longer considered a place "just where people go on vacation."
That said, it is the first family's vacation that directs the most national attention to the islands. For starters, Obama brings the national press corps with him, though reporters are mostly limited to writing about how photos of him shirtless are banned this time around. They instead make the usual pilgrimages to his old haunts, such as the tony, banyan-tree-bordered grounds of Punahou School, where he studied. They tour the modest condo where he grew up, where photos donated by Obama's sister decorate the lobby, showing him dressed up for Halloween or hanging out with his grandparents.
"He has kind of put Hawaii on the map," said Frank Ocalvey, who lives near Obama's rental home in Kailua and who brought his kids to Island Snow, the Obama family's favorite shave ice joint.
"Obama's election and his annual retreat here has given Hawaii some new prominence," said Robert Perkinson, a history professor at the University of Hawaii who is leading the school's efforts to land Obama's presidential library. "And culturally, the demographics of the U.S. are shifting toward an increasing diversity like we have here."
Since Obama's election, though, a small group of conspiracy theorists has also increasingly looked to Hawaii.
The birthers, people who believe, incorrectly, that Obama was not born in the United States, suspect that Hawaiian officials - including Abercrombie's predecessor as governor, Republican Linda Lingle - have been less than forthcoming about Obama's origins.
In recent days, Abercrombie has said he intends to take on the birthers because, as he told the Los Angeles Times, "Maybe I'm the only one in the country that could look you right in the eye right now and tell you, 'I was here when that baby was born.' "
Abercrombie, whose staff said he could not be reached because he was on vacation elsewhere in his home state, studied alongside Obama's parents at the University of Hawaii. He weeps when talking about the president's election, and his wife cast her vote for Abercrombie this year in her "Obama shoes," the lucky red pumps she wore on Election Day 2008. The governor feels a great communion with the first family, and his campaign offices featured blown-up photos of the Obamas.
From one point of view, it is entirely logical that he feels it is his duty to take on the birthers. From another, there is not much logic there at all.
On Monday, Andy Martin, the self-proclaimed "King of the Birthers," announced he would run for president, citing Abercrombie's efforts to settle the question as a key motivation.
"Most people recognize that these people are unreasonable and wrong," said Rep. Charles Djou (R), who in May won a special election to take over Abercrombie's seat in the House, but then lost the November vote to Democrat Colleen Hanabusa. "The governor's asserting of this in a way gives them more credibility than they deserve."
While the president comes to Hawaii for vacation, the GOP's Steele comes here to work. He held the party's winter strategy session here, and then, in September, showed up again as part of his campaign sweep through Guam and Saipan. As Steele now faces a tough reelection battle, Hawaii is his base in the west.
"Michael Steele was willing to come out to Hawaii," said Djou. "He certainly worked it the hardest and I think that he has the inside track. I know that the RNC votes in regional blocs and Hawaii has a little bit of a bloc, because Guam and American Samoa have some natural synergies with us. If you take them together, they have as much weight as New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey."
In other words, Hawaii counts.