Fofo I. F. Sunia of Pago Pago, a village chief and the first representative to Congress from paradise, is out of breath as he enters his seventh-floor office in the Longworth building. He extends a large warm hand. In his other hand he holds a copy of "A Footnote to History" by Robert Louis Stevenson, who is buried in the Samoan islands.
Fofo's office is, as one aide remarked, "a microcosm of a Samoan village." A woven mat of pandana leaves hangs on the wall, strewn with pink feathers and pearly shells. There are bowls of teak, conch shells, and bright patterns stenciled on pressed bark. A plaque from the Rotary Club of Pago Pago hangs above the congressman's desk.
Fofo, 47, stretches out in a deep chair, sipping a cup of coffee, and reflects on his first year in office, a year he says has been both exhilarating and humbling.
"To be sitting amongst people who really didn't understand who you are or even why you're here, that struck me as a point of some frustration," says Fofo, a title that denotes status in Samoa. "I guess I was expecting a little bit too much. I thought that everybody was going to know that there was a representative from American Samoa come January and would say 'We've got to make way for him' and 'We know all about his territory.' That wasn't so."
Fofo occasionally had his doubts. "Sometimes I ask myself, 'What am I doing here? What miracle has brought me here, both personally and as a representative of this small territory?' A few years ago we never thought, not even dreamed that we would have a representative in the House, much less me . . . I ask myself, 'Is this real?' "
A 1978 act of Congress created a seat in the House for the tiny islands Fofo represents.
Last year, just after the congressional license plates were issued, Fofo explained to a Samoan civic group:
" 'I'm a member of Congress, that's a fact. But I hold no illusions as to my place in that organization. My license plate number is 440 and there are 440 members in that organization. Your congressman has no place to go but up.' I'll tell you not everyone thought that was funny," he said, laughing with the full force of his 245 pounds--down from the nearly 300 pounds when he was sworn in.
Washington, says Fofo, is "the top of the world . . . the source of just about everything, but primarily financial support. Back in the territory we used to have a saying that 'all blessings come from Heaven, but via Washington.' "
Fofo says he was warned that Washington would be a "hard place and a cold place," a place of political corruption, where politicians "were conniving and playing all kinds of tricks." He read of the Washington exploits of former congressional wife Rita Jenrette.
"I wondered where all that was going on, where the orgies were. All I find is that I am sharing a prayer breakfast. They paint for you a picture other than what it is . . . junkets, that's what you think of, a place of high and jolly living for congressmen who spend half their time junketing.
"Well, I've been on a trip to the Pacific territories and I could hardly call it a junket. I was so tired after I got back. As a matter of fact I got a bit--I can't say disappointed or unhappy--but I got to the point where I thought some members were getting too serious about things. They wanted to look into everything. They wanted to take down all these notes. They wanted to interview so many people. This is not what I thought this was going to be," laughs Fofo.
"Are you more laid-back than your colleagues?" he is asked. "Laid-back?" Fofo repeats. He is not familiar with the phrase. The reporter struggles to define it.
" . . . It must be referring to the Samoan way of life," he says. "That is not to say people are lazy or do not want to work, but people are much more relaxed about things even to the point of joking about what is serious."
He describes the South Seas spirit: "Today you come to work. Tomorrow, why if you don't feel like it, you stay at home. When you have a system like that, what's really the rush?"
Before dinner, Fofo leads his wife and six of their eight children in Samoan prayers and hymns and reads passages from "O Le Tusi Paia," the Bible in Samoan. When they are finished, the table will be cleared of the crab shells, leftover bananas and pork.
He takes a place on the burgundy velveteen sofa in his family room. His hands are locked behind his head, his bare feet stretched out before him on a grass mat. This five-bedroom colonial home in Arlington is his retreat. Near the leatherette bar hang shell necklaces and ceremonial masks. Teak bowls have been placed by the hearth. In one of the boy's bedrooms there is a proud pennant for "The Sharks," the Samoan high school team.
Fofo is suffering from a monumental case of jet lag. He has just returned from a visit to American Samoa, a trip that began at 4 p.m. one day and ended at 5:30 p.m. the next. In-between were three separate flights connecting Pago Pago with Honolulu, Honolulu with Los Angeles, and, after a four-hour layover, Los Angeles with Washington.
His luggage has not been seen since Honolulu.
For Fofo's wife, Tuna (her full name is Aioletuna, meaning "the ways of the eel") Washington remains a slightly forbidding place where women have unfamiliar roles, where the pace is breakneck and the daily accounts of murders chill her.
"Back home, it's easy living and very slow," she says longingly. "Washington is very faster . . . I don't have many friends here except the Samoan people."
Of tradition she says, "We can't live without it."
Her husband has had an easier time adjusting, but is no less convinced of the importance of Samoan values. On the Hill, he says, "everybody's banging their head against a wall and rushing around. I figure the guy who walks slowly will stand out. If everybody's yelling, they're going to take notice of the guy that speaks softly."
Through appointments, committee meetings, talks with lobbyists, and receptions, Fofo remains unchanged by the pace of his colleagues on the Hill.
"His heart is commensurate with his size," says Rep. Billy Tauzin ( D-La.) "He's totally easygoing, as laid-back as anybody I've ever seen, and at the same time he can be very serious about taking care of his people."
"He's a lovable guy," says House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill (D-Mass). "I never saw anybody from one of the territories who is as diligent, hard-working and caring for his people."
Fofo doesn't have the normal parade of constituents entering his office--he averages one a week. The flow of mail is light. There are no reporters dogging his steps. In fact, he says, he has had only one call from the press in the year he has been in office.
While Fofo has no voting rights in the full House, he has been active on a variety of committees and subcommittees. He is often asked to chair meetings while other members are called away to vote on the House floor. He has introduced five bills that are still pending, each directed at benefiting American Samoa. Because his committee votes count, lobbyists vie for his ear.
And he has the unusual task of helping his press secretary cover him for the Samoa News. "It's great," says Glenn Gabbard, his press secretary. "We can't make any mistakes."
The paper features a marlin and a sailboat on the masthead and boasts the largest circulation in the Pacific. But there is no Washington correspondent, so the editor relies on reports Fofo and his staff send back via a teletext machine in their office.
"In other words he tells me all the good things he does in Congress. I get that firsthand," the paper's editor, Jake King, says half jokingly.
Born Iosefa Fiti Sunia, Fofo is the son of a minister and the eldest of 11 children. He is a deeply religious man, a deacon and lay preacher back home.
Since receiving an economics degree from the University of Hawaii in 1960, he has held a variety of positions on American Samoa, including editor of the Samoa News, director of tourism, a senator in the state legislature, and from 1979 to 1980, a "delegate-at-large" representing American Samoa in Washington.
Twenty years ago he received the title of fofo or "talking chief." Fofo says he feels uncomfortable with the word chief because it calls to mind the prowess of a warrior "who can throw the spear the farthest." He prefers "orator," citing Robert Louis Stevenson as an authority.
His brief orations by now have made him a familiar figure on the House floor. "I make it a point to get up and say something. I don't let three or four weeks pass . . . You get noticed because there aren't many people around, I found that out."
Most of his time is spent preparing for committee work. At times that work takes an ironic twist, such as when the subject of a hearing is remote from the interests of the 31,000 islanders he represents. He is, for example, a member of the surface transportation subcommittee, but there is no mass transit system in his 76-square-mile district. Back home, he says, there are only family-operated buses that run without schedules or designated stops.
Last year, Fofo went to Los Angeles to hold a field hearing on the problems of that city's mass transit system.
"Somebody made the crack, 'We really appreciate Congressman Sunia's coming out here. After all, they have so many mass transit problems in American Samoa,' " he recalls.
"You ask me 'how much of it really relates to me?' I'd say very little, but in a larger sense, everything," says Fofo.
"When I first got here I thought I was going to pay attention to nothing but that which relates to the territory. After all, who am I to pretend that I know anything about national issues? Who would bother to listen to my views anyway, and why should I listen to anybody else's problems?
"But I got here and found that in order to be helpful to my own special interests I had to understand others too, and I'm being paid to do that job, to sit in committee and conduct business just like anybody else," he says.
Fofo wants American Samoa to share in the bounty of the mainland, but not at the expense of the island's culture. Of the island's $75 million 1982 budget, $25 million is from the Department of the Interior, and $14 million from federal grants. Fofo recently introduced legislation that would extend Medicaid benefits to his people.
He boasts that "American Samoa is the only place in our nation that does not have a welfare program." The islands have declined participation in the Food Stamp and Aid to Families with Dependent Children programs, says Fofo.
"We felt they were really not in line with the ways of our customs and culture. While it's always nice to have money, it really would not be helpful in a much larger sense. The very fiber of the place is family units and families tend to help their own and to help each other. When you start having this almost total dependence on someone else you're going to lose that," says Fofo.
Following a recent subcommittee session that studied endangered species legislation, Tauzin and Fofo took a crowded elevator together. Tauzin looked at him and said: "There are fewer American Samoans than there are alligators. We're going to have to put you on the Endangered Species list."
Fofo's two worlds are six time zones and many miles apart. One is deeply traditional, rooted in Samoan culture where religion and family are paramount; the other is more modern, a world of appointments, lobbyists, national problems and political action committees. A Democrat who is up for reelection this fall, Fofo is seen as a "progressive" at home. Yet he is a man who sees change not as a virtue but as a dilemma.
"I've accepted the notion that progress has its price. The price of progress I guess everywhere is losing something of what you had yesterday. Somebody once said 'it's best to hang on to what you had before because you know what it is, whereas you don't know what you're going to get.' But no ventures, no gains," says Fofo.