The State of Aloha

Long ago the Democratic Party was torn asunder on national television. Violence and vitriol unfolded before the country’s collective eyes at the party’s national convention held at the International Amphitheater, a mammoth venue, located among the notorious stockyards on the South Side of Chicago.

The Republicans had already chosen Richard Nixon, who had the support of far-right Southerners and the moderate parts of the GOP.

Not so for the Democrats. The party’s old alliance between the conservatives from the South and the liberals was fraying. President Lyndon Johnson’s announcement that he would not be seeking the nomination for the election caused the party to splinter into two basic groups: the liberals who wanted to end the war in Vietnam and those who stood with the president.

The anti-war camp had no real candidate at first. Many were just testing the waters and had split further into smaller divisions between the bookish Sen. Eugene McCarthy and later the celebrity, Sen. Robert Kennedy. On the other side was the vice president, Hubert Humphrey, who spent most of the months leading up to the convention checking to see if his campaign was approved by Johnson.

The showdown at the convention was dramatic. Chicago became a war zone. Young protesters clashed with the police in their distinct sky-blue riot helmets and truncheons.

But Hawaii was happy to be there. The very young state was enthused to be participating in a national convention with real delegates and voting power. In fact, the keynote speaker to perhaps the most famous political convention in our nation’s history was our own Sen. Daniel Inouye.

He wasn’t the big-time senator yet. He had only been serving in the Senate for a single term and was running for re-election to the seat for the first time. (He would go on to win the seat an unprecedented eight times).

Inouye’s political ties had firmly put him in the camp with the Establishment. And for good reason. He met President Johnson during the territorial days and continued to side with the president on most issues. Perhaps that was why he was selected to be the first nonwhite person to address the convention as the keynote speaker in 1968. But that didn’t mean he was unsympathetic.

Inouye’s task was not easy. His speech acknowledged the right to protest, but urged peace and avoiding bloodshed. He deftly and almost implicitly agreed with the left that the war in Vietnam was “immoral,” but firmly rejected unilateral withdrawal.

His nuances were lost in chaotic Chicago. The violence that raged in the streets spilled onto the convention floor. Cameras captured images of police attacking not only protesters, but credentialed members of the convention. The members themselves even got into it and fights broke out among the delegates.

In the end, the Establishment candidate got the nomination without running in a single state primary. He went on to lose to Richard Nixon. The party was still divided in ’72 when Nixon took the country by a landslide. In 1980, the conservative factions of the party left and joined Ronald Reagan.

The party had deeply wounded itself. The division between progressives on one side calling foul by the behind-the-scene Establishment types still haunts the Democrats to this day.

Look no further than the bitter divisions between Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose supporters still bemoan the “fix” at the 2016 convention. (And we all know who won that election.)

The same divide has played out in our local politics. Two years after Chicago, Hawaii’s Democratic primary in 1970 pitted the establishment candidate, John A. Burns, a staunch supporter of Lyndon Johnson, against Tom Gill, the progressive labor lawyer.

There being no strong GOP in the islands, the competing camps between the Democrats was the status quo in nearly every primary election for the last 50 years. At least up until now.

This summer Hawaii Democrats will pick their gubernatorial candidate. It’s unclear which one is the establishment and which is the progressive outsider. Both say pretty progressive things sometimes and both seem to be perfectly comfortable among the more prosaic establishment types.

Perhaps we have finally reached that point when Democrats can do both. Maybe we don’t need to be at each other’s throats. Perhaps this is what the late Sen. Inouye meant in his speech on the convention floor five decades ago when he urged his fellow Americans to make peace with each other:

“In closing,” he said, “I wish to share with you a most sacred word of Hawaii. It is aloha. To some of you who visited us, it may have meant hello. To others, aloha may have meant good-bye. But to those of us who have been privileged to live in Hawaii, aloha means I love you. So to all of you, my fellow Americans, Aloha.”

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”