The State of Aloha

An 80-year-old farmer from Northern California traveled to a park in San Jose, Calif., to hear the president of the United States speak. Four months after that, the president was at a theater in Buffalo, N.Y., when an anarchist and former steel worker pushed his way through the crowd with a revolver elegantly concealed by a handkerchief. He fired twice. The first bullet managed to ricochet off of the president’s coat button, but the second entered his stomach. President William McKinley died eight days later.

George Zehnder, the farmer who had heard him speak in San Jose, must have been shaken and bereft. He believed that McKinley was the first real modern president.

Zehnder commissioned a San Francisco sculptor to build a statute of the assassinated president. The statue survived the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and the steamship voyage up the coast. On July 4, 1906, it was dedicated to Zehnder’s hometown of Arcata, Calif., as a “gift for all time to come.”

This McKinley statue stands in the middle of a roundabout on a tall granite podium. And there it stood at the center of a town McKinley never saw. McKinley had evolved over the years from the symbol of a modernizing president to the town’s mascot. With Humboldt State University nearby, it shouldn’t be surprising to find out that the statue would be dressed up as Santa Claus or even the Dalai Lama.

In 2003, folks started to notice that McKinley’s right thumb had been sawed off and was missing. Eventually it was discovered in a car at a nearby beach. The thumb was welded back on and McKinley resumed his place in Arcata.

But things started to change. The town itself had become more progressive and left-leaning. Folks began to question why it should have a statue in the middle of town devoted to the 25th president.

President McKinley oversaw the Spanish-American War –0 a conflict with the centuries-old Spanish empire. The war gave the United States colonies in Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines, where the American occupation was racist, ruthless and brutal.

And, of course, there’s Hawaii. In the 1890s, white businessmen who had overthrown the monarchy and set up a banana republic tried to get the United States to annex the islands. It was in their best interests to have low tariffs for sugar with the Mainland.

But their efforts were stalled. President Grover Cleveland, an anti-imperialist Democrat who had little interest in acquiring overseas territories, had ordered a federal investigation examining the overthrow itself. The result was a devastating report finding fault in treasonous businessmen who had orchestrated the unlawful overthrow. President Cleveland demanded that Queen Lili’oukalani and the monarchy be reinstated.

Then McKinley got elected. He couldn’t have been more different. The unapologetic imperialist gladly accepted the invitation to annex the Hawaiian Islands. In 1898 — the same year the United States fought the Spanish and acquired its territories — he signed off on the infamous Newlands Resolution making Hawaii a colony of the United States. In 1900, it became a territory.

This was the “modernity” that impressed Zehnder in San Jose. (It also might have been the impetus for the anarchist to shoot him in Buffalo.) This brand of imperialism has fallen far out of favor. Earlier this month, the people of Arcata voted overwhelmingly to take the once-beloved statue of McKinley down.

Arcata wasn’t the only place to honor McKinley. Right here in Hawaii we still honor the president who took the islands. One year after Arcata dedicated its statue, Honolulu High School changed its name.

The main plaza of the campus is, ironically, a Spanish-style design reminiscent of the missions that dot the California coast. And in the middle of the quad stands a statue of none other than the President William McKinley, who is holding the annexation “treaty” in his right hand.

You’d think that the statue would cause a stir similar to the one in Arcata. A minority of activists have tried. In 2017 there were protests and calls to take the statue down, but they have fizzled out and McKinley still fronts the campus.

The statue may be offensive, but should it be taken down? What’s even more ironic is that despite the namesake, McKinley High School became the epicenter for the idealism of the New Deal and progressivism in Hawaii.

The educator Dr. Miles Carey became the principal of the school in 1924. He inspired many of our state’s great leaders and statesmen — most of whom were Asian-American. U.S. Sens. Daniel Inouye, Hiram Fong and Tammy Duckworth, and Gov, George Ariyoshi are among the many McKinley grads.

So why tear down the statue? Perhaps it is a reminder of our errant, imperialist past. Statues don’t change, but the way we look always changes.

* 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.”