Senator Barack Obama has returned to Honolulu for the first vacation he's had since he announced his candidacy for president of the United States. Political winds can shift but right now he's properly aligned to win, due to his ability to attract crowds but also those who are appalled at how badly the American people have been served the last eight years.
Like a few thousand others I headed over the Keehi Lagoon to see him in person. It was worth the wait, worth the heat and worth being stuck in the middle without a chance to get up and shake his hand.
Right on time 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 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 slippers (flip-flops) before Dad finished talking and joined them.
He gave the shaka sign - little finger and thumb wave – and hollered out, "How are y'all doing?" before the more local opener - Howzit? He thanked everyone for coming 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, so whether some lingering rivalry or just unaware of the facts, he spent 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.
He 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, every $5 or $10 donation helped.
It was part stump speech, part homecoming; but mostly necessary to let us be part of his journey. Since 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 in any event. 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.
Soon he was off - but word leaks out and Obama Watch sightings are hitting the Coconut Wireless as well as the news stations and blogs.