Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, December 7, 2003

Try admitting you were wrong

By John Griffin

This column is about the right to be wrong — including my attitude about business, the University of Hawai'i's West O'ahu College, the U.S. policy supporting sugar prices, Vietnam and maybe Iraq.

H-3 Freeway, which Advertiser editors opposed, turned out to offer beautiful views and serve well the needs of some commuters. But, still, the $1 billion could have paid for a rapid-transit system.

Advertiser library photo

Getting started, let me say that the older I get, the more I appreciate business as a creative and constructive part of our free society.

It was not always that way. In fact, I grew up in the Great Depression era, regarding my struggling father as something like the failed lead character in "Death of a Salesman." I cultivated intellectual pretensions, aspiring to be the next Ernest Hemingway and settling for journalism, which as author Richard Reeves has noted is often a haven for "our best second-rate minds." Becoming a foreign correspondent seemed far better than grubbing for money in some office.

Now, as much as anyone else, I deplore the cozy government favoritism and Enron-type excesses of some big business, including at times in Hawai'i under both Democrats and Republicans.

But where I used to see business as a kind of necessary evil, I now appreciate the risks and accomplishments of true entrepreneurs, large and small. Where I used to reject friendly advice to "stay close to the money," I now peruse the news of struggling and imaginative small-business startups and wonder if I would have that kind of guts.

West O'ahu's needs

On another level, I note with regret the continuing struggle of the University of Hawai'i-West O'ahu to survive.

We at The Advertiser opposed that four-year college when it was first proposed in the late 1960s and early '70s. At the time, it seemed less like an educational necessity than another increment for too-rapid growth in the post-statehood boom-and-overbuild years.

Newspapers' editorial policies are seldom dramatically reversed, but they do evolve over time. What changed our minds was not development schemes but the admirable record of the bare-bones West O'ahu College in filling real needs and aspirations in that part of the island.

We still don't need a "second Manoa," as some called for in the bad old days. We do need something more substantial and imaginative than a four-year annex to Leeward Community College to meet the needs of O'ahu's "second city" and beyond.

Incidentally, one of our early arguments against the grandiose ideas for that second Manoa was that it looked like "an academic H-3," a reference to that freeway we also long opposed.

H-3, with its beautiful views, today serves well the needs of sightseers and a relatively few commuters. But it still bothers me that the $1 billion in mostly federal transportation money that went into a redundant roadway a decade ago could have been used to finance the rapid-transit system again being proposed. An updated version of such a system remains one of urban Honolulu's great needs.

Rene Mansho, the wayward former city councilwoman, was the swing vote former Mayor Frank Fasi's administration couldn't win for that mass-transit system in the early 1990s. (It's an irony that an Advertiser ally in the failed campaign for transit and against H-3 was Fasi, who fought the big Honolulu dailies in most other ways.)

Selfish sugar policy

Then there was — and still is — the federal policy that guarantees a high price for raw sugar. It still is boon to the sugar industry across the nation.

Years ago, I met Milton Friedman, the renowned conservative economist, who was here as a visiting scholar. The first thing he said to me (with a friendly smile) was something like this:

"You know, the worst editorial I have read in years was in your paper yesterday, supporting Washington's annual gifts to the sugar industry."

My inadequate answer (as the author) was to counter that the federal policy against global competition helped our struggling sugar plantations in Hawai'i's transition to more tourism and maybe higher-level industry. But I now think Hawai'i may have depended too much on sugar life supports and would have done better had the transition been necessary sooner.

Not only that, the national policy guaranteeing a high domestic price for raw sugar continues to cost other American industries and consumers billions of dollars a year in higher prices. And it works against our global economic interests in more free trade and help for the economies of developing nations.

The Vietnam dilemma

Vietnam in the tumultuous 1960s was for The Advertiser a case of divided opinions among editors and a policy that changed over time, events and many arguments.

An Associated Press correspondent in Saigon in the first two years of the 1960s, I came back to Hawai'i unhappy with the bumbling South Vietnamese government but also believing in the necessity of fighting communism there. But I turned against the war as time and troubles went on in the mid-1960s.

The late George Chaplin, then the editor and ultimately responsible for setting policy in our mostly collegial style, was not a hard-line hawk. But this great editor was a patriot who found it hard to believe any American war was unwinnable, especially with a determined President Lyndon Johnson.

Our editorial policy changed with the 1968 communist Tet Offensive, growing antiwar feelings in Congress and Johnson's dramatic decision to not run for re-election and to pursue peace talks.

At the time, I felt that my feelings about an unwinnable war were confirmed. But I must also report that on a 1990s visit to Saigon, an old Vietnamese journalist friend (who turned out to have been a communist agent all along) told me there were a couple of points when America could have won the war.

I mention this now because of Iraq. It is not "another Vietnam," for several good reasons. But while I have great empathy for those fighting in frustrating circumstances, I think our invasion was another presidential mistake that we have to live with for now. Indeed, it could prove to be another dilemma without a happy ending or major contribution to winning the larger war against terrorism being waged by Muslim extremists. We'll see.

The Advertiser today has different ownership and editors with editorial policies of their own. I agree with most of those views, as well as with the policy of presenting a diversity of other opinions on the editorial pages.

This is just to suggest that, while strong positions are often admirable (and zealots often carry the day), there should be room for humility and evolution in all our views.

I am reminded of an old-time editor who responded to critical calls and letters by expressing this comment: "You may be right."

That's hardly a ringing battle cry, but it doesn't hurt to remind yourself now and again that "I may be wrong."

John Griffin, a frequent contributor, is former editor of The Advertiser's editorial pages.