Inouye's 1968 speech was look at future
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By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer
By Derrick DePledge
Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated. Urban rioters had burned neighborhoods in cities across America. Many young people, angry and disillusioned about the Vietnam War, were in rebellion.
When U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye took the stage to give the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, he was speaking to a nation in turmoil. The Hawai'i Democrat was the choice of the establishment, of President Lyndon B. Johnson and the old order, but as a Japanese-American and a decorated war hero, he was also a symbol of what the party might look like in the future.
"This is my country," Inouye said that summer night. "Many of us have fought hard for the right to say that. Many are now struggling today from Harlem to Da Nang that they may say this with conviction.
"This is our country."
In the sweep of history, Inouye's speech was a footnote, quickly overshadowed by the violence between police and anti-war protesters on the streets of Chicago. But it was a landmark for Hawai'i, the most prominent role for a native son at a national political convention until U.S. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois would give his memorable keynote at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004.
There are some parallels between 1968 and today — the nation is again involved in an unpopular war; the Democratic Party is struggling with change — but the country is not as fractured, the debate not as incendiary, as it was 40 years ago when Inouye warned of anarchy.
A MIDDLE PATH
Inouye, who had supported Johnson on Vietnam, called the war immoral in his speech. He took Johnson's path of political negotiation rather than increased military force, as some on the right wanted, or immediate withdrawal, as some on the left demanded. He spoke of racial inequality and recognized the passion of the young people who were marching in the streets. But he cautioned against cutting down establishment institutions.
In an interview this month, Inouye, 83, recalled how he had been moved by protesters in Paris who had cut down 100-year-old trees for makeshift street barricades. He remembered the contrasts in Chicago between the priests and nuns who knelt in prayer for peace and the agitators who lobbed bags of feces at police.
"I was trying to use that, in suggesting to my fellow Americans, let's not cut down too many trees. We might never be able to replace them," he said.
Inouye spoke of his Japanese ancestry in his speech and the reality that, while he was a person of color, he did not face the same injustices as African-Americans. He mentioned how a prominent businessman, concerned about the urban riots, had said to him: "Tell me, why can't the Negro be like you?"
"First, although my skin is colored, it is not black," Inouye said. "In this country, the color of my skin does not ignite prejudices which have smoldered for generations. Second, although my grandfather came to this country in poverty, he came without shackles. He came as a free man enjoying certain constitutional rights under the American flag."
Inouye said he believes there has been significant progress on race in the four decades since his speech, and he said he is confident Obama — who is of mixed race — can be elected in November, but the senator is still disappointed.
"You know, after all these years — 40 years later — racism is alive and doing well," he said.
A CHANGING PARTY
Jeremi Suri, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the 1968 convention showed how much the Democratic Party, split by race and the Vietnam War, was changing.
Johnson, beaten up over Vietnam, had stepped aside but was still pulling strings in the background. The party's establishment defended Vice President Hubert Humphrey as the convention nominee from an insurgency by U.S. Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, who had became the leading anti-war candidate.
Inouye had endorsed Hum-phrey and was aligned with the establishment, but Suri said Inouye — as a symbol — did not represent the Democratic political machine or the majority of delegates inside the International Amphitheatre.
"It didn't tell people where the party was then. It told them where the party was going," said Suri, author of the book "Power and Protest: Global Revolution and the Rise of Detente," which examined the 1960s.
Michael Kazin, a history professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., who was arrested at the Chicago protests, said Inouye's speech did not have much impact on those outside the convention.
"I don't think he was all that visible," he said. "Clearly, he was a symbol of a nonwhite Democrat who had been a war hero despite what had happened to Japanese-Americans during the war."
While some historians see similarities between 1968 and the party's divide this year in the primaries between Obama and U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, particularly in the voting patterns based on race and income, the intensity was much different.
The bitterness over Hum-phrey's nomination in 1968 led the party to give more weight to the primary system, Kazin said, and opened up the nomination process to politicians from outside the establishment like Jimmy Carter — a populist Georgia governor — in 1976 and Obama this year.
"If you want to look at one event that made it quite public that the Democratic Party was not the same party which had won all these elections and really controlled the political dialogue, this is the event to look to," said Kazin, the co-author of "America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s."
The party's selection of Inouye as keynote speaker led to speculation that he was a potential vice presidential choice for Humphrey. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield of Montana, a mentor to Inouye, fed the interest when he told reporters that it was "only a stepping stone to being nominated vice president."
The idea was treated as improbable by the news media, and Inouye himself did not give it much credence until speaking with Johnson by telephone the morning after his speech. The senator said in the interview this month that Johnson had privately led him to believe he was going to be offered the nomination.
"Frankly, I thought it was just pure Hawaiian ho'o mali mali," he said. (The phrase means flattery.)
Johnson was a master at behind-the-scenes manipulation — some accounts suggest he was angling to be drafted on the ticket at the convention — but Inouye said the president sounded genuine. Word spread about an FBI background check and a request for Inouye's medical records from Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Inouye said one radio reporter claimed the nominee was from a place "far away."
"I thought after that, 'My God, this is serious,' " Inouye said.
Inouye said that, before he could be asked, he told Hum-phrey he was not interested. U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine would be chosen as the vice presidential nominee.
"I thought my presence on a ticket like that, even though I was a veteran and (Humphrey) wasn't one, I didn't think it would help," Inouye said.
Janelle Wong, assistant professor of political science at the University of Southern California, said Inouye's speech represented a "breakthrough in the visibility of Asian-Americans on the national political stage."
Wong said the 1968 convention is linked to the social movements of the civil rights era, but she said many Asian-Americans arrived in the United States after the speech and did not benefit from the shared experience.
"Even 40 years after Inouye's historic moment, Asian-Americans remain underrepresented in elected office and in the electorate outside of Hawai'i," she said in an e-mail. "This is partly due to the fact that many Asian-Americans are recent immigrants and a large proportion of those folks don't have citizenship. But, it is also due to stereotypes that reinforce the idea that Asian-Americans are politically apathetic. Asian Americans are not mobilized to participate in politics as much as other groups."
HEAVY LOCAL COVERAGE
While Inouye's keynote address may have had limited impact nationally, it was an event in Hawai'i.
Inouye, 43, was an ascending figure in state politics. His autobiography, "Journey to Washington," which tracked his rise from poverty and McKinley High School to the Senate, had been published the year before to solid reviews.
The Advertiser and the Star-Bulletin gave the lead-up to the speech full treatment.
(Readers who complained about recent coverage of Obama's every movement during his vacation in Hawai'i should know that Inouye received a similar look that year at the convention. The newspapers described how the senator had a hamburger and glass of milk for dinner in his hotel room the night before the address. He wore a "dark blue suit with the faintest pin stripe and a solid blue tie" on speech day.)
Inouye had told reporters his speech would be short and — at about 25 minutes, it was thought to be the shortest on record for the party at the time. He said the keynote was traditionally an opportunity for party boosterism but, given the somber times, he asked to be excused from rousing oratory.
"I'm not good at cheerleading," he told the press.
His address was the first convention speech ever carried live in the Islands on television. Sponsors paid $7,500 to help KGMB-TV show it via the Lani Bird satellite. The speech aired at about 3:45 p.m. on a Monday afternoon during the first day of the convention.
Bob Krauss, The Advertiser's legendary columnist, watched the speech with Inouye's parents, Hyotaro and Kame, in their Coyne Street home.
"Where else can a boy like Dan become like that?" his mother asked. "This is America."
It was not until the very end of his remarks, for his closing, that Inouye mentioned the state where his grandparents had come for financial opportunity, the state he proudly represented in the Senate.
"I wish to share with you a most sacred word of Hawai'i — 'Aloha,' " he said. "To some of you who have visited us, it may have meant 'hello.' To others, Aloha may have meant 'goodbye.' But to those of us who have been privileged to live in Hawai'i, Aloha means 'I love you.'
"So, to all of you, my fellow Americans, 'Aloha.' "
Reach Derrick DePledge at firstname.lastname@example.org.