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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, March 18, 2009

VOLCANIC ASH
Former governor's memoir provides provocative analysis

By David Shapiro

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser
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It took me a long time to finish former Gov. Benjamin Cayetano's autobiography, "Ben: A Memoir, from Street Kid to Governor" not because it was a bad read, but because it was really long at 560 pages.

The book has been widely reviewed and excerpted, so I'll just offer some impressions.

The tome is well worth reading as an extensive political history of the period from the mid-1970s, when Cayetano was first elected to the Legislature, to the end of his term as governor in 2002.

Just keep in mind that it's a one-sided view of history; while the book is refreshing in its candor, Cayetano is far more candid about the shortcomings of his adversaries than his allies.

Reviews have focused on these juicy stories he tells on his rivals Jeremy Harris crying for his job, Henry Peters punching a fellow legislator, Donna Mercado Kim's "pernicious" personality but as a whole, the memoir is more thoughtful than rancorous.

Cayetano offers valuable perceptions on issues that defined his time, including Hawaiian sovereignty, the Bishop Estate, the sinking economy, the teachers strike, the changing Legislature, the power of special interests, the birth of A-Plus and rail transit.

On Hawaiian sovereignty, for example, he writes that he believed the U.S. Supreme Court's Rice v. Cayetano decision "foreclosed any possibility of attaining the type of sovereignty sought by Hawaiian activists."

"In my opinion, further pursuit of sovereignty was like the quest for the Holy Grail an exercise in futility, an impossible dream," he writes in the kind of blunt assessment many elected officials think, but don't have the guts to say.

The book is full of such pro-vocative analysis, and hopefully will inspire other players to write about the period from different perspectives.

Cayetano is an excellent writer for a lawyer. He tells his story clearly and keeps it mostly conversational. He must set a record for the most uses of the f-word in a gubernatorial memoir.

The book is probably 200 pages too long. Cayetano always had a compulsive need to justify everything he has done, and it shows in the overly detailed accounts of lesser legislative and political battles that were too much even for a news junkie like me.

A tighter focus on the main themes would have been more instructive to future students of our times.

The book is highly opinionated and many of the former governor's conclusions are open to debate. But judging from the issues he covers that I have first-hand knowledge of, Cayetano made considerable effort to be thorough and accurate in his research and fair in his portrayals.

I came away with a much better understanding of the famous chip on Cayetano's shoulder and how race-based it is.

Don't get me wrong, I don't think Cayetano is racist; he's always had truly diverse circles of personal and political friends.

But he is extremely race-conscious and views nearly everything through the lens of race even going back to his college and law school days in Los Angeles.

The constant presence of race in the book can be jarring at times. Nearly every time he introduces a new player, he starts by telling the person's race or racial mix.

Cayetano's description of a "good haole" is fascinating, as is his explanation of why it's OK for "local" ethnic groups to engage in racial bloc voting, but not Caucasians.

It's probably time for him to let go of that old lady who chased him off the beach in Kahala when he was a kid. He can wave to her from his golf cart at Waialae.

David Shapiro, a veteran Hawai'i journalist, can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net. His columns are archived at www.volcanicash.net. Read his daily blog at blogs.honoluluadvertiser.com.