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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Lingle could learn from LBJ, Burns

By Jerry Burris

Gov. Linda Lingle's decision to consult "all sides" of the civil unions debate before she decides whether to sign the legislative measure on same-sex unions into law is an admirable effort as far as it goes.

But you have to wonder: What is the purpose here? This matter has been endlessly debated in the public and in the Legislature. What will be gained by yet another contentious series of meetings, hearings and discussions?

Surely by now everyone knows what the issues are and where everyone stands. Surely Lingle knows what the issues are and where the arguments lie. Re-creating the process the Legislature has already gone through will gain little in the way of new knowledge or insights.

What a new round of hearings and consultations will do, one supposes, is create a record Lingle can look back on as she moves forward on what for better or worse will be one of the defining moments of her political career as governor.

As she does so, she might wish to consult decisions made by other executives as they faced matters of wrenching social and political consequence.

One is Lyndon Johnson's decision to push forward with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As Johnson famously observed, his decision "lost the South" for the Demo-crats for a generation Richard Nixon capitalized on the animus generated by the act to switch a generation of voters into the GOP column.

Considering the broad spectrum of issues and policies Johnson and the Democrats faced, was he right to give up this huge voter base? History says yes, but who knows?

Closer to home, Lingle might look at the decision by then Gov. John A. Burns to allow a so-called "abortion bill" to become law in 1970. That law, which essentially eliminated any state rules and regulations governing abortion, made Hawai'i the most liberal state in the nation at the time on this issue.

Burns was a devout Catholic and personally was repelled by this idea. But in the end he respected the Legislature's decision and allowed the measure to become law without his signature. Society was moving forward and he was unwilling to stand in the way.

Both Johnson and Burns set aside personal feelings and political calculations to ride a tide of political will. The issue of civil unions may not be exactly analogous, but it is not far off.

There are many things that mark a politician's legacy, and it would be unfair to focus on this particular issue too much. But it will be interesting to see what Lingle does, and perhaps more important, how she does it.