Cayetano Still Tells It Like It Is
Wednesday - March 11, 2009
First, three disclaimers. One: Three or four years ago, George Engebretson of Watermark Publishing asked me if I’d help former Gov. Ben Cayetano with his book - read draft chapters, make suggestions, etc. The governor and I lunched once, I read some chapters, made some vague suggestions and that was that. I received no compensation, wrote nary a word and - I’ m sure - helped Ben not at all.
Two: I have always been a Cayetano fan. The second feature political piece I ever wrote for Honolulu Magazine - in 1979 - was about then state Sen. Ben Cayetano. I admired the man and his politics. Thirty years later, I still do.
Three: I do not like political memoirs. Along with cookie-cutter thrillers and mysteries, the memoirs of politicians rank at the bottom of my literary preferences. It is said that we are all the heroes of our own narratives, but the vast majority of us never write them down. The political ego does, and every political memoirist is the wisest, bravest and most-principled character in the book.
Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, it doesn’t matter. None broke the memoirist’s egocentric mold. In Ben: A Memoir, from Street Kid to Governor, neither does Ben Cayetano.
But it’s still a terrific read. From the day he first stepped into the public spotlight, Cayetano started giving the rest of the political herd lessons in candor. If a reporter asked Cayetano a question, he received an answer - often, particularly early in his career, not necessarily a politic answer.
The press loved him for it. And, however impolitic those answers were, so too did the voters. Between 1974 and 2004, Cayetano’s name appeared on a ballot eight times. He emerged the victor in each one those elections, rising from House and Senate seats in Leeward Oahu to two terms as lieutenant governor and two more as the state - and the nation’s - first governor of Filipino ancestry.
His path from “street kid to governor” helped Cayetano run the electoral table. He grew up in working-class Kalihi. He spoke to his birth father, a man named Jerry, only once in his life; he and his younger brother were reared by Bonifacio Cayetano, whom his mother divorced when the future governor was “6 or 7.”
Ben did well in school, until his high school years at Farrington. There he knew trouble with the law and an early marriage to his pregnant high school girlfriend, Lorraine. They would have three children together, put Ben through college and law school in Los Angeles together, and establish their family and launch Cayetano’s political career in Pearl City - together.
Cayetano entered the state House with the 1974 post-Watergate generation of “reform” Democrats. With Neil Abercrombie and Charlie Toguchi, among others, Cayetano would frequently speak to power - bucking the legislative leaders of their own party and Democratic Gov. George Ariyoshi. In 1980, they would go so far as to enter a coalition with Republican members to organize the Senate. Cayetano is at his best in describing the maneuvering, the conflict, the compromise and - in some instances - the offhandedness that goes into law-making. Describing an early vote that pitted industrial loan companies against the banks, he writes: “For me the issue was marginal. ... I felt little empathy for the banks and the industrial loan companies. I could have flipped a coin to decide which side I would support.” Ultimately his decision rested on personalities. “My high school civics teacher would have been disappointed at the reasons for my vote.”
From 1986 to 1994, Cayetano sat in the lieutenant governor’s office on the Capitol’s fifth floor. It would be “the most frustrating period of my nearly three decades in Hawaii politics.” Cayetano would champion the popular A-Plus after-school program; otherwise, he fretted and watched as Hawaii’s economy followed Japan’s into the doldrums. In 1994, after his victory over Independent Frank Fasi and Republican Pat Saiki, that economy would become Cayetano’s problem as governor. He would struggle with it for two terms, through both the decline in Japanese tourism and in all tourism following the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
Still, Cayetano built schools, struggled with Hawaiian issues and Bishop Estate trustees run awry and - in the minds of most - governed with a sure fiscal hand.
In Ben, he can be hard on his adversaries: former state Sen. Andy Anderson, former House Speaker Henry Peters, professor and activist Haunani-Kay Trask, running-mate Mazie Hirono, successor Linda Lingle, to name just a few. But fair or unfair, it makes for good reading.
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