Why you should care
Because some unlikely Hawaiians are making their way to big places.
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This OZY encore was originally published Sept. 27, 2015.
It all seems too easy: At a quarter till 6 in the morning at Kailua Beach on Oahu, in the same neighborhood where Barack Obama stays at Christmas, the congresswoman from Hawaii’s 2nd District mounts her yellow longboard, takes her paddle in hand and sculls her way out into the water, where she stands, balances and drifts vaguely toward the sunrise, the so-called Flat Island in front of her, the Ko’olau mountain range behind her.
I’ve received in advance a whole neat schedule marking out Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s movements for the next two days, which include no baby-kissing but plenty of veteran handshaking and nodding to tunes on native rights and bidding aloha. These are the kinds of things you do when you are the congresswoman from Hawaii’s 2nd District. You throw up hang-loose signs in photo ops with the aforementioned, you wear three different leis throughout the day and you definitely indulge a mainland reporter’s fascinations with … your island and its beaches and its sunrises by demonstrating your habit of waking up at 5 a.m. to be one with the waves. I mean, if you’ve got it, flaunt it.
Gabbard, at 34, has a lot to flaunt, actually, and it’s usually manifested in the following epithets: first Hindu in Congress, first American Samoan in Congress, once the youngest state legislator ever elected (at age 21). She’s also a deployed veteran of the Iraq War who still serves in the National Guard reserves — which earns her automatic respect from either side of the aisle. And then there’s the double-edged sword of being an attractive woman in politics: it gets you noticed, though not on your terms — she lands on things like The Hill’s 50 Most Beautiful, and no one, not constituents, not my comrades in media ogling, mentions her without mentioning her prettiness. Regardless, Gabbard has managed to get on three enviable committees in Congress — Armed Services, Foreign Affairs and Homeland Security — which puts her in an even more enviable position to talk veterans and combat, and to take on the Obama administration on Iraq and terrorism on a national stage.
If ever a Republican won the White House … there’s a tradition of picking someone from the other side for one of your slots.
Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina
Indeed, it has been some of those last headline grabbers that has brought us here. That, and the nagging feeling that people have about this unusual second-termer. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she became the chair of a powerful committee — and then went for Senate,” says Stephanie Sanok Kostro, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). But the day I meet her, amid all her cameos and handshaking, she isn’t quite ready to let me in. Sitting in a coffee shop, she is thoughtful, understated, even a little awkward. We move painstakingly into the personal, touching on her athleticism (martial arts; she hates running), to her perfect hair (which she only gets done in Hawaii), to her second marriage to a “very private” 26-year-old cinematographer who proposed on a surfboard. Then, to a grander space.
“Senate?” “Maybe.” “Secretary of Defense?” “Maybe.” “State?” “I’m just going to keep saying the same thing,” she cuts in, with a real, wide, rare Cheshire cat smile. “Let me just get through it,” I say, because now that I am here, I have to get the damn quotes. “Homeland Security?” “Maybe.” “VP?” “Maybe.” Drum roll … “President?”
If it weren’t for the palms and the tourists and the soft, dreamy sand, you might notice some similarities between this place and the South, or the Midwest: This is a military town. A small town. Gabbard’s press person brags to me that she swoops into communities where there are “like, 20” voters present. It’s far from the stuff she touches in Washington; the foreign policy issues on which she weighs in don’t much touch down on islanders’ day-to-day lives. But small-town Hawaii — and Gabbard’s small-town childhood — have a different face than the Baptist-football-tailgate of much of the rest of Middle America. For one, you can take for granted that Democrats have an upper hand here; Gabbard beat her Republican opponent for Congress in 2012 with 81 percent of the vote.
And for another, Gabbard’s mixed parentage — a bit like the president’s — doesn’t seem so crazy here. But it’s a far-from-average tale in the rest of the country. Born to teacher parents who also ran a candy company, Gabbard was home-schooled with her three brothers and sister — all of whom have deeply traditional Hindu names. Gabbard’s American Samoan-born father considers himself an “eclectic” Catholic (i.e., yoga-doing Catholic), as she puts it, the son of an Air Force man; her mother was a good Midwestern girl who later found Hinduism. Even now, despite all the cultural hubbub around her First title, she says she never had to choose between the religions.
That Hindu label has added a whole other layer or two to her political identity: It might be a complicator, for one; if America couldn’t handle the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, it’s hard to guess at how the country would take videos like this one, in which she celebrates the legacy of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. That’d be a mouthful on Fox. On the flip side, though, Gabbard was an early invitee to India under the Narendra Modi government — and you can bet your hat that she wasn’t invited just because she works on Asia-Pacific for the Foreign Affairs Committee. “Part of it,” confirms Kostro of the CSIS, speaking about her traction in Asia, “is Ms. Gabbard’s religion, which plays a role.”
Most recently, Gabbard has made her name in Washington in a series of television-waged battles with the Obama administration over its stance on Iraq, terrorism and the so-called Islamic State (IS) group. There’s some nuance to her objections, but the headline grabber: This spring, she told Obama he’d sure as hell better call the IS terrorists Islamic and stop pussyfooting around. She’s been a vocal critic of what she called, on CNN in May, the “fantasy” of a unified Iraq — please, please, a three-state solution already, she begged. She’s not “reflexively partisan,” says Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, with whom she’s worked on privacy bills, among other topics; thanks to her service (necessary nod) and in part to those Obama disagreements, he says, his party has somewhat of a soft spot for her. “If ever a Republican won the White House,” he muses, well … “there’s a tradition of picking someone from the other side for one of your slots.” Gabbard, he figures, might be ideal.
On the flip side, if you ask her colleagues about their guesses at Gabbard’s dream job, after they praise her service and future career prospects, many of them — Gowdy, Democrat Rep. Joseph Kennedy of Massachusetts — reflect that Hawaii is a long, draining commute. She misses home on long weekends. “D.C. can be a tough place,” Gowdy says. So what if she were to go back home for the long run? Gabbard would land back on an archipelago where people remember more: 13 years on the record, after all.
About 10 years ago, Gabbard violated some of the tenets that now make her so popular as a Democrat with an EMILY’s List endorsement to boot — she was neither pro-choice nor pro-gay-marriage, and in fact fell in line with her erstwhile Republican father. “She’s definitely distanced herself since,” says Jacqueline Lasky, professor of state politics at the University of Hawaii. “She wouldn’t have been successful otherwise.” (Nationally, there’s little talk about it; Kennedy told me he “didn’t really know” about Gabbard’s early conservative stances.) Hawaii bloggers and reporters widely have Gabbard on record as referring to the agendas of “homosexual extremists” at one point; when I ask her, she replies, “That thing I said ages ago?” Yes, I say. “Honestly, I’d have to go back and look,” she says. After repeated follow-ups, the congresswoman replies with a note about her sponsorship of the Equality Act (adding sexual orientation to categories of prohibited discrimination) and of her support for equal treatment of gay service members’ spouses.
Fittingly for her narrative, though, the explanation for her changed ideology feints us back onto familiar territory — the military. It was, she says, the days in the Middle East that taught her the dangers of a theocratic government “imposing its will” on the people. (She tells me that, no, her personal views haven’t changed, but she doesn’t figure it’s her job to do as the Iraqis did and force her own beliefs on others.)
It’s easy to forget how young Gabbard is; much took place through the first decade of adulthood. She dropped out of community college to run for local office — at the same time as her father’s first-ever political race. (Today, he’s a state senator.) She didn’t finish school until Iraq, where she spent dusty nights answering test questions on a computer in a tent in the heart of the Sunni triangle. Her 20s saw her in a war zone, in a marriage, in office and through a divorce. The military practically raised her: In Iraq, she tells me, she lost “brothers and sisters,” saw their dog tags, their rifles, their boots come through the medical tent just a day after eating with them in the chow hall. One of her jobs was to painstakingly comb through every injury, every casualty, every day. (She wrote me later that she wondered if “those who voted to send us to Iraq really understood why we were there.”) In Alabama, she learned to “sleep standing up” at officer school, where you don’t walk anywhere but run (unless you’ve just eaten). In Kuwait, she was frequently the only (“invisible”) woman in the room while leading a platoon. Before her first deployment, before any of that growing up, she married her first love; they split when they were barely through their mid-20s. We’ve just been to a Marine Corps base where she shook the hands of two or three military wives and listened to them, consternation in her brow. She reflects to me that the distance and toll of deployment were too much.
After all, she was young.
It was 2012, and Gabbard had just won her primary — the general hadn’t even been held — for Congress. She got a call from Nancy Pelosi, who asked: How would Gabbard like to come speak at the Democratic National Committee? The “speech” ran about 90 seconds or so. Gabbard introduced herself as a combat veteran, plugged Obama and Biden as military advocates and lost some of her stage time to applause. The enormity of the convention and the people she was introducing — women of the House, of whom she was not yet one — seemed to dwarf her. Today, she takes up more of her allotted space, but never dominates a room. She admits to shyness in younger years, speaking of “sweating bullets” before her first attempt at door-knocking. It’s not clear she’s outgrown it. Speaking one morning in a drab hotel conference room at a breakfast for native businesses, she stays behind the podium, eyes down at what is presumably a pre-written speech. It seems a bad squandering of an easy crowd.
But to be fair, there are times when Gabbard is squarely on her own turf. Like when she walks onto the expansive Marine Corps base on Oahu, where everything is “ma’am”s and “as you well know”s. She is tailed by admiring young lieutenant corporals and respectful sergeants, all male, and there’s nothing controversial at all. Wounded Warriors are hard to disagree with. Instead, she stands with her hands behind her back, almost at attention, and listens. She looks solid, reliable, stable. Which, as Lasky suggests, might be enough — to go a long way.