Hawaii Makes Its Case for Obama’s Library: Why Not Bring It to the Beach?
Jewel Samad/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
HONOLULU — When Gov. Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii was asked to appear in a video urging President Obama to make the state the home of his presidential library, the governor’s appeal was simple and, he said, reflective of the state’s “Aloha spirit.”
Cory Lum for The New York Times
Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press
With his Shetland sheepdog, Kanoa, at his side, Mr. Abercrombie made his case: “I don’t know how sophisticated this looks back in Washington, but my pitch to the president is: ‘I’m here with Kanoa. Why don’t you bring Sunny and Bo out and we can sit on the beach?’ ”
Such is the island’s attitude, simultaneously low key and proud, toward Mr. Obama, its native son. Some in Hawaii, especially the state’s governing class, are eager to claim the president (and his Portuguese water dogs, Sunny and Bo) as their own, and they have mounted a well-organized campaign to encourage him to place at least part of his postpresidential operation in Hawaii. But other islanders, while appreciative of the president, who spent his formative years bodysurfing and eating shave ice here, have a more mellow approach and are largely happy to welcome Mr. Obama from afar.
“There’s not a rush to go see him,” said David Greenstein, 28, watching large, surf-ready waves crash at Oahu’s North Shore one recent Sunday. “Even if you see him at the beach, it’s not like people are texting their friends, ‘Come down to the beach, Obama’s here.’ ”
But, Mr. Greenstein said, “when the whole library thing goes down, we’re definitely going to be pulling for it.”
If Hawaii does end up with some piece of Mr. Obama’s presidential library or a future foundation, the state will have Robert Perkinson to thank. Mr. Perkinson, a boyish-looking 44-year-old with close-cropped brown hair and blue, owlish eyes, is an associate professor of American studies at the University of Hawaii, and the driving force behind the Barack Obama Hawaii Presidential Center Initiative.
Before Mr. Obama had even beaten Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2008 primaries, Mr. Perkinson — who had spent time at Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidential library researching a book on the Texas prison system — was thinking, he said, “Gosh, Hawaii should make a bid for this, and I bet we have to start developing it very early.”
Though the first brainstorming session took place during an informal barbecue in the garage of Brian Schatz, now Hawaii’s senior senator, the lobbying campaign did not begin in earnest until 2011, when Mr. Perkinson was able to rally a small budget and a group of supporters. They included Mr. Abercrombie, members of the state’s congressional delegation, University of Hawaii officials and local fixtures like the eponymous owner of Alan Wong’s, a restaurant where the Obamas often dine while vacationing here.
“I have to give credit to Robert,” said Mr. Schatz, a Democrat. “He was relentless, even when people thought it was an idea that was a little out of bounds, both in terms of timing and audacity.”
The state has already set aside a prominent piece of real estate in the Kaka‘ako district for the potential project: an eight-acre stretch, estimated to be worth tens of millions of dollars, between downtown Honolulu and Waikiki Beach, with stunning views of the Pacific Ocean and the Diamond Head volcanic cone.
Mr. Perkinson refused to discuss private conversations, but people familiar with the effort say he has reached out to Maya Soetoro-Ng, Mr. Obama’s half-sister; Bobby Titcomb, the president’s high school friend from the Punahou School in Hawaii; and Alyssa Mastromonaco, the White House aide tasked with planning Mr. Obama’s presidential library and foundation.
But Hawaii faces significant challenges, not least of which is Mr. Obama’s adopted hometown, Chicago. Many of his closest friends, political allies and top fund-raisers are from Chicago, which is already considered the top candidate for landing at least the president’s papers and artifacts. In an editorial in July, The Chicago Tribune said, “With no insult to Hawaii’s respect for the life of the mind, it’s fair to say that very few people go there in fierce pursuit of book learning.”
So Mr. Perkinson is staking out an underdog claim, making it clear that Hawaii would be happy to share with Chicago some portion of Mr. Obama’s postpresidential legacy. (A potential model, he said, is that of former President Bill Clinton, whose presidential library is in Arkansas, but whose foundation and global initiative are based in New York.)
“We came into this less as a zero-sum game with Chicago than to give the president a set of options that would allow him to host his center in more than one city,” Mr. Perkinson said. “Our strategy was to come up with a program that would be compelling on its merits, rather than depending on insider whispers.”
Beyond the spectacular piece of land (“Beachfront real estate, have we got a deal for you,” Mr. Abercrombie said) and built-in visitors (Hawaii drew more than eight million tourists in 2012, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority), the group’s pitch is largely geopolitical.
“Some people consider us to be an American state in Asia,” Mr. Schatz said. Instead, he said, the state is the “fulcrum” of what the Obama administration is calling a rebalancing, or a new focus, on the Asia-Pacific region.
As Mr. Perkinson put it, “Hawaii is equidistant from the biggest economic capitals of the world: Tokyo, Beijing and New York.” With its location and population, he added, the state “presents the opportunity to create a presidential center that is outward-looking, and is a global center.”
Although White House officials recently said the search for a place for the library had not begun in earnest, Mr. Perkinson wants to be prepared. “We have all these ideas in the hopper, and they’re ready for when the president decides he wants to start thinking about this,” he said.
On the last day of 2013, with his two young daughters in tow, Mr. Perkinson showed a reporter around his ideal library site, extolling the views and imagining the “beachfront promenade” that would allow people to bike to Waikiki Beach from downtown Honolulu.
“That radio tower is proving extraordinarily difficult to move,” he said, pointing to a large tower stretching skyward. But, ever the optimist, he added: “That’s not so bad, in context. You can fix everything with trees.”
So does he ever feel a bit like Don Quixote, tilting at the windmills of a presidential library? “Or Ahab,” he said with a laugh, referring to Captain Ahab’s pursuit of Moby-Dick. “There have been moments when I have awakened to a kind of Don Quixote fright,” he said, “but for the most part, we feel pretty good.”