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Hawaii and the politics of war jitters

E.J. Dionne Jr. on

HONOLULU -- Gov. David Ige, who speaks in the quietly measured way of his engineering profession, likes to tout everything Hawaii is doing to battle climate change.

He lights up about the state's Early College initiative that allows high school students to take enough college courses to earn associate degrees along with their secondary school diplomas. For good measure, he proudly stresses the state's tolerance and openness ("Everybody's a minority in Hawaii") and argues the rest of the country can draw lessons from its more than four decades of nearly universal health care.

But for the moment, the main thing, maybe the only thing, that people back on the mainland know about him is that he's the governor who forgot his Twitter password on the day his state was shaken by a false warning of an imminent missile attack. Ige learned two minutes after the announcement that the Jan. 13 alert was mistaken, but it took him another 15 petrifying minutes to tweet out: "There is NO missile threat."

Perhaps because the Trump presidency has made lies and evasions so commonplace, there is something refreshing about Ige's candid response to the fiasco.

During an interview in his office at the state capitol here last week he first performed yet another mea culpa for the entire mess: "The error was truly an unacceptable occurrence." Then he explained that he, like many officials, does not pay much attention to his Twitter feed, leaving it to his staff -- another contrast with President Trump. Ige acknowledges not getting up to speed quickly enough.

"Obviously, I don't do my own Twitter," he said, "and it came up, and the question was asked, 'Why did it take X minutes before we had posted on Twitter?' and that's the fact."

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Politicians face many challenges, but Ige may be alone in having to answer to a constituency in which every single member confronted the possibility of sudden death. "Who else has had the experience of thinking, I have 10 minutes to live?" wondered Brett Oppegaard, a journalism professor at the University of Hawaii.

The timing of the episode was particularly inopportune for Ige, a first-term Democrat who faces a tough challenge in this summer's primary from respected U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa. In endorsing Hanabusa last week, Tulsi Gabbard, Hawaii's other member of Congress, praised Hanabusa as "a strong, decisive, dynamic leader" and was not shy about invoking the false alarm.

"The failure of leadership that we saw throughout that entire incident further affirmed what I know," Gabbard said.

Hanabusa herself doesn't even have to bring up the subject. "The question is how we restore confidence," she told me. "Bashing on the governor for the 38 minutes is not going to solve it," referring to the time it took for the alarm to be called off officially.

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