Of Teachers, Professors And Mentors

The author with his kindergarten teacher Barbara Leong PHOTO COURTESY LEONG FAMILY

The author with his kindergarten teacher Barbara Leong PHOTO COURTESY LEONG FAMILY

Professors, teachers, coaches and mentors can leave an indelible imprint on a person’s life. They help to shape our outlook and our view of the world. In my case, some of them have passed on and I am left with the fondest of memories of how they impacted my life. Others who are living give me an opportunity to visit with them and talk story about days gone by.

Such is the case with my Kalihi Kai Elementary teacher Barbara Leong, who I have the rare privilege of visiting occasionally in Kahala. She fondly recalls that I was the biggest Easter bunny she ever saw as a kindergartener, as a result of my mother dressing me up in that costume for Halloween. She also tells me that she was impressed with the interest my immigrant parents, who moved to Honolulu five years earlier from Guam and American Samoa, had in the education of their youngest son. She could see that, for them, Hawaii was all about providing educational and economic opportunities for their family, and that they were excited about raising their children in their adopted homeland.

Fast forward to a professor of mine during my undergraduate years at Harvard Joseph Nye, whose course on international relations I absolutely enjoyed. I had a chance to catch up with the renowned foreign-policy expert a few years back, when he was passing through Hawaii on one of his trips to Asia. I was thrilled to see him, as he brought back many memories of trudging through “The Yard” to secure a good seat in his popular class.

For me, as a government major, Nye’s course, along with Doris Kearns-Goodwin’s on the American Presidency, were my two favorite classes in the field of political science. She, along with Roger Porter, another government instructor of mine in Cambridge (and brother of BYU-Hawaii tennis coach David Porter), were my inspiration to aspire to be a White House Fellow (WHF). Kearns-Goodwin’s lectures were filled with anecdotes about her days as a WHF and later as a special assistant to President Lyndon B. Johnson. Nye piqued my interest in foreign policy and America’s role in international affairs, especially in the Asia-Pacific theater. Both Nye and Kearns-Goodwin are accomplished authors. Nye’s published works on Soft Power (which has become part of the State Department’s lexicon in describing a nation’s ability to persuade and convince, as opposed to hard power driven by military might), The Powers to Lead, which offers lessons in leading in business as well as in government, and Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era are classics. Kearns-Goodwin has written phenomenally on the public and personal lives of Presidents Kennedy, Franklin and Teddy Roosevelt, and Lincoln, in addition to LBJ. Her book on Lincoln, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, is a masterpiece on how the 16th president co-opted his presidential rivals by appointing them to his cabinet. In one fell swoop, Lincoln had them working with him as opposed to against him in governing the nation.

Nye, who has served in the State Department in several key foreign policy positions, has a great new book out, Is The American Century Over? In it he disputes the notion fostered by many that our nation has been surpassed as the preeminent world leader by China, and that our best days are behind us. Not so quick, Nye argues, because it’s not like Japan, India, Europe, China and even Brazil are without their own set of daunting challenges. I like one of Nye’s messages that, as long as America continues to be the land of opportunity that will embrace, not exclude, talented and motivated immigrants who will contribute meaningfully to our economic growth and prosperity, we should be able to withstand and overcome threats to our prominent position on the global stage.

But (and it’s a big caveat) it’s up to us. That competitive advantage could erode quickly if the U.S. fails to address effectively the chasm in our society created by income inequality, our problematic educational system and the political gridlock in the nation’s Capitol, or fail to reach common ground with those who intend to shut down our borders or retreat from being engaged in foreign affairs. Those of us who inhabit this part of the world know the Pacific Rim is where the action is and will be increasingly so in the foreseeable future. Hence, it would behoove us to heed the counsel of a sage and respected scholar like Joseph Nye.

While I am on the subject of books, permit me to offer another recommendation for your reading pleasure: 41: A Portrait Of My Father, by George W. Bush. I suppose the 41st President of the U.S. is on my mind because I caught a glimpse of him and former first lady Barbara Bush enjoying the action at the Duke-Gonzaga NCAA basketball regional finals.

I remain grateful for the opportunity I had to be chosen by him to spend a marvelous year as his White House Fellow in the Office of the Vice President when he was President Reagan’s veep.