Gov. Neil Abercrombie, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, planted some doubt around the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye's deathbed letter urging the governor to name U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa as the senator's successor.
Abercrombie and some of his political allies have sought to question the provenance of the Inouye letter without citing any evidence that it was not authentic.
Here is what Abercombie told the Times:
“I received that letter, ostensibly coming from Sen. Inouye himself, a half an hour before he died in Washington, D.C. Literally,” Abercrombie said in a lengthy interview Thursday. “Whether or not this could be construed as Sen. Inouye’s dying wish — let me put it this way — is problematic.”
Later he elaborated, saying the circumstances were “far from the drama … with which it’s been characterized.”
“I think it was kind of created,” Abercrombie said. “ I don’t dispute for a second it represented his thinking, but it’s far from being a dying wish, sent from Washington and signed and sealed … by Sen. Inouye in Washington.”
The key statement is Abercrombie's acknowledgement that the Inouye letter did indeed reflect the senator's preference for Hanabusa. One of the reasons most of the Hawaii news media have not speculated about the letter's authenticity is that political reporters had known of Inouye's wishes long before the senator was hospitalized and died.
Had the Inouye letter mentioned someone other than Hanabusa, the Hawaii media would have aggressively challenged its origins.
The only people who know for sure whether Inouye signed off on the letter in his final days were the family, friends, aides, doctors and nurses who were by his side. Several have offered public accounts that Inouye was communicative so, without any evidence to the contrary, the public is left to decide whether those people are telling the truth.
Undisputed, however, is the fact that Inouye wanted Hanabusa to succeed him. Also undisputed is that the decision was Abercrombie's to make after receiving the list of nominees from the Democratic Party of Hawaii.
“I don’t argue a bit that represented his sentiments,” Abercrombie said, even as he questioned the letter’s authorship. “I say with equal certainty that I also know he admonished me to do what I thought was best for the people of Hawaii.”
The other narrative that Abercombie and his allies have sought to spread is that the Inouye letter was immediately leaked to the news media to put pressure on the governor.
While it is possible that some in the news media received the Inouye letter right after the senator died, the fact is that it was Abercrombie himself who first publicly disclosed the letter's existence.
Just 20 minutes after news broke that Inouye had died, Abercrombie appeared at a previously scheduled press conference on the state budget.
An emotional Abercrombie read from the letter but did not mention the Hanabusa recommendation. The governor said that the senator's "thoughts and words were lucid and available to us right up until the very last minute."
One reporter asked Abercrombie whether the letter was instructive or indicated who or the kind of person the senator wanted to replace him, but the governor described the letter as personal.
The Star-Advertiser first learned about the contents of the Inouye letter from a source close to the senator who was unhappy that Abercrombie had publicly discussed the letter at the press conference but did not share its main point, which was to recommend Hanabusa.
While it is conceivable that others in the news media had the letter as well, it is highly unlikely that the outlets would have sat on the information for several hours.
Regardless, Abercrombie's own disclosure of the Inouye letter made it certain that reporters would press both the governor and the Inouye camp for its contents.
The Star-Advertiser reported two days after Inouye died that retired banker Walter Dods and retired attorney Jeffrey Watanabe had hand-delivered the Inouye letter to the governor. The story discussed the pressure Democrats would face in deciding whether to honor the senator's last request.
Abercrombie would appoint Brian Schatz, his lieutenant governor, over Hanabusa.
Schatz and Hanabusa are competing in the Democratic primary to fill out the remainder of Inouye's six-year term, which runs through 2016.