His steadfast principle "as governor of all the people" was cited during the uproar over righteous candidates and religion in politics.
"Compare and Decide"? Didn’t your mother always tell you: "If you don’t have something nice to say about somebody, don’t say anything at all"?
Even the tribulations of the Western Athletic Conference stirred memories of his hands-on efforts to elevate sports at his beloved University of Hawaii to major-college status.
And why not?
He stood up for AJAs in Hawaii during World War II, helped engineer a political revolution that sought to right social injustices, led the push for statehood and guided the islands through their most dramatic period of growth.
Most of the state’s major highways were built during his years as governor, a time of heady, sometimes frighteningly rapid change. He greatly expanded the public school system, spent millions to upgrade UH and was instrumental in the establishment of the East-West Center.
Now, 35 years after his death, with the economy in doubt, homelessness on the rise, public education at a crossroad and an angry rift over civil unions on simmer, might it be time to ask: "What would Jack Burns do?"
John A. Burns was Hawaii’s second elected governor, yet will always be remembered as the state’s founding figure.
He was an unlikely icon. He had known hardship as a youth, drifted in and out of school and jobs, fought personal demons and alcohol. But he also found redemption, returned to the strong religious traditions of his childhood, became a devoted husband and father, and dedicated himself to winning equality in the public arena for the have-nots in a Hawaii of economic, social and racial elitism.
Burns’ reputation was built in the run-up to World War II, when he was head of the Honolulu Police Department’s Espionage Bureau and in charge of determining the loyalty of the Japanese community.
Burns’ outspoken support of AJAs after the attack on Pearl Harbor is credited with heading off mass internments here and getting the Japanese through the war relatively intact. His insistence that they be treated equally helped lead to the formation of the 100th Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
That personal stand would not be forgotten. By the time he led the Democratic Party to power in the so-called "Revolution of 1954," which forever changed society and politics in modern Hawaii, he was already larger than life. In the years that followed, the state rode a wave of optimism and hope, hitched itself to tourism and development, and stepped boldly into modern times.
"I think he’s being invoked these days because of what he meant to an entire generation that came out of the (second world) war," says political analyst Dan Boylan, whose interviews with the terminally-ill governor in 1975 were the source for the biography "John A. Burns: The Man and His Times."
"They were idealistic kids and Burns was their mentor, and they dominated a whole generation of politics in Hawaii. He was unique in that while he was very much an idealist, he also had an extraordinary sense of pragmatism that gave him a much broader appeal."
That was then, of course. Certainly, if Burns were governor today he would be facing a much more forbidding landscape than in 1962, when he was elected to the first of three terms.
"He would not have any of the big favorable factors going for him," says writer Tom Coffman, who covered politics for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in the 1970s and authored "Catch a Wave," the acclaimed study of the 1970 Democratic primary election between Burns and his long and bitter rival, Tom Gill.
"He wouldn’t have the tremendous climate of optimism that prevailed in the early 1960s. He wouldn’t have the tremendous national forward motion of the liberal agenda via John F. Kennedy and LBJ and the civil rights movement.
"He wouldn’t have a political party with a strong sense of direction that he organized himself. He wouldn’t have unions with a strong sense of direction or the power that they had at that moment. And he wouldn’t have any strong second-tier leadership … the ranks of leadership are very thin today."
Still, Burns possessed political traits that would likely play well in today’s climate, most notably his ability to focus on his agenda and his determination to see it through.
"He also was a tremendous penny-pincher," Coffman says. "Most people don’t know this, but he personally approved every state hire. He had this huge stack of papers on his desk that he would slowly work his way through. And he had a great sense of balance between the public and private sectors, which is certainly something that would put the next governor in good standing if he can get that right."
Above all, Burns was a man who inspired allegiance.
"There was about him this aura of greatness, although he probably would have laughed at the idea," Coffman says. "He was the person who quietly took charge and called the shots. That sticks with me."
When the Democratic Party reorganized in 1950, party leaders didn’t particularly recognize Burns as a leader.
"They thought of him as not knowing enough about government and not a good public speaker," Coffman says. "Chuck Mau was a real politician, and Mitsuyuki Kido had a lot more community experience.
"Burns would go to the meetings and say, ‘We gotta get these war vets (many now college-educated, thanks to the G.I. Bill) into the party,’ and they’d say, ‘Our hands are full right now … our plates are full. Why don’t you do it, Jack?’ And he did. It was a few people here, a few people there, but he did it. It was like a basketball player at the end of the game saying, ‘Pass the ball to me.’ "
Burns’ vast primary base, the AJA veterans who remembered how he had vouched for them, and the sons and daughters of immigrant plantation laborers, were energized by Burns’ message of change and found a powerful touchstone in his strong-willed but humble bearing.
Boylan says Burns had "a larger understanding of things," much of it flowing from the deep religious beliefs his mother had instilled in him.
"His religion was a very private and personal thing, and yet it was very much a part of his policies," Boylan says. "Social consciousness and service were very important to him … standing up for others, helping the poor … those things came from the church.
"But he was part of a generation that didn’t wear religion on its sleeve, unlike what you see today. He went to Mass every morning, but he never imposed religion or standards on others. How could he, when a lot of his best friends were Buddhist? He showed his faith in the way he lived his life."
Most notable was Burns’ deeply conflicted decision in 1970 to allow a bill allowing abortion to become law in Hawaii without his signature. Burns was a committed Roman Catholic who personally considered abortion murder. But an elected governor, he said, "must never let his private political and religious convictions unduly influence his judgment as governor of all the people."
He came under withering fire from segments of the public and the church, but he held to his convictions.
Burns is not without other critics. To some, he wasn’t progressive enough. To others, he wasn’t enough of an environmentalist.
And what’s become of his dream?
Detractors say the Democrats’ consolidation of political control inevitably fed and nurtured cronyism and corruption. As tourism blossomed in the late 1950s, they point out, idealism was replaced by greed, influence was bought and sold, and insider huis reaped huge profits from rampant development.
Boylan says Burns, "like any leader, certainly could have done some things better," and while he would be very proud of Hawaii’s cosmopolitan society, especially its many mixed marriages, he surely would be disappointed in the way other things — most notably public education, which he stressed, and Hawaiian issues — played out.
Still, maybe it’s not so much a question of how Burns would fit in today, or what he would or wouldn’t do. Maybe it’s not even the degrees of success or failure that define his leadership as much as heart and integrity and effort.
These days, with Hawaii in what Coffman calls "a state of drift and flatness," what may be missing most is Burns’ singular ability to crystalize a goal and form alliances, built on mutual respect, to get the job done.
In his last weeks, with colon cancer sapping his strength, Burns agreed — at his son James’ request — to a series of interviews intended to be an oral history of his life and times. Boylan and another UH history professor, Paul Hooper, conducted many of the interviews in Burns’ Kailua home, with the ailing governor often sitting in his bathrobe.
As the governor grew weaker, Boylan and Hooper pressed to get as much as they could from more frequent but increasingly shorter meetings.
A full interview was never completed — Burns died on April 5, 1975 — but even then, Boylan says, what emerged was a clear picture of a humble man of unshakable principle, with a profound vision of Hawaii as a place rich in diversity and tolerance that could be an example of societal change for the nation.
"The forerunner," as Coffman puts it, "of what the U.S. is struggling to become."
"Equality was his middle name," Boylan says. "Jack Burns and his guys were saying, ‘This is the way things should be’ — the way things would be — from way back when. They were way out in front of that wave.
"There was a greatness, a real largeness, about him that you just don’t see very often. It was very hard not to admire him or be inspired by his life."
One night, Boylan recalls, after what would be one of their last interviews with Burns and long hours transcribing audiotapes, he and Hooper stopped at a Kailua drive-in on their way home. Hooper, a lifelong Republican, and Boylan, a Gill Democrat, sat in silence, sipping coffee.
"I’m not sure anymore if it was him or me who said it … maybe it doesn’t matter, because we were both thinking the same thing," Boylan says. "But after a while, one of us finally looked up at the other guy and said, ‘You know what? If I had been a young man in those days, I would have marched with him.’
"And the other guy nodded and said, ‘Yeah, I would have, too.’ "