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Civil Beat: Defying 'Political Wisdom,' Akaka Carries On

Tue, August 9, 2011

Adrienne LaFrance/Civil Beat

WASHINGTON - Seventeen months to go.

Then, Sen. Daniel Akaka will give up his Senate seat in 2012, and Hawaii voters will send a newly-elected senator to the U.S. Capitol for the first time in more than two decades.

The 86-year-old says he isn't going to leave the Senate early, despite persistent questions to the contrary. One prominently placed opinion about Akaka's future came in a July 10 column in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser by veteran political columnist Richard Borreca.

Borreca slammed Akaka, writing that there were "new concerns" from Washington about the senator's "ability to function at the age of 86." The headline was, "Political wisdom suggests Akaka should take early retirement."

The article piqued our interest because it appeared days after Civil Beat sat down with Akaka in his Washington office. Still fresh off the plane from Hawaii, we paid the senator's office an unannounced visit in the days leading up to the formal opening of Civil Beat's Washington bureau.

To our surprise, Akaka agreed to sit down with us that afternoon. He was gracious, quick-witted and talkative. He told stories about parties at the White House - President Barack Obama's are the best, the Democrat said - and showed us photos of his great grandchildren. It was a casual visit, and the senator's spokesman agreed to set up a longer, formal interview our first official week on the Hill.

Akaka's once-black hair is now a shock of white and gray, but he looks younger than 86. Leaving Akaka's office that day, I remember thinking how much younger he seemed, too.

The column that ran in the Star-Advertiser days later described a vastly different man.

For starters, Borreca claimed that Akaka had not talked to reporters since before he announced his retirement in February. This was not true. In addition to meeting with me, Civil Beat's Chad Blair interviewed the senator in April. A spokesman said the senator also gave several interviews to television reporters in recent months.

Borreca wrote of an Associated Press story in which Akaka was described as "so inactive at 86 that staffers joke that Hawaii is the only state with one senator, although the state's other Democratic senator, Daniel Inouye, is also 86."

That description didn't seem accurate.

So we looked for the AP story in question. Turns out, the quote actually came from a July 6 column in the San Francisco Chronicle. The description of Akaka was a passing reference in a larger story about aging senators, with a focus on 78-year-old Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. The writer was Carolyn Lochhead, who works out of the Chronicle's Washington Bureau.

She didn't respond to an email inquiry about the characterization, but as luck would have it, we ran into her in the Senate Press Gallery last week. Asked about the staffers' comments she reported, she said: "I can't."

We pressed her for more information, even if not the individuals' names.

"That was just hallway talk," Lochhead said. "Just look at him. It's not confidence-building."

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser later issued a series of corrections about Borreca's column.

"The July 10 'On Politics' column contained several errors:

A quoted news article was incorrectly attributed to the Associated Press; it was written by Carolyn Lochhead, the San Francisco Chronicle's Washington, D.C., bureau chief.

The column incorrectly said U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka had not talked with reporters since announcing his resignation.

Akaka is chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs; the column incorrectly said it was a sub-committee."

The original article, posted online, has not been changed to correct those errors, nor as of Aug. 8 was there any indication on the column that it contained errors.

We emailed Borreca to ask about his column. His response: "No, you do your stories and I'll do mine."

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