Ed Case ’75 on liberty, and the pursuit of happiness at Williams

(Editor’s note: Ed Case ’75 was recently elected to a two-year term as the Representative of the 2nd District in Hawaii. Record News editor Kim Fassler ’06, a native of Hawaii, conducted an interview with Rep. Case by phone)

Ed Case: What’s the weather there like right now?

Record: (laughs) It is quite cold!

Like what? What’s the temperature?

It feels like it’s around zero right now.

Zero! Did you come home for Christmas?

Yes I did, I had an incredible time. It was great coming back to Williams, too: 85 degree weather to about three feet of snow.

Well, my son David is up at Dartmouth – this is his first year, so he’s experiencing it, too.

What was the weather like for your first winter here?

My first winter there, I did a Winter Study in Hawaii, so I was gone for six weeks. But I do remember distinctly, right after I got back, in early February, my friends (or supposed friends) took me skiing without telling me about thermal underwear.

Wow. How did that go?

It was extremely cold! First of all, it was a very cold day. I remember that. They took me up to the Black Diamond and let me go and said “See ya!” So my first skiing experience was not a particularly good one. It took me a while to figure out that the reason why everybody else was doing so well in the cold weather was that they had thermal underwear on, and I just didn’t know it!

My mom actually went to school in Alaska, so when it was time for me to buy clothes for college, she was all about the long underwear.

The other thing that took me a long time to figure out was down jackets… In those days, down jackets were the action. I refused to believe that down jackets would keep you warm, so I didn’t buy one until my fourth year. Then I kind of said to myself, “Why did I wait so long?” I had this old pea coat; I went through several years with that pea coat.

I think we’re going through one of our most severe winters. I’m sure you’re keeping track of the weather on the news, since your son is at Dartmouth.

Everyone at my D.C. office is complaining about the weather; yesterday it was 20 degrees, with two inches of snow on the ground. I thought to myself, “Well, you guys don’t know what’s happening! Take a trip up north!”

You spent last week in Washington, D.C. getting to know Congress, etc. How did that go?

It was an excellent trip. Very action-packed. I was there for six days, and I accomplished everything I wanted to accomplish. Have the election on a Saturday, find out the results on a Sunday, fly Sunday night, all night, all day. Get to D.C. on Monday afternoon, go to my office Tuesday morning, go to the floor of the House and get sworn in, then start voting Tuesday afternoon. Wednesday was a very full workday of voting all day. Thursday I worked in my office. Friday and Saturday, we went to a very good orientation program in Williamsburg, so that was very worthwhile. . . and then I flew home.

You chose to attend Williams for four years, so the long trip from Hawaii isn’t new to you. What I want to know most about your college selection is, why the decision to go from a warm, tropical island to the snow-filled East Coast?

I had been very well-exposed to Williams throughout growing up because my father and his two brothers went to Williams. So in a way, the family tradition of leaving Hawaii for school on the East Coast generally, and for Williams specifically had already been established. My parents always encouraged me to go out and see the world, although I was born and raised in Hawaii, actually on the Big Island, and at Hawaii Preparatory Academy, which was all a very insular existence. I don’t think you could get much farther away from the heart of our nation and what was happening in the world than Kamuela in the 1960s. Nonetheless, what I grew up with was an exposure to the broader world and so I was pre-programmed to go away to college, and to go as far away as possible. I always looked upon going to the East Coast as a kind of natural evolution; there was never much doubt in my mind that I would go there.

Now, I had determined that it was not going to be Williams because I wanted to strike out on my own. I had other thoughts about where I wanted to go for college.

The summer of my junior year, I went up to the East Coast to look at colleges with the rest of our family. It was sort of a family trip, but it was oriented around me looking at colleges. We went to Williamstown because my dad said, “I’d like to show you all where I went to college.” I got to the campus and I loved it. I just had a natural affinity for it. My father said, “Well, while we’re here, why don’t you at least talk to the admissions department.” And how could I say no to that, it was like one hour out of my entire summer. I had a fantastic interview with Fred Coplan, who was . . . a legendary director of admissions at Williams for years, and the combination was so strong that I ended up applying early decision and accepting early decision. And I’ve never regretted it.

What kinds of activities were you interested in at Williams?

Basically, what I was primarily interested in at Williams was fully exposing myself to everything that Williams specifically, and the East Coast in general had to offer. So I was kind of a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. I did some sports. I had swum competitively in high school for ten years. I played one semester of freshman football, I tried rugby, and I had never done rugby before. I crewed, and I liked rowing. I played some water polo.

I spent a lot of time kind of traveling around the East Coast, I spent time in Boston and New York, wherever I could. Academically, I really took a broad range of courses – I never really targeted in on any one area, I think I took the minimum number of courses I could to satisfy the major requirements. Basically, I had a liberal arts existence in all senses of the word at Williams.

I read in an article that you had only taken one political science course at Williams before deciding to work as a legislative assistant to Senator Spark Matsunaga. How did you become interested in working for a politician, and how did this experience ultimately influence your career decision?

It was a total fluke. I had no focus on a political career, either before or at Williams. I was interested in history. Everybody always asks, “If you had to do it all over again, would you have majored in a different subject?” and I think I probably would have. I would have majored in history, even though I didn’t take very many history courses. I was interested generally in public service, I was again a little pre-programmed to that just because of the upbringing I had had with my parents, who always believed very deeply in giving back to your community. Although they never really encouraged or directed me in the political direction, neither did anybody else. I wasn’t on the student council in high school, or college.

I really came to this career on a fluke. I think Williams’ contribution to my political career was a fantastic overall liberal arts education that encouraged independent critical thought and action, which served me well in the [Hawaii] State Legislature.

Other than that, I got to the end of college and I looked around, and my classmates were all going to law school or medical school or going down to work on Wall Street, and I wasn’t ready to make those basic life decisions.

So I was really looking for something to do that would allow me to have an interesting experience, and yet not be anything permanent. So gosh, you know, I don’t think I had any real prospects. I knew I didn’t want to come back to Hawaii yet.

Why was that?

I knew that the chances were very high that I would end up living in Hawaii, and I just wasn’t ready at age 22 to go back and live, I felt that that was going to fill up my life, but that could come later. I was still in a period of my life that was a time to get to know the rest of the world, and I felt like once I came back to Hawaii, I would come back for good.

That was the time for me to see the world a bit more, and to broaden my horizons. I didn’t have anything in mind. As I recall, I was planning to go out to Colorado and ski-bum and wait tables for the winter at some resort. The other thing that was going on was that they had jobs on the oil rigs off the coast of Texas and Louisiana that were paying a lot of money. So someone said, “Why don’t we go down there?” And I said, well, that might be an interesting experience. You know, I really wasn’t directing myself on any particular course and it wasn’t bothering me all that much.

Then I walked into Career Counseling at Williams and looked up on the board and there was a post saying “Summer Internships in Washington, D.C.” And I thought, well that’s kind of interesting. I can go down to D.C. Congress had some interest to me, I thought, well, I can work on the Hill for the summer, I can kill a couple of months, and get a little bit of a Washington experience, then I can sort of chalk that up as something I did, something that was interesting, and get to know D.C.

I had never really been there before. [I thought] if I could work for a member of Congress from Hawaii, that way I can have my cake and eat it too. I can be back in touch with Hawaii, without actually being in Hawaii. So I went down and interviewed with all four members of the congressional delegation, and Spark Matsunaga was the one who offered me the job, so I joined him for the summer, as a summer intern.

What kinds of things did you do as an intern? What did you learn from that experience?

Well, the first thing I learned was that I wanted to make elected public service my career. I loved it from the beginning. I thought, this is fantastic, I can do this and I can help people in a way that is exciting for me and that suits me. I didn’t know that before I got there, but I knew it when I got there.

A summer intern does everything: everything from tours of the capital to research to drafting letters to constituents. You get a taste of everything in a congressional office, and it depends on which office you work in. I just happened to get into the right office. At the end of that summer, I asked Matsunaga if I could join him permanently and he said yes. So I stayed on with him for another three years after that, as legislative assistant for the House and the Senate. I just had a fantastic three years in Washington, and that kind of set my course from there.

Now that you’ve actually had a chance to play a larger role in Congress than just as a legislative assistant, what has surprised or impressed you the most about your career thus far?

One thing I can reflect on is that, when I was 22 years old, I set myself on a course and moved along that course and the course took me to where I envisioned being. It had some twists and turns along the way, and it didn’t always go the way that I wanted it to go – I lost along the way, I had ups and downs – but the general direction I set out upon took me where I wanted to go. And that’s gratifying in one way and surprising in another. I don’t think it’s always true that you set out upon a course and it gets you where you want to go.

Speaking a little bit more about Williams, I certainly reflect on the fact that I’m not at all sure that if I hadn’t had that education, that I’d be sitting where I am right now, because what I learned clearly assisted me along my journey and made that journey possible.

What are the most important issues facing Congress right now, and how do you plan to deal with and address those issues?

The most important issues facing Congress right now, I would put into two categories. In domestic, the primary issue facing Congress is the economy and the federal budget, which are two parts of the same question. The question really is how to revitalize our national economy in a way that is sustainable over time. We can always revitalize our national economy in the short term with a massive tax or tax breaks, but the question is, over the long term, will that be sustainable, and will that, in essence worsen the situation?

Abroad, we clearly have specific crises facing us in Iraq and North Korea, and other places in the world that are certainly challenges for us internationally. How are we going to constructively exercise this great power that we have in the world and how are we going to protect ourselves at home from enemies abroad, and project ourselves into the world in a way that will address the underlying reasons for international disturbances and terrorism?

Here at Williams, one of the biggest issues that we’re focusing on is diversity, affirmative action and other things. What are your thoughts about that?

Affirmative action was certainly an issue nationally when I attended Williams. The basic premise of affirmative action was under attack at the time and through court decisions was invalidated at the time and now it’s under attack again. I personally have always supported affirmative action, although as a white male, I’m the last to benefit in any way from it.

But I have always believed that in this time in our history, affirmative action is the way to go. So I am not in favor of the current [Bush] administration’s efforts to restrict the ability of any private or public institution to provide an equalizing influence in its admissions processes, or in any other approach.

In terms of diversity, I do recall a diversity problem at Williams when I was there in the 70s. Certainly, in the 1970s, diversity issues were exclusively really white versus African-American. Williams was much more homogenous than even it is today, and it’s interesting to have the debate going on in the campus now over encouraging diversity and how to integrate everybody into the Williams environment.

In comparison, it’s actually a much less homogenous campus than it was, so I credit Williams with that. I think it probably has a ways to go, but all of the stats that I see about Williams indicate much more diversity than when I was there, which can only be a good thing.

I think the question about integrating everybody into the campus has been a longstanding one, for example, when I was there, the African-American community felt it very important to establish its own organizations and its own role at Williams, and was concerned about jeopardizing its identity. I think both that community and the other parts of the Williams community at the time did not succeed in cross-pollination, for lack of a better way of putting it, where we could all learn from each other.

So I always looked back on that as something that I wish had been different, because I was certainly interested in experiencing all parts of Williams, including whatever the community was. . . At the time, Williams had a patina of toleration, but when you dug under the surface, it was oftentimes resistant to differences.

Do you expect it will be difficult for you to keep in touch with your Hawaiian roots and constituents at home?

It’s always a challenge when you represent a district that’s five thousand miles away; it’s not the same as representing suburban Maryland where you just drive ten miles and you’re in your district. It is going to be a challenge for me to stay in touch, but I intend to do it, so I think I will do it.

For people who want to take the same career path, any advice?

Ultimately, I think what will distinguish the public servant of the future will be broad and critical thinking, the ability to understand, relate to and advocate many differing points of view and to be able to assimilate incredible amounts of information and make good critical decisions based upon that information. And all of that plays perfectly into a true liberal arts education. So the advice I would have to anybody who is interested in a career in elected public office is twofold.

First, take full advantage of the liberal arts opportunities at Williams and have a liberal arts education, do not think that the path to elected public office lies in a “super-major” in political science – it doesn’t. That’s what ultimately makes the difference in good public servants. It’s the ability to understand, relate to and represent very different perspectives.

Experience does not hurt at all. Look at the incoming majority leader of the Senate – he’s a doctor. It’s hard to predict the path that will enhance a career in elected public office. Stay general in your twenties, that’s what I would say.

Do you plan on returning to Williams any time in the near future?

I very much look forward to coming up to Williams. I’ve always thought that I wanted to give back to Williams, so the opportunity to talk to Williams students about public service careers is one that I welcome and the opportunity to come back to Williams and do that on campus is one that I look forward to, in whatever fashion it may present itself.

Soon?

No, I hadn’t planned on it. But it’s not too far from DC.

Awesome. So what’s the weather like at home right now? I’m guessing maybe, in the eighties?

It actually might be in the seventies right now – the high seventies. So we’ve got a little bit of a cold snap.

Time to break out those heavy sweatshirts and sweatpants, right?

(laughs) Well, I am wearing long pants… today. . .