From the Archives: Ex-Sen. Hayakawa Dies; Unpredictable Iconoclast
S. I. Hayakawa, the renowned semanticist who defied striking student radicals at San Francisco State University in the late 1960s and subsequently was elected to the U.S. Senate as a Republican, died Thursday. He was 85.
Spokesmen at Marin General Hospital in Greenbrae, Calif., said he had been hospitalized with bronchitis, and that he died of a stroke about 1 a.m. He had lived in the nearby town of Mill Valley.
“He was invaluable during some very difficult times—a courageous man of integrity and principle,” former President Ronald Reagan said in a statement. “Nancy and I are saddened by the death of our dear friend. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family during this difficult time.”
Gov. Pete Wilson described Hayakawa as “a great California iconoclast.”
“I was saddened to learn of the passing of my predecessor in the U.S. Senate. Certain images from S.I. Hayakawa’s remarkable life will be burned into our memories forever,” Wilson said.
Hayakawa, Canadian-born, was 70 when he was elected to the Senate in 1976. At the time he was one of the most popular public figures in the state, a hero to multitudes of Californians outraged by student militants and Vietnam War demonstrators.
Those heroics began Dec. 2, 1968, when Hayakawa, an English professor who had just become acting president of San Francisco State, confronted a howling, jeering mob of striking students.
When he could not make himself heard over a blaring sound truck, Hayakawa leaped to the top of the truck and ripped the wires from the sound system—all recorded on live television.
“It had a lot to do with the media,” he said later, “with the fact that television cameras were trained on that sound truck that morning. By noon I was famous. It was fantastic.”
The resulting adoration was the genesis of his decision to go into politics. The public was receptive.
With his jaunty, multicolored tam-o'-shanter, his wry and often self-deprecating humor and his penchant for speaking bluntly, Hayakawa was widely perceived as a refreshing change from the run-of-the-mill politician.
Nor did he fit the customary political mold in other ways. He liked to note that he was an avid tap dancer, fencer, jazz buff, gourmet cook and collector of African sculpture and Chinese ceramics.
His appearance also was not of the norm. He was slight of figure, 5-foot-6 in height, wore a trim little mustache and spoke in a voice so soft that he frequently could not be heard even with a loudspeaker.
But people found his breezy irreverence charming.
“I don’t give a good goddamn about greyhounds one way or another,” he said during his 1976 campaign when asked about a ballot initiative to permit greyhound racing. “I can’t think of anything that interests me less.”
It was the kind of shoot-from-the-hip remark that could doom some politicians. But Hayakawa, then only three years out of the Democratic Party, beat out three veterans of California Republican campaigns to win the GOP primary.
He then went on to defeat Sen. John V. Tunney, the Democratic incumbent who was seeking a second term, by a narrow margin.
Thus did “Samurai Sam,” as he was known when he bested the student radicals, suddenly become “Senator Sam.” Those were heady days for the diminutive former educator as he became a national celebrity almost overnight.
But then came stories of some eccentric behavior, notably his habit of dozing in public, including a well-publicized nap at a White House legislative conference. This was not news to Hayakawa’s old colleagues in San Francisco. There were numerous newspaper accounts from his San Francisco days of his tendency to nod off at dull faculty meetings.
Hayakawa’s tendency to doze was attributed to narcolepsy, a medical condition triggering a frequent and uncontrollable desire for sleep.
But his napping trait was new to the general public, and the consequences were not good. His once towering standing in California opinion polls began plummeting, and old allies began deserting him.
Early in 1982, several months after mounting a bid for reelection, Hayakawa pulled out of the race when polls indicated that he could not be renominated and his efforts to raise campaign funds brought in little money.
It was clearly a bitter denouement for the man who had come to Washington five years earlier eager to translate his conservative beliefs into law. A former Democrat who had cast his first presidential vote for Adlai Stevenson in 1956 after becoming a naturalized citizen, Hayakawa had been warmly embraced by Republican conservatives when he switched parties in 1973.
“I had a feeling of being deserted by the Democrats,” he said of his party switch, “particularly when I was speaking for what I thought was a very liberal principle, namely academic freedom.”
Although Hayakawa called himself a “Republican unpredictable,” he adhered to many conservative tenets.
He delighted conservative audiences in his 1976 campaign with his remark that the United States should never surrender the Panama Canal because “we stole it fair and square.”
Yet in 1978 Hayakawa helped win Senate approval of the two Panama Canal treaties that provided for turnover of the waterway to the Panamanians.
He explained that his campaign talk about the canal was in jest and that he had always said arrangements for control of it would have to be renegotiated.
The explanation fell flat among those who wanted the United States to keep control of the canal. After his first canal vote, Hayakawa was jeered when he appeared before the Westlake Republican Council to discuss the treaties.
Hayakawa also angered fellow Japanese-Americans by defending their internment during World War II by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He said the relocation of 120,000 of them from the West Coast to inland camps was “perhaps the best thing that could have happened” because it integrated them afterward into the mainstream of U.S. society.
Hayakawa later criticized demands by the internees that $400 million in reparations be paid to them.
Hayakawa, who escaped internment because he was a citizen of Canada during World War II and was teaching in the Midwest, said of the reparation demands: “I am proud to be a Japanese-American, but when a small but vocal group demand a cash indemnity of $25,000 (apiece) for those who went to relocation camps, my flesh crawls with shame and embarrassment.”
Hayakawa also alienated Latinos by opposing bilingual education in public schools and bilingual voting ballots.
Calling such proposals “foolish and unnecessary,” he sponsored a proposed constitutional amendment to make English the official language of the United States.
The senator’s candid remarks in support of his beliefs were reflected in California public opinion polls. In his first several months in the Senate, Hayakawa had a phenomenally high rating, far exceeding that of his liberal California colleague, Democrat Alan Cranston. By late 1979 the situation was the reverse, but Hayakawa took it calmly.
“I’m too old to worry about batting averages,” he said in reference to his poll slippages, and suggested that his decline might stem from his unpopular positions. He specifically mentioned his sponsorship of legislation to provide a lower minimum wage for teen-agers and for a system of six-month visas for Mexican workers.
In reference to his standing in the polls, Hayakawa was asked by a reporter at a 1979 press conference if his Senate job did not require his votes to reflect the views of a majority of Californians.
“That’s not the way I look at my job,” he replied. “Being an educator all my life, I am accustomed to dealing with those who are unenlightened. Perhaps it’s part of an earnest politician’s job to create enlightenment where it doesn’t exist and where no other politician touches the issue.”
Samuel Ichiye Hayakawa clearly regarded himself as more of an educator than politician. Until his election to the Senate, his entire adult life had been in education.
He was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, on July 18, 1906, to Japanese parents. His father, Ichoro Hayakawa, had left Japan at age 18 and signed on as a mess attendant in the U.S. Navy. He returned home two years later and married Tora Isono and took his bride to Canada, where he eventually established a successful export-import business.
Sam (or Don, as his parents called him) was one of four children, and he elected to stay behind when his parents returned to Japan in 1929.
He had resisted his father’s efforts to join the family business and always had “his feet on the desk reading a book,” his father said in 1969, “so I let him go back to school.”
The young Hayakawa graduated from the University of Manitoba in 1927, earned a master’s degree at McGill University in Montreal in 1928 and a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin in 1935.
Hayakawa taught in Wisconsin’s English department, and one of his students, Margedant Peters, became his wife. The couple eventually had three children.
While at Wisconsin, Hayakawa wrote a freshman English text to alert his students to how language could be abused for propaganda purposes by such demagogues as Adolf Hitler.
Entitled “Language in Action” (now in revised editions as “Language in Thought and Action”), the book was published in 1941, became a Book-of-the-Month selection and a national best-seller and started Hayakawa on the road to affluence.
The book introduced the word “semantics” into general usage and established Hayakawa’s reputation as a semanticist. He subsequently wrote four other books that sold well. Of his first book, he once said: “It was a response to the rise of Hitler and the success of his propaganda. It was to protect ourselves from this new world of radio propaganda that was pretty new then in which demagogues like Mussolini, Huey Long, Hitler--and some would include Franklin Roosevelt--were charming people by radio.
“I thought . . . people have got to understand something about how language works.”
After other teaching posts at the Armour Institute of Technology, the Illinois Institute of Technology and the University of Chicago, Hayakawa joined the faculty of what was then called San Francisco State College in 1955.
Aside from remembering him as fun at parties, a “superb” cook and a “delightful guest and host,” his San Francisco colleagues of the time had little recollection of him as a teacher.
But then came the rise of student militancy in the late 1960s over a variety of issues but centering mainly on demands for ethnic studies for blacks.
Hayakawa became one of a small group of “traditionalist” faculty members who formed a Faculty Renaissance Committee to combat what they called radical infringement on academic freedom. He became spokesman for the group and caught the attention of the state college Board of Trustees, which was becoming increasingly outraged over the inability of administrators of the San Francisco campus to cope with the turmoil, which wound up in a strike by some students and faculty members.
Glenn S. Dumke, chancellor of the state college system, told the board and then-Gov. Reagan about Hayakawa.
“Tell him,” Reagan said, “if he takes the job, we’ll forgive him Pearl Harbor.” With that, Hayakawa became acting president of the school. With an impressive show of force, Hayakawa immediately opened the campus that had been closed by the strikers. It was on the day of the opening that Hayakawa jumped on the truck and ripped out the wires of the sound system.
Although his actions angered liberal faculty members, Hayakawa was made permanent president of the college (later to become San Francisco State University) in 1969. He stepped down in 1973.
In the wake of his acclaim over handling of the students, Hayakawa considered running for the Senate as a Democrat in 1970 against Republican incumbent George Murphy, who was later defeated by Tunney. But he decided against it.
After switching parties in 1973, Hayakawa decided to seek the GOP Senate nomination to oppose Democrat Cranston. But the courts ruled him ineligible on grounds he had not been a Republican long enough.
His turn finally came in 1976 and he won. In an interview with The Times several years ago, Hayakawa said he did not have the “usual priorities” of most people.
“I’m already so much more famous than I ever dreamed I’d be, and when it comes to money, I’m doing all right there too.” He said he would like to be a “damn good senator” but that when he tired of that he had another career in mind: “Playing piano in a whorehouse.”
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