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Op-Ed: Moving Forward Part 10 of 10

A tribute to the late A.P. Lutali & Susana Lutali, and a Challenge

The passing of Susana Lutali in June 2012 marks the closing of a colorful chapter in the history of American Samoa. 

It all began in the small island of Aunu’u and Fagaitua village in Tutuila, where Lutali and Susana were born teachers. AP Lutali, Paopao Fiaui and Nikolao Pula were notable education administrators who helped develop the territory’s fledgling education system that produced leaders we have today.

A member of the Fitafita— a local military unit (1900-1951), a legal practitioner and judge, Lutali became a key figure in the political development of American Samoa; first as speaker of the House, then president of the Senate. His political career took him to the nation’s capitol of Washington DC as the territory’s second elected delegate-at-large; and back to lead the territory as governor.   

Susana resigned from teaching to become Lutali’s full time partner in politics. It is not possible to talk about Lutali without Susana, or Susana without Lutali. Theirs was a love story of togetherness; and a life story of public service that gifted to the people, especially the children of American Samoa a lasting legacy of faith, courage, leadership, loyalty, and love for country and people.

This legacy is best embodied by the words AP Lutali, then known as AP Lauvao, uttered poignantly, when the interests of American Samoa were grossly neglected by the US for a period of time spanning the aftermath of WW II to 1960.

Clarence Hall, a writer for Readers Digest, then a widely read magazine in the US, in his article entitled “Samoa: America’s shame in the South Pacific” decried the US government — “while we doled out billions of dollars to underdeveloped nations, we have let our only South Pacific possession sink to the level of a slum”.

Lutali, quoted in the article said, “All we ask is to be treated like brothers, not sons or stepsons. We ask nothing but enough technical aid to help us start doing for ourselves, to prove to the world that Samoans can stand on their feet — like real Americans”.

Blessed with such self-relying determination and fierce pride, this avid gardener and farmer with no high school diploma soared to the altitude of a territory statesman only a few could rival: the late governor Pita Tali Coleman- a Georgetown University schooled lawyer and Pacific statesman; late Mariota Tuiasosopo- widely regarded as father of the Fono, and proponent of immediate self-rule; and late Salanoa Aumoeualogo- well known as Tuiasosopo’s main adversary in the immediate self-rule vs. gradual self-determination debate.

The Readers Digest article undoubtedly embarrassed the US and arguably nudged Presidents JFK and LBJ, and Congress into transforming American Samoa from the slum to the envy of the South Pacific, from 1961 to 1970. The transformation proved more far reaching and longer lasting than the fleeting war time economy the territory enjoyed during WW II. (It is noted Pita Tali Coleman was a key player in this development as well).

Lutali and Susana were the territory’s ambassadors in the capitol of the most powerful nation in the world. There, with their charisma and hard work, they scored for the territory several enabling financial opportunities and befriended key players in Congress and DOI, proved useful down the road.

Lutali was a keen admirer of America’s Camelot — the JFK presidency. He was driven by the “Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country” inaugural speech; and a proud follower of JFK’s New Frontier agenda — the space program, civil rights, world peace and justice, and universal health care (that Senator Edward Kennedy took on until his death).  In Camelot’s honor, Lutali and Susana named two of their children John and Jackie.

One of Lutali’s achievements in DC was making it possible for American Samoans to join the Peace Corps, JFK’s signature program. And he challenged every American Samoan college student who visited his office to become the first American Samoan to join the Peace Corps.

Lutali and Susana were patrons of the DC Samoan community, and two of the key leaders of the wider Pacific community. Their home was not restricted to relatives, as Samoan students in the east coast who needed a place to stay during Christmas and spring breaks were welcomed. It was home away from home for some of these students and military personnel from Samoa stationed nearby.

The late former attorney general Malaetasi Togafau, who served as Lutali’s legislative assistant in DC made sure Lutali and Susana were not oblivious to the plight of ASG scholarship students who attended colleges in the greater DC area. The disbursements of ASG scholarship funds in those days were like the payment of the LBJ Hospital subsidy — sometimes paid, sometimes not. (I understand that this may still be the case, but it is an issue for another day.)

In social functions where these students were invited, Susana made sure they returned to their dormitories or apartments with heaps of nice food. The message was clear — the generous servings were for Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday… etc. The students got their first food rationing education if you will from Susana. 

Although it didn’t cure the “squeaky-stomach syndrome” we suffered, we got to appreciate what little we had; between part time jobs and studies, we yearned for the next social call from our big brother Malaetasi Togafau (God bless his soul). Yes, I was one of the students.

The AP Lutali-Eni Hunkin administration of 1985 was a feel-good period where it was a privilege to work for ASG, where key posts in the cabinet were earned through one’s educational and work experience qualifications; and the governor’s staff was the best mix of competent professionals one could find in the territory. The administration building itself was respected, yet ASG was accessible to all including the business community.

The Lutali-Coleman dual was a classic — brilliant stuff for the ages. Their vintage confrontations brought the best out of them and the general public benefited as a result. Who could forget their last televised gubernatorial debate of sort, when they went for each other’s jugular nerve while trying in vain to maintain their chiefly civility? At the end when it appeared Lutali got the better of Coleman, Coleman in jest (or seriously) asked the cameramen to bring out the boxing gloves, to which both and all broke out in laughter!

In the twilight of Coleman’s illustrious career, governor Lutali engaged his once arch-rival as a special consultant on matters concerning Congress and DOI (and there was no better qualified candidate for the advisory role). It was a gesture only true brothers of state could accord each other; after all, American Samoa like Samoa is “not a nation but a family and a brotherhood”.

Across the sea in Samoa, the lateTofilau Eti Alesana (former prime minister) and Tupuola Efi (former prime minister and current head of state as Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi) embroiled in a fierce parliamentary rivalry, often bitter, but a chess match of wits between masters of the game — that lasted three decades. It served as the university where Samoa groomed her future leaders; where one young Sailele Malielegaoi was schooled in the art of politics and governance — priming him to one day lead Samoa. The rest is history.

What happened to the political fervor and great debates of yesteryears, and tutorials in governance and statesmanship left behind for American Samoa by Lutali and Coleman, and Tuiasosopo and Salanoa before them? Why weren’t there any takers?

Euphoria abounded when the popular late governor Tauese emerged as the “people’s governor”, vis-à-vis long time senator and prominent businessman Lealaifuaneva Reid of Pago Pago — a dual reminiscent of the Lutali-Coleman rivalry. There was so much promise for the territory in the Tauese-Leala dual that only a constructive and competitive rivalry could produce.

 Unfortunately the euphoria generated proved fleeting, and started to dissipate and all but evaporated when the affable governor Tauese passed prematurely. Since then to this day, the territory’s ship has treaded the high seas rudderless, without direction or purpose — that only by the Grace of God it is still afloat. 

It is this leadership vacuum that we, the people of American Samoa, need to define and explain through the current process of political campaigning, and hopefully resolve by electing and selecting the next class of leaders to ably manpower the governorship and Fono to lead American Samoa forward — to at least match the pace and depth independent Samoa has been developing through the years with purpose and pride.

I believe the suggestion that the Barak Obama administration is a continuation of America’s Camelot, where the civil rights cause championed by JFK and led by MLK (Martin Luther King) eventuated into the first African American presidency; and the universal health care Teddy Kennedy championed throughout his senate career became the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. “Obamacare”, recently upheld by the Supreme Court. 

Further, I believe the Obamacare presents a unique enabling opportunity Lutali asked for in the aforementioned Readers Digest article, “…so we can stand on our own feet — like real Americans”. 

That is the unequivocal gauntlet being thrown at the feet of our political leaders of today and tomorrow — do we squander this historical opportunity, or do we embrace it to our advantage and take our rightful seat at the round table of the great American Camelot?