What does Tulsi Gabbard believe?
When Tulsi Gabbard arrived at Lihue Airport, on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, she was greeted with a lei made of vibrant plumeria flowers, a small bottle of coconut water, a bagful of mangoes, and a profusion of alerts on her phone. It was Memorial Day, and Gabbard had agreed to speak at a ceremony honoring veterans at a local military cemetery. Many of the people there would be her brothers and sisters in arms: Gabbard has served, since 2003, in the Army National Guard, in which capacity she completed a tour of duty in Iraq. And almost all the people there would be her constituents—in 2012, Gabbard was elected to the United States Congress, representing Hawaii’s Second District, which includes all of the Hawaiian archipelago outside Honolulu, the capital. Gabbard found her local field representative, Kaulana Finn, gave her a hug, and climbed into her car. “As soon as I land here, I get text messages from people saying, ‘I heard you’re on Kauai—what are you doing?’ ” Gabbard said, grinning. “I don’t think it’s possible to do anything here without everybody knowing about it.”
All politicians must act as if they enjoy patriotic ceremonies, but Gabbard is one of the few who seem as if they were not acting. She is thirty-six, and has a knack for projecting both youthful joy and grownup gravitas. Her political profile is similarly hybrid. She is a fervent Bernie Sanders supporter with equally fervent bipartisan tendencies—known, roughly equally, for her concern for the treatment of veterans and her opposition to U.S. intervention abroad. She is also a vegetarian and a practicing Hindu—the first Hindu ever elected to Congress—as well as a lifelong surfer and an accomplished athlete. On Capitol Hill, she is often regarded as a glamorous anomaly: a Hawaiian action figure, fabulously out of place among her besuited colleagues. “She’s almost straight from central casting, if you need a heroine,” Van Jones, the progressive activist, says. Trey Gowdy, the South Carolina Republican, is one of her closest friends in Congress. He first spied her on the House floor, sitting on the Republican side of the aisle. “This sounds terrible to say, but it’s also true—you know, she’s cute,” he says. “So if you’re sitting on that side, and it’s a boring speech, you’re going to notice.” The night after Gabbard was elected, Rachel Maddow made a prediction on MSNBC: “She is on the fast track to being very famous.”
On the way to the ceremony, Finn stopped at her house so that Gabbard could change into her military uniform, which she had brought along, in a dry cleaner’s bag, as carry-on luggage. Finn gave her a motherly appraisal. “Do you have your headpiece?” she asked, then corrected herself. “Pardon me. I don’t know the proper terminology for military gear.”
Gabbard chuckled and offered the right word: “Cover.” She had hers, and soon she was standing at solemn attention at the Kauai Veterans Cemetery, where the graves were sprigged with American flags and a local Junior R.O.T.C. troop was lining the entrance. It was a hot but breezy day, with birds chirping and a few wild chickens strutting among the tombstones. There was a podium flanked by wreaths in front of a tiled mural depicting a mournful beach scene: a line of battlefield crosses, two empty boots, an upright rifle, pastel clouds in the distance.
Gabbard began with a personal tribute to those whose service had cost them their lives. “Like so many of you, I woke up this morning with a heavy heart,” she said. “Remembering that time in training, or downrange, when things were so crappy that all you could do was laugh, know that we had each other, and embrace the suck. We remember that last roll call, when their name was called with no response.” She talked about how she had never seen her father cry until the day she came home, unharmed, from Iraq. Anyone sitting close enough might have noticed that her eyes were gleaming. But she also sounded a note of political protest. “Too often we have found, throughout our country’s history, we have people in positions of power who make offhanded comments about sending a few thousand troops here, fifty thousand there, a hundred thousand there, intervening militarily here, or starting a war there—without seeming to understand or appreciate the cost of war,” she said. “If our troops are sent to fight a war, it must be the last option. Not the first.”
Friends and supporters sometimes describe Gabbard as “poised,” which may also be a way of acknowledging that she is not particularly spontaneous. She engages audiences with a voice that is slow, reassuring, and faintly hypnotic. Her resting expression is a sympathetic smile, and she has perfected an effective double-hug technique: a warm, long embrace when she meets someone, and an even longer one when saying goodbye, as if to signal that something meaningful has transpired. “We love you, Tulsi,” someone called out when she finished.
“I love you, too,” she called back.
In Gabbard’s telling, her comfort with crowds is the result of hard work, and a philosophical breakthrough. She was unusually shy as a girl, but eventually she realized that her anxiety was not just inconvenient but indefensible. She remembers thinking, “If all of my fears are coming from selfish thoughts, then that kind of defeats the whole point of what I want to do.” So she trained herself to talk to strangers, to “share that aloha with them.” In the Hawaiian language, “aloha” can be a salutation or a valediction, but it also refers to a spirit defined in state law as “the coordination of mind and heart within each person.” (Hawaiian officials are directed to “give consideration to the ‘Aloha spirit’ ” as they discharge their duties.)
When Gabbard entered politics, she was only twenty-one, and in those early years she was a social conservative, pro-life and active in the fight against same-sex marriage. She is now pro-choice and pro-same-sex-marriage: on these and other issues, she has evolved enough to be almost—but not quite—at home in the contemporary Democratic Party, which is increasingly progressive, particularly on issues of gender and sexual orientation. The exact nature and extent of Gabbard’s political evolution is not easy to apprehend, especially since Hawaii is not known for political centrism. It is, by some measures, the bluest state in the country: in last year’s election, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump there, sixty-two per cent to thirty per cent, her biggest victory anywhere besides the District of Columbia. Many of those Clinton voters were unhappily surprised when, less than two weeks after the election, Gabbard agreed to meet with Trump to make her case for a noninterventionist foreign policy. A few months later, she flew to Syria and met with Bashar al-Assad, who is presiding over a brutal civil war; she and he seemed to agree that the United States should not intervene to stop it.
Earlier this year, a handful of impassioned progressives gathered in downtown Honolulu for an event known as Resist Trump Tuesday, in which they visited their senators and Congress members—all Democrats—and urged them to fight harder. They got a friendly reception at the office of Senator Brian Schatz, and one participant presented some red flowers at the office of Senator Mazie Hirono, who has been battling kidney cancer. But at Gabbard’s office the staffer who met them was warier: he read a list of her recent legislative positions, including her support for a fifteen-dollar minimum wage, then listened politely as they expressed their concerns. (They wanted a more vigorous congressional investigation into Russian collusion with Trump’s campaign, legalization of sex work, action on climate change, funding for the arts.) As they spilled back out into the hallway, they were, for the first time all afternoon, expressing ambivalence.
“Tulsi is great,” one man said. “She’s really good on the positions.”
“Most of them,” a woman replied. “She’s a riddle to me.”