Even after being elected to the Senate in 2012, the Hawaii Democrat Mazie Hirono was, by her own choosing, a politician little known outside her home state. Then, around 2016 and the election of a particularly divisive president, Hirono, who was born in Japan and is the Senate’s only immigrant, decided that staying under the radar was unsustainable. She frequently made herself available to the national media. She publicly said President Trump was a misogynist and a liar and called for his resignation (as early as 2017, mind you). She unabashedly punctuated her comments with salty language. And it wasn’t just her unexpected transition that raised her profile: Senator Hirono’s forceful questioning during the Kavanaugh and Barrett Supreme Court confirmation hearings, as well as, more recently, calling on President Biden to nominate more diverse people for senior positions in his administration, have also been central to her earning national stature. “It’s not the easiest thing for political people to speak candidly with the national media,” says Senator Hirono, who is 73 and whose memoir, “Heart of Fire,” will be published on April 20. “I’m not doing it for effect. I don’t go out there and spew things. I’ve thought things through.”
The Senate is supposed to be the world’s greatest deliberative body, and instead it’s where so much legislation goes to die. Do you feel that it’s broken? What I see in the Senate is how important one person is. That person on the Republican side is Mitch McConnell. There are very pragmatic reasons that he holds his caucus together: He is the money person. The Republican senators having tough races, they go to him, and he provides resources. If Mitch McConnell said, “OK, we’re going to work with the Democrats,” it would happen — even if there would be holdouts like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley and Tommy Tuberville and that handful of people who — I don’t know who they think they’re representing except themselves. Mitch McConnell is a guy who single-handedly made the Supreme Court an eight-person court. Whoever heard of such a thing? And he got away with it. When one person has outsize influence like Mitch McConnell, we need to figure out ways to deal with it, and one way is filibuster reform. It could be totally removing the filibuster. I don’t think a lot of my colleagues are there.
I don’t think anyone doubts that McConnell and the Republican caucus would, if it were in their best interest, eliminate the filibuster. But there are questions about the Democrats’ resolve in that regard. Are those questions warranted? I think the Democrats have been much more concerned about the process. We actually care about the fairness of it all. Then you have another party that just wants power. I would say that is a fair assessment. Not every Republican is that bad, but I’ll tell you, they pretty much toe the line. As we try to enact legislation that we’ve been talking about supporting, and that the House is going to keep sending over to us, there will be a growing recognition that we can’t just go, “Oh, well, the process is so important.” The process cannot overtake the substance of results that we need to have.
What does it mean to say both that Democrats believe in process and also that process can’t overtake what the party is trying to achieve? I never thought that the ends should justify the means. You know fairness when you see it. Like you know art when you see it. We still need to be fair, and therefore the talking filibuster, if we go there, would apply to everybody; there might come a time when the Democrats are in the minority, and that would apply to us. Limitations or changes in the process should apply to everyone. That strikes me as fair.
What, if any, pressure is being exerted to move the Democratic senators hesitant about eliminating the filibuster — like Manchin and Sinema — in the direction that you think the party needs them to go? While we’re going to have differences, the bottom line is that the Democrats want to do things that help people as opposed to just trying to help the richest and most powerful. And for Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, as we try to get bipartisan legislation and it continues to be stymied, slow-walked or watered down to such an extent that it’s not tenable for us to support anymore, the realization will sink in that we’re going to need to take dramatic steps in order to pass legislation that Joe Biden wants and that we support.
Senator Manchin is mentioned in your book. It’s after Al Franken has said he’s resigning, and Manchin gives you a hard time for going to his resignation speech after you said he should step down — without realizing that Franken’s office had given you the OK to be there. What was your intention in including that scene? The whole thing was painful. Al Franken, I really liked him. But this unacceptable behavior on the part of people with power — I and so many others are sick of it. So anyway, I mentioned Joe because he was the only one who said, “What a bunch of hypocrites you are to show up after you forced him to resign.” No, we did not force him to resign. He made that decision. I think that he made the right decision, although he has since said that he didn’t. But I like Joe. He sits in front of me. I said to him during the long period, “Do you think it should have taken 11 hours for your concerns to be resolved?” He said he thought he had made it plain to our leadership that he didn’t want to extend unemployment insurance benefits longer than July. He had his perspective.
Should Governor Cuomo resign? These kinds of allegations should be investigated. That certainly didn’t happen in the Kavanaugh case, by the way. The sham FBI investigation was so limited in its scope that Dr. Blasey wasn’t questioned, and other people who could have corroborated the allegations were never questioned.
You wrote in your book about a meeting you had with Dr. Blasey in Hawaii after Kavanaugh’s confirmation. She wanted to thank you for saying you believed her allegations. What else did she say about how that situation played out? She said it was bad enough when he was a federal judge and she was hoping, hoping, hoping that he would not be nominated to the Supreme Court. But when that did happen she had to come forward. She said she was prepared: She knew that he was probably going to be confirmed but she still had to go through with it. She conducted herself with such grace. It was such a contrast to Kavanaugh, who is just a political operative. In my view he’s not a very good lawyer. I’ve gotten to know Merrick Garland a little bit, and he told me he was watching the Kavanaugh hearings. Merrick Garland is not somebody who says anything bad about anybody, but the Garza case — when Kavanaugh said that was a parental-consent case, did you almost fall off your chair, as I did?
Garland said that to you about the Garza case? No, I said that to Garland. He just kind of looked at me like, Yeah. I knew that he was astounded.
In your eyes, did the way that the Justice Kavanaugh and Barrett confirmations were rammed through hurt the legitimacy of the Supreme Court? The Supreme Court has become ideologically far to the right. So you’re going to see 6-3 decisions along ideological lines, and that is not good for our country. It’s not good for all the circuit courts and district courts. It’s going to lead to a lot more cases being brought to the Supreme Court by right-wing groups. Janus was a case in point.
Wouldn’t the left be doing the same things if Democrats had appointed the last three Supreme Court justices? I get that kind of argument often. I expect the Supreme Court to actually expand people’s individual rights and freedoms. I don’t expect the Supreme Court to be constraining voting rights and a woman’s right to choose. I expect the Supreme Court to be protective of minority rights, and that is not where this Court is. So this is not an equivalency. I don’t mind conservatives on the Court. I mean, of the three new ones Gorsuch is pretty conservative, but he’s a literal person: If it says so right there in black and white, then he’ll go with it. Sometimes it results in really stupid decisions, in my view. If the law was there to protect people from falling through a round hole and a person fell through a square hole — too bad for you. He’s smart enough to know that’s a ridiculous posture.
When you questioned Barrett at her appeals-court nomination hearing, it seemed as if you were trying to figure out how her Catholicism might influence her rulings. That avenue of questioning made some people uncomfortable. Where’s the line with religious questions for judicial nominees? It wasn’t her Catholicism. It was her position. She was a co-author of an expansive law-review article talking about how judges should decide death-penalty cases. It was an area of inquiry, but her Catholicism — frankly, I’m a Buddhist. I’m not even a daily-practicing Buddhist because I find all religion to be very — Buddhism accepts other religions more so than many other religions I can think of. So it wasn’t that she was a Catholic, but that there’s supposed to be this thing called separation of church and state, which is becoming blurred. Her religion, I didn’t care. What I care about is the use of religion as basically trumping every other right. I was presiding over the Senate, and Senator Tuberville says something like we should bring morality back and God and prayer should come back into our schools. I’m sitting there going, What? But that is the view of too many Republicans.
You cut yourself off earlier. You find all religion to be very what? I find a lot of religion to have all of the proscriptions and not openness and acceptance of other people’s legitimately held faiths. That is why I describe myself as a Buddhist. Buddhism, we don’t even have a book. It is a way of living and being, which is to be compassionate and kind. I think those are two good things to try to follow. I’m not perfect in that. I can be very terse with people. Part of it is that I don’t think many of my colleagues have dealt with short Japanese women. So here I come, and I’m saying, “[expletive] you” to them, and they don’t quite know how to react.
Can you think of an example? Ted Cruz. I was his ranking on his Constitution subcommittee and we had a number of these hearings; not very many of my Democratic colleagues would come. A reporter asked me why and I said they have better things to do than to come to these half-assed hearings. There was one in which all these Republicans who showed up went over their five minutes, and it got me kind of irritated. I said to Cruz, “Are you going to let everybody go eight minutes, nine minutes?” And he said, “When you get the gavel, you can do whatever you want.” I put my hand on his shoulder — this was pre-Covid — and I said, “It can’t happen soon enough.” At that same hearing — we had a break so the mics were not on; it’s not like I’m saying this in an open hearing — he said, “Look, it’s not my fault that your people are not here.” I said, “I don’t give a flying [expletive] what your reasoning is.” He stopped and said, “I will always treat you with decorum, even if it’s not reciprocated.” I said, “I wasn’t swearing at you.”
Lately there’s been a real rise in anti-Asian racism and violence. What steps need to be taken to stop it? Racism is never far below the surface in our country. The Chinese Exclusion Act, the internment of Japanese-Americans, the Muslim ban. By now this kind of overt racism is frowned upon to say the least, but President Trump brought it to the surface, calling the virus the “China virus.” We have an environment now where random acts of violence against Asian-Americans happen way too often. We need to prosecute these people. There are a number of bills that some of us have introduced. But it helps that you have a president who says this is totally unacceptable and an attorney general who is on that page.
Is there something distinct about how we understand anti-Asian racism as opposed to anti-Black or anti-Muslim racism? Well, we’re very identifiable as Asian, and it is very clear that we all look alike to people who think that we are the “other.” The systemic racism against Blacks in our country has been ongoing. That’s a huge issue. The racism against Asians comes up in certain instances, like World War II, but we’ve always been the other. We’re probably not as threatening to whites as Blacks are. Maybe that’s one distinction.
There is the model-minority myth. And we all know that’s a myth! But we’re not as threatening maybe, and when you raise that, in a way it’s easier to target a minority group like Asians. But this is the U.S. of A., and people who do this kind of thing should be prosecuted to the ultimate.
I’m curious about interpersonal relationships in the Senate after Jan. 6 and also in the light of continued threats of violence at the Capitol. Have things changed — on a human level — with you and your Republican colleagues since then? It is hard to talk with them in any other way than purely transactional. What am I going to say? “How could you not condemn the incitement to insurrection?” I often wonder how they wake up in the morning and face themselves, but they are obviously able to bifurcate. They act as if nothing happened. That’s the amazing thing. You have Cruz, Hawley and all these guys who continued to protest the counting of the electoral votes even after what we experienced. I don’t know how they live with themselves. Then you have people like Lindsey Graham: When you enter the moral dead zone that is the Trump ambit, you’ve lost your soul. So I am pretty much just transactional with them. Some of them can be nice. But then when they vote en masse to screw people over, it’s hard to be all warm and fuzzy — and I’m not a warm and fuzzy person to begin with.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity from two conversations.