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Kava and the Congressman

Rep. James Vernon McClintic

James “Smilin’ Jim” McClintic, member of the US House of Representatives from Oklahoma, didn’t care for kava. Kava, a mild sedative and a muscle relaxant, is a ritual and social drink found in the South Pacific. The congressman described it as “somewhat aromatic” and “anything but palatable”. McClintic had been offered the drink while visiting the island of Tutuila in American Samoa in August 1925. He, along with rest of the US Pacific fleet, had steamed southward on their way to New Zealand and Australia, the second big tour of the South Pacific by the US.

McClintic, a Democrat, served twenty years in Congress. His longest committee membership was on Naval Affairs. He became a staunch advocate of air power, arguing the Navy should acquire airplanes over battleships. “Smilin’ Jim” knew the value of education. The US Naval Academy introduced midshipmen to aircraft largely as a result of his advocacy. During his tenure he oversaw the introduction of the first school for House and Senate pages. While in Washington, McClintic graduated from Georgetown Law. He lost his seat in 1934 but continued a life in public service working for Oklahoma Governor Marland, then later as special assistant to the US Secretary of Interior and then as an advisor to the Readjustment Division of the Department of War.

Samoan house, Apia. Kawa making. George Handy Bates Samoan Papers, University of Delaware Library (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The US Navy’s first significant foray through the South Pacific came in 1908 when the Great White Fleet visited Australia and New Zealand. The fleet had been sent in late 1907 to circumnavigate the globe and show off American naval prowess. The Great White Fleet, named for the bright white painted hulls, was followed up in 1925 by second US Naval visit consisting of fifty-six ships including twelve battleships. It was an impressive display, and an expensive one. The second fleet visit to Australia and New Zealand was intended to both reassure those two antipodean states and signal to Japan Washington’s resolve to push back against any expansionist designs that Tokyo might have.

As news of the proposed Naval tour circulated in Congress a few members pushed back against the idea. Rep. George Huddleston of Alabama proclaimed the proposed fleet to be the embodiment of  “tactlessness”. He added that the “only imaginary enemy considered in this mimic warfare is Japan, and this flaunting of our fleet under the circumstances is utter stupidity.” Huddleston’s grandson, New York Times bestselling author, George Packer once cautioned, “Don’t forget that inside most people you read about in history books is a child who fiercely resisted toilet training.” Huddleston’s resistance and the cost moved the Naval Affairs Committee to decide that one of its members, Jim McClintic, should go along. Captain (ret.) Herbert Rosboro, assistant clerk of the House of Representative accompanied the congressman.

The fleet sailed from Honolulu southward stopping at the main harbor of American Samoa, Pago-Pago, then on to Australia where a portion of the fleet went to Sydney and the greater fraction, McClintic included, to Melbourne. The congressman made a quick stop in Hobart as well. Then the fleet sailed onward to New Zealand, back to American Samoa and for extra measure stopped in Tahiti and the Galapagos Islands.

Most Americans knew very little – and still don’t know much – about American Samoa – a small place and very far away. Even so it every now and again nudged its way into the public consciousness. On November 3, 1920 as people awoke to the news that Warren Harding was elected to succeed President Woodrow Wilson, in faraway Pago-Pago Governor Warren Terhune suffering from unrelated severe depression, committed suicide. Perhaps more would have been made from his death had it not coincided with the election. Then, in 1925, American Samoa received a precocious and ambitious 24-year-old scholar, Margaret Mead. Her popular and influential book, Coming of Age in Samoa, argued that adolescent Samoan girls, who were sexually active, showed none of kinds of stresses found among adolescent American girls. Mead concluded that adolescent difficulties were merely a cultural artefact. Today, Mead’s thesis has been roundly critiqued for methodological concerns, but at the time she helped put American Samoa in the minds of many North Americans.

Margaret Mead, 1947

Governor of American Samoa, Henry Bryan along with a group of unnamed Samoan leaders welcomed McClintic and fleet Admiral Robert Coontz. The governor played both host and cultural interpreter. The ceremonies began with dancers entertained them, and then the kava came. The kava ceremony was under the direction of a still unnamed chief who directed the distribution of the drink. McClintic may have been somewhat put off by the way in which the kava was prepared, commenting that a woman would “mix it with her hands the same way a person would squeeze the water out of a sponge”. He never mentioned kava’s intoxicating effect and finding it unpalatable perhaps he limited what he drank.

If McClintic thought he was finished with kava, he was sorely mistaken. On their return north from Australia he once again called in to Tutuila, arriving on Sunday, August 30. McClintic toured the island, including visiting a school, and then on Wednesday he and four others were invited to the village of Vaitogi. The men were invited to sit on mats whereupon a woman began to prepare kava, “that awful drink,” according to McClintic. The men exchanged glances, wondering whether it was sanitary and whether she had washed her hands. Nonetheless, as McClintic described it, “we were their guests and whatever they offered we had to go through with it.” He explained that as the “first one served, but I had one drink of this on another occasion, and it nearly put me out of business therefore, I did a lot of imitating I but finally poured the contents out behind me.”

With the kava behind him McClintic asked his hosts about the story of the Shark and the Turtle.

One of the old men began to talk and this is the story that was unfolded to us by the interpreter: A long time ago a famine came to this island – food disappeared and there was great suffering among the people. An old blind woman and her grand-daughter were hungry. The old woman sent the girl to the village to get some-thing to eat. Four young men agreed to procure some food, but-when they had done so all of it was eaten by them. The girl returned and told the old woman what had happened; then she arose and said there is no use for us to perish by hunger; let us go to the cliff overlooking the sea and put to an end our suffering. Many in the village which is close by saw them as they leaped to a watery grave. When the spot was reached looking into the water they saw shark and a turtle swimming side by side, and they believed that the old woman had turned into a turtle and the girl a shark, to rejoin in that spot forever as an object lesson to the Samoan people, so that none in the future would ever be refused food.

McClintic standing in front of tapa cloth he purchased in American Samoa. (https://www.govtrack.us/congress/members/jamesmcclintic)

McClintic, this Naval Affairs committeeman, advocate of airpower, was moved by the recounting of the tale. He observed that Samoans had, “No malice towards one another. No hatred, but on the other hand each and every one living his or her life in such a way as to bring about the greatest degree of happiness.” As ever, Smilin’ Jim.

James V. McClintic Collection, U.S. House of Representatives Series, Travel Sub Series, Box 2, Folder 5, Carl Albert Center Congressional and Political Collections, University of Oklahoma

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