Few would argue that the terms legend and “end of an era” are widely overused but for Daniel Inouye, I think I could get unanimous consent that they fit him like a glove.
Inouye, the most larger than life Hawaiian there ever was, a World War II hero who was among the most gentle, scrupulous souls ever to grace the floor of U.S. Senate, died last night at 88. He had served his state in Congress since it became a state, and well before that when it was a territory. As the Senate’s most senior member, Inouye was the body’s President Pro-Tem, making him fourth in line for the Presidency. Had he lived just 17 more days, he would have marked the 50th anniversary of his taking office as Hawaii’s Senator. Only Carl Hayden (whom Inouye served with) could rival Inouye’s faithful service since to a state since it became one, having served in Congress from Arizona’s entry in the union in 1912 until his retirement at 92 in 1969.
One of the most remarkable traits about Inouye is that, as Appropriations Chair and President Pro-Tem, he was one of the Senate’s biggest fishes, yet in an age of camera seeker, was content to be with the little fishes. Colleagues noted that his office walls were never adorned with pictures of him. Nor did he lunge for the camera. But his crisp Hawaiian voice was unmistakable and eloquent. Harry Reid, in a tribute on the floor today, said Inouye “didn’t talk very much” but noted his “dynamic voice,” Reid said. “What a beautiful voice.”
Want to know what title Inouye did wear most proudly: war hero. He was the recipient of many medals, including the Distinguished Service Medal, Congressional Medal of Honor, and the Purple Heart. He was a 2nd Lieutenant in World War II when he was shot in the chest just above his heart, saved only by two silver dollars in his shirt pocket.
While recovering at a hospital in Michigan, Inouye met Bob Dole, another wounded soldier who was also recovering from injuries, and who would later become a Senate colleague from Kansas. The two also encountered another future colleague, Phil Hart of Michigan.
As a Japanese-American in the days after Pearl Harbor, Inouye was often called “suspect,” a label that clearly stuck with him. Earlier this year, when someone referred to the health care ruling as “worse than Pearl Harbor,” Inouye took issue. His experiences undoubtedly contributed to his lifelong championship of diversity and human rights. Inouye was a tireless fighter for Israel and one that made him a mensch throughout the Senate Family.
One day, as I rode the Senate subway, Inouye greeted another, non-Jewish Senator with,”Shalom aleikhem,” the Jewish term that means “may peace come to you.” The other Senator smiled, befuddled and said “okay.” How ironic it is that Inouye, who for decades literally was the Senate’s diversity, departed the same day Tim Scott, the first African-American Senator from a Confederate State since Reconstruction, was set to join the chamber. And the man Scott will replace, Jim DeMint, with his pugnacious tear down the place style, could not be farther from Inouye, the quintessential accomodationist.
Inouye’s reputation for integrity was as legendary as his Hawaiian pride. While many in Washington preach bipartisanship, Inouye practiced it day after day, and these matters were far too important to be mere window dressing. His most high profile test was chairing the Iran/Contra investigation. Inouye’s ranking Republican was Warren Rudman, himself a stickler for punctiliousness, who ironically died just this November.
As a Democrat looking into a Republican administration, Inouye must have undoubtedly been under enormous pressure to find fault. But the investigation was so harmonious that Rudman actually signed the majority report.
Ex-Senator Pete Domenici captured the essence of Inouye’s style, saying, “Losing men of Senator Inouye’s caliber should do two things: remind us of the greatness of giants like him and challenge this Congress to put its nation first, and its joint and singular ambitions far second.”
Inouye’s institutionalism made him a sparse commodity in other ways. He and his longtime colleague, Ted Stevens, a Republican, shared an a profound and enduring friendship that was legendary on the Hill. Stevens faced indictment, and ultimate conviction, but Inouye supported Stevens’ last, and ultimately unsuccessful re-election bid, vouching for his integrity, and speaking at his funeral following his death in a 2010 plane crash. It may’ve been — but it was decency. He once remarked that “Our parties don’t understand . . . but there are things that are more important than political considerations. And that’s friendship.”Inouye and Stevens referred to one another as “brothers.” Inouye also had refused to campaign against Richard Lugar, another GOP colleague before Lugar lost his primary this spring.
Inouye’s longtime colleague Daniel Akaka, just four days younger than Inouye and whose own health had been considered far more precarious than Inouye’s captured the essence of his impact, saying “his legacy is not only the loving family he leaves behind, it can be seen in every mile of every road in Hawaii, in every nature preserve, in every facility that makes Hawaii a safer place.”
Dan fulfilled his dream of creating a better Hawaii. He gave us access to the resources and facilities of the mainland states took for granted. He leaves behind him a list of accomplishments unlikely to ever be paralleled.Stevens was once named “Alaskan of the Century.” It wouldn’t take much imagination to think of the Hawaiian who made the most indelible impact.
Shortly after Inouye became a member of the House following statehood, Speaker Sam Rayburn who was capable of, shall we say, more irreverence and garrulousness in one conversation than Inouye was in life, would greet him occasionally by name. One day, Inouye asked how Rayburn could remember him among 435 colleagues. Rayburn replied, “we don’t get that many one-armed Japs around here.” But see,that line captured Inouye’s whole life creed: pride in heritage, service to country, and representing the people of Hawaii. His last words were “aloha.” What could say anything more?
For Inouye was a tireless fighter for Hawaii and they reciprocated. He would routinely top 70% in his re-election bids. And in an era when earmarks are bemoaned, Inouye refused to speak of them in the idiom, proudly referring to himself as the number one earmarker, Inouye resisted the charges to ban them though but concurred last session only because it became obvious that they wouldn’t go through. He was reconsidering that position for the next term.
I literally had a tear in my eye as I watched this hero take his oath of office for his ninth and what would be his last term in January of 2011. Joe Biden, while presiding at his mock swearing in later that afternoon could be heard telling Inouye that there was not a better Senator. I know of no one who would dare counter that.
A sad commentary of Inouye’s passing is that come January, the Senate will have just one World War II vet — Frank Lautenberg, who turns 89 in January and is already oldest Senator.
Just last week, I was joking that Inouye, who used a cane but otherwise seemed hearty, was in a position to outdo Thurmond’s age record (100) in the Senate. But Inouye need not break another record to be noted. His impact will be felt in Hawaii and the nation for many generations. Just the fact that he will be laying in the Capital Rotunda, an honor reserved for President’s, signifies the statesmanlike reverence for which Inouye is held. I would bet that before long his bust will join the many that make up Statuary Hall.
In Hawaii, with it’s distinct language, Mahalo is the word for thank you very much. So Mahalo, Senator Inouye. Mahalo for your politeness, mahalo for your dignity, mahalo for your institutional respect, and mahalo for bringing Hawaii from infancy to soaring heights. Your impact exceeded even the wildest expectations of your state. You will now assume your rightful place among the greatest Hawaiians, and the greatest Congressional statesmen of the centuries.
And your people, and that of your state and nation, are forever grateful.
Aloha, Senator Inouye.