Remembering Daniel Inouye: A quietly heroic life in politics

The longtime Democrat and war hero dies at age 88. A look at his life, legacy, and the hole he leaves in the Senate

Inouye, a WWII veteran, earned a Distinguished Service Cross that was upgraded to the Medal of Honor in 2000.
(Image credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Unless you're from Hawaii, there's a good chance you haven't heard much about Sen. Daniel Inouye (D), who died Monday at age 88 from respiratory complications. But that doesn't mean the Aloha State's senior U.S. senator was inconsequential in national politics. A World War II hero who had represented Hawaii in Washington since it became a state in 1959, Inouye was the longest-serving member and president pro tempore of the Senate, putting him third in line for the presidency, behind only Vice President Joe Biden (D) and House Speaker John Boehner (R). He made his biggest mark, however, in the Watergate and Iran-Contra hearings and as a longtime member and current chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.

"Just to get the crass politics out of the way," says David Dayen at Firedoglake, "Hawaii is one of three states where the governor makes a temporary appointment of a new senator based off of a list of three people submitted by Inouye's party." That Democrat, appointed by Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D), will serve until a special election in 2014, and "my money would be on Rep. Colleen Hanabusa." After Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid stunned his colleagues with news of Inouye's death, the Senate tapped Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) as the new president pro temp. Leahy is also next in line to chair the Appropriations Committee, if he gives up the gavel of the Judiciary Committee.

Inouye (pronounced in-NO-ay) was born in 1924 in Honolulu, the first of four children of Japanese immigrants. His "uniquely American life" of heroism and service, as The Associated Press puts it, began with the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, where Inouye was a medical volunteer. He wasn't put in an internment camp like other Japanese-Americans because Hawaii was placed under military governance after Pearl Harbor, but he was labeled an "enemy alien," and when the U.S. lifted its ban on "nisei" — the children of Japanese immigrants — serving in the military in late 1942, Inouye enlisted and joined the Army's all-nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team.

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The 442nd became one of the most-decorated units in U.S. military history. This is the incredible way Inouye earned his Distinguished Service Cross (upgraded to Medal of Honor, America's highest military award, in 2000), as told by The New York Times' Robert D. McFadden:

On April 21, 1945, weeks before the end of the war in Europe, he led an assault near San Terenzo, Italy. His platoon was pinned down by three machine guns. Although shot in the stomach, he ran forward and destroyed one emplacement with a hand grenade and another with his submachine gun. He was crawling toward the third when enemy fire nearly severed his right arm, leaving a grenade, in his words, "clenched in a fist that suddenly didn't belong to me anymore." He pried it loose, threw it with his left hand and destroyed the bunker. Stumbling forward, he silenced resistance with gun bursts before being hit in the leg and collapsing unconscious. His mutilated right arm was amputated in a field hospital.

Inouye was elected to the House in 1959 and the Senate in 1963 — only Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) served in the Senate longer — and earned a reputation for working hard and keeping a low profile. But he was hardly invisible: In 1968, he gave the keynote address at the Democrats' ill-fated national convention in Chicago, and was reportedly Lyndon Johnson's pick for nominee Hubert Humphrey's running mate. He was appointed to the Senate committee investigating Watergate in 1973, and his integrity in those hearings led to him being named chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee in 1976 and chairman of the Senate committee investigating the Reagan-era Iran-Contra scandal. A member of the Appropriations Committee since 1971, Inouye steered billions of dollars over his career to build up Hawaii's public infrastructure and military bases.

Inouye recently explained how he wanted to be remembered: "I represented the people of Hawaii and this nation honestly and to the best of my ability. I think I did OK." His last word, according to his office, was "Aloha."

Here's a sampling of how his colleagues are remembering Inouye:

President Obama: "Tonight, our country has lost a true American hero with the passing of Sen. Daniel Inouye.... It was his incredible bravery during World War II — including one heroic effort that cost him his arm but earned him the Medal of Honor — that made Danny not just a colleague and a mentor, but someone revered by all of us lucky enough to know him." And on Twitter: "Aloha, Danny."

Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii): "Tomorrow will be the first day since Hawaii became a state in 1959 that Dan Inouye will not be representing us in Congress.... Every child born in Hawaii will learn of Dan Inouye, a man who changed the islands forever.... He served as a defender of the people of this country, championing historic changes for civil rights, including the equal rights of women, Asian-Americans, African-Americans, and Native Hawaiians... It is an incredible understatement to call him an institution, but this chamber will never be the same without him."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.): "I have never known anyone like Dan Inouye. No one else has.... The kindness that he has shown for my time here in the Senate is something I will cherish always. A man who has lived and breathed the Senate. If there were ever a patriot, Dan Inouye was that patriot."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.): Inouye "was a man who had every reason to call attention to himself, but who never did. He was the kind of man, in short, that America has always been grateful to have. Especially in her darkest hours, men who lead by example and who expect nothing in return."

Sen. Leahy: Inouye was "a man of few words, most importantly he was a man of his word. I have always admired his diligence, his character and his willing bipartisanship as a legislator."

Former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kansas), who became friends with Inouye in a military hospital when they were both recovering from losing the use of their right arms in World War II: "With Sen. Inouye, what you saw is what you got and what you got was just a wonderful human being that served his country after the ill-treatment of the Japanese, lost an arm in the process."

Sources: The Atlantic, The Associated Press, Firedoglake, The New York Times, The Washington Post (2), USA Today

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