When U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye was elected to the Senate in 1962, a fellow Hawaiian named Barack Obama was still in diapers. The Democrat of Japanese ancestry went on to hold that office for an astonishing 49 years, making him the second-longest serving U.S. senator, surpassed only by the late Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia.
For most of his nine terms, Inouye, who passed away Dec. 17 at age 88 in Bethesda, Md., mostly kept a low profile, allowing his more extroverted colleagues to do the talking while he quietly leveraged his seniority to obtain federal funding and boost the economy of his state. (The New York Times reported in 2009 that he was responsible for nearly a $1 billion in earmarks — targeted spending inserted into the federal budget — each year.) But to view him merely as a purveyor of pork would be a mistake. In many ways, Inouye, honored with a 2012 Inspire Award by AARP The Magazine, exemplified the American ideal, an impoverished son of a jewelry-store clerk who became a war hero and then broke through barriers of poverty and prejudice to become one of the most important and powerful men in Washington. Here are his five intriguing facts about him.
- He won the Medal of Honor in World War II — 55 years after the war ended. Inouye grew up dreaming of becoming a doctor, even though his family was so poor that he went shoeless until high school. But Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor changed everything for him. In 1943, Inouye enlisted in the U.S. Army and served in 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which was composed entirely of Japanese-Americans. According to the U.S. Army’s website, while fighting in northern Italy in 1945, Inouye — who by then had risen to the rank of second lieutenant — led a charge to take a crucial ridge, and rushed at a German machine gun nest. After enemy fire shattered his right arm, he somehow pried a grenade from his now-useless hand and tossed it at the German gunner, killing him. Upon returning home, Inouye endured multiple operations and needed nearly tw0 years of rehabilitation to learn how to function with one arm. But despite his exemplary heroism and sacrifice, Inouye was passed over for the Medal of Honor, until President Bill Clinton belatedly awarded it to him and 21 other Asian-American veterans who similarly had been slighted in 2000.
- He fought against prejudice. In Oakland, Calif., after the war, Inouye — who was dressed in his Army officer’s uniform, complete with his combat medals and captain’s bars on his shoulders — was refused a haircut by a barber, who told him, “We don’t cut Jap hair.” As he recalled years later in a PBS interview, he resisted the urge to strike the bigot with his good arm, realizing that it would undo what he was trying to accomplish. Instead, he said, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” and walked out. Back in his native Hawaii, he eventually led what the Washington Post describes as a “peaceful grass-roots uprising” in which minorities and working people seized political power from the plantation owners who had long dominated the state. As a senator, he led the effort that eventually prompted President Reagan to issue an official apology to Japanese-Americans who had been interned during World War II. The AARP video below includes an interview with Inouye on the wartime internment of Japanese-Americans.
- He turned down a chance to be vice president. In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson, who had chosen not to run for reelection due to his unpopularity, urged Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey to pick Inouye as his running mate. LBJ told Humphrey that Inouye’s World War II record would silence Humphrey’s critics over the Vietnam War. “He answers your problems with Nixon with that empty sleeve,” Johnson reportedly told Humphrey. But Inouye turned down a spot on the ticket, apparently because he was content to continue representing Hawaii. He did, however, give the keynote address at the strife-torn 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, in which he urged protesters not to lose faith in the American system. “This is my country,” he said. “Many of us have fought hard to say that. Many are struggling today from Harlem to Da Nang that they may say it with conviction.”
- He was a tough investigator. In 1973, when Inouye served on the bipartisan Senate panel that probed wrongdoing by the Nixon White House, the quiet legislator suddenly morphed into a tough, persistent seeker of the facts. Inouye became so irked by Nixon aide John D. Ehrlichman’s mendacity that he whispered under his breath, “What a liar!” into a microphone, not realizing that his words would be heard by millions of people watching on TV. He went on to chair the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, established in 1976 in the wake of civil-liberties abuses by spy agencies, and in 1987 served as Senate chairman of the the joint Senate-House investigation of the Iran-contra scandal. In this video clip, he challenges Reagan White House aide, Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North.
- Despite his years in Washington, he never forgot his roots. According to his Senate website, when asked in recent days how he wanted to be remembered, Inouye responded, “I represented the people of Hawaii and this nation honestly and to the best of my ability. I think I did OK.” On his deathbed, his final utterance reportedly was “Aloha.”
Photo: Dennis Van Tine/Retna Ltd./Corbis