HONOLULU—It was not a happy holiday season in Paradise. Even the heavens wept, remarked one observer on the rain that day as news that Hawaii’s senior US senator and beloved “godfather” had died swept the state one week before Christmas.
Daniel Ken Inouye (pronounced I-NO-Way, accent on the second syllable, he would point out), Hawaii’s revered icon and second-longest serving member of the US Senate (nearly 50 years), passed into eternity at age 88.
But he wasn’t just Hawaii’s very own. President Barack Obama eulogized him as a “true American hero” as his body lay in state at the Capitol Hill Rotunda for the ultimate honors. The president added that the late senator was his “boyhood inspiration,” watching him become one of the country’s most powerful political figures. Obama was only two years old when Inouye was sworn in as the first Asian-American US senator in 1963.
At the time of his death, Inouye, who was first elected to the US House of Representatives in 1959 when Hawaii became the 50th state of the union, was not only the second-longest serving senator, but also the Senate President Protempore, the third in line to the presidency. He was likewise the longstanding chair of the powerful Senate appropriations committee, which raised and dispensed untold billions of dollars to federal projects across the country.
The grandson of poor immigrants from Japan, Inouye at times went to school barefoot, saving his shoes for special occasions. He enlisted with the US Army in World War II when he was only 17, after President Franklin Roosevelt allowed “Nisei volunteers” (second-generation Hawaii-born Japanese ) to register with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
Inouye was deployed to San Terenzo, Italy, as a platoon leader. His right arm was blown off by enemy fire and he was shot two more times as he rolled downhill to safety. And into history. Or destiny.
Broken in body but not in spirit, he finished a bachelor’s degree in political science at the University of Hawaii and later a law degree at George Washington University under the G.I. Bill.
Returning to Hawaii, he led a group of Japanese-American leaders in pushing statehood for Hawaii and became the first of his group to be elected to the US Congress representing the newest state in America. He caught national attention when he delivered the keynote speech in the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
He rose to national prominence when he was named to a Senate select committee to investigate the Watergate scandal. His calm but intense questioning of the burglary suspects, who were linked to President Richard Nixon’s reelection committee, was crucial to Nixon’s resignation, the first ever in US history.
His reputation peaked even higher when he was again tapped to head another Senate select committee to probe the Iran-Contra scandal. This was a scheme of the Reagan administration to trade arms for the release of Iranian-held hostages in the 1980s. The arms sales would then help fund a “Contra Rebellion” against Nicaragua’s Sandinista regime under Daniel Ortega. Again Inouye’s penetrating style of questioning exposed the undoing of the perpetrators led by Lt. Col. Oliver North.
But it is for Inouye’s masterful efforts to secure and funnel billions of dollars to federal megaprojects that he will be long remembered. Described as the “King of Pork and Perks” and “Abuser of Earmarks,” he managed to snag massive federal funding for just about everything for his native Hawaii—education, health, science, defense, civil rights, minorities, elderly, youth, disabled, transportation, infrastructure, University of Hawaii, East-West Center, energy, tourism, marine science, navigation, ad infinitum. He even got funds to prevent the entry of “brown tree snakes” into Hawaii from Guam. Derided by his colleagues as “frivolous,” he patiently explained that those snakes would ruin Hawaii’s pristine environment.
The wonder of it all was that power never got to his head. No tinge of arrogance, no taint of corruption, no airs marked his lengthy career. Always under pressure from his early life, he remained the epitome of humility, patience, tolerance, grace, dignity, sincerity and respectability. He was the kind of person you liked immediately when you met him. That was the source of his power, real power. A sense of unspoken charisma.
He was also a great friend of the Filipino community. Through his influence on federal funding, he worked out financial compensation for Filipino veterans who served with the US Army in World War II—$15,000 for those already US citizens and $9,000 for noncitizens.
He also funded federal grants for the Filipino Community Center in Hawaii—the only one of its kind in the entire United States.
His passing marks the end of an era, the post-World War II era that author Tom Brokaw has called “the greatest generation.” There will never be, at least not for a long while, another soul whose story is as compelling as the late senator’s. He was a man of great intellect and vision, but also of a greater heart.
He embodied Hawaii itself like a father figure. It was reported that the final word he uttered before breathing his last was “Aloha.”
Dr. Belinda A. Aquino is professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii at Manoa where she served as professor of political science and Asian studies and as founding director of the Center for Philippine Studies at the School of Pacific and Asian Studies.