Hawaii’s Diversity Shaped Inouye

Dan Inouye’s colleagues in the United States Senate honored him with a ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda, making him only the 32nd person in history so honored and the first of Japanese-American descent. Vice President Joe Biden did what Irishmen, among other things, do well: He gave a moving eulogy to his friend of almost four decades.

The following day official mourning moved to the National Cathedral, where another son of Hawaii spoke. President Barack Obama told of a long-ago family vacation, many evenings of which were spent with his mother watching the Senate Watergate hearings. He spoke of being impressed by Inouye’s voice and manner and by his being a senator of Japanese descent who did not come “out of central casting.”

As the child of a white American woman and an African father, “It hinted to me what might be possible in my own life. I learned how our democracy is supposed to work.

“Were it not for those … insights planted in my head at the age of 11, in between Disneyland and a trip to Yellowstone, I might never have considered a career in public service. I might not be standing here today. I think it’s fair to say that Danny Inouye was perhaps my earliest political inspiration.”

In the days following, some – mainly on the right – criticized Obama for telling a story that was “all about him” and a boyhood vacation trip. The critics don’t get it, but perhaps others of their political persuasion do. Obama’s remarks spoke to every African-American, every Hispanic, every Asian or Pacific Islander, and all who feel that the United States should extend equal opportunity to all.

A month earlier, South Carolina Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, the state’s first Indian-American and female governor, showed her understanding of Obama’s Inouye-inspired outlook. To fill the Senate seat left vacant by tea partier Jim DeMint’s resignation, she chose state Rep. Tim Scott, an African-American congressman. Scott will become the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction. Said Lindsey Graham, South Carolina’s senior United States senator: “This is a day that’s been long in the making in South Carolina, and I’m glad to see it come.”

Indeed, it has, since the day South Carolina secessionists fired the cannon volley on Fort Sumter that launched the Civil War, a war fought by the South in defense of human bondage. Following the end of Reconstruction, the South used poll taxes, literacy tests and physical intimidation to keep African-Americans from voting. Office-holding was unthinkable.

It took a second American civil war, fought with lunch-counter sit-ins, bus boycotts, freedom marches and the soaring oratory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1950s and ’60s to bring the franchise to African-Americans. Mayoralties, state legislative seats and congressional offices followed.

What did not emerge, however, was the recognition that the future of American politics could no longer be painted eggshell cream, mother of pearl or off-white. The South couldn’t see it, and neither could the Republican Party. Even after Obama’s capture of the presidency in 2008, many in the GOP thought it an anomaly, a win that could be buried in legislative obstructionism. Then, in Mitt Romney, they nominated a man who came in one color – pure, pure white.

But election 2012 may have changed Republican thinking forever, even as far south as South Carolina. White alone won’t make it. Obama received 71 percent of the Latino vote, 93 percent of blacks, 73 percent of Asians and 60 percent of voters under 60. The lesson of presidential election 2012 was that the route to the White House must go through multi-hued neighborhoods.

Dan Inouye and his generation understood that 60 years earlier in multi-ethnic Hawaii. Alliances had to be built across ethnic lines, and political talent of every color and culture had to be cultivated. Those alliances would make for electoral victory; and those multi-hued candidates could inspire a half-white, half-African kid to become a president.