Where Would We Be Without Dan?

In his lifetime, Dan Inouye did the seemingly impossible: He gave the profession of politics a good name.

He didn’t do it by the current standards of the profession: by assuming stances of rigid ideological purity, filling every camera lens with his face, or orating to the masses. (Though what orator wouldn’t want that voice with which to work?)

Inouye burnished the title “politician” by his person. He was a brave man. He demonstrated that early in life, as a 20-year-old second lieutenant leading his men up a heavily defended ridge in Northern Italy. His actions that day would eventually win him a Medal of Honor; they would also cost him his right arm, blown apart by a German rocket grenade.

But Inouye, like his “brothers” in the all-Japanese 442nd Regimental Combat Team, had a cause larger than themselves: to prove their loyalty to the country of their birth. They were predominantly nisei, second-generation Japanese, and they had grown up in Hawaii, slurping saimin and chewing mochi at home perhaps, but taking to jitterbugging and hod-rodding and pledging allegiance to the flag at school.

When they petitioned the United States government to serve, they had a cause. In the post-war world, that cause would morph into the most American cause of all: the quest for equality. Inouye had a bushel of stories he liked to tell, but none more honored in its telling than that of Mrs. King, his McKinley High School teacher, directing his attention to the words of the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal …”

Inouye made his first political foray in 1948, when he called an ex-cop named Jack Burns, who was running a lost-cause race as the Democratic Party’s nominee for Territorial delegate to Congress. Inouye offered his help. Burns still lost.

After completing his bach-elor’s degree at the University of Hawaii, Inouye went off to law school at George Washington University in the nation’s capital. He may have caught a case of Potomac fever during his three years there. In any event, he returned to Hawaii with his degree in hand, and in 1954 won election to the Territorial House of Representatives. Thus began his 58-year career as an elected legislator.

He was a natural. He was smart. Laurence Fuchs conducted hundreds of interviews for his social history of Hawaii at mid-century. He told interviewers in 2007, “There were a lot of smart young men in Hawaii in the ’50s, but Inouye was the smartest of the lot.” And there was that voice. And he quickly discarded his prosthetic right arm. He was a veteran, after all.

With statehood in 1959, Inouye won Hawaii’s seat in the United States House of Representatives. Three years later, he became Hawaii’s junior United States senator and began a 50-year career in the United States Senate.

Inouye thrived there, in part because, unlike two-thirds of the Senate membership, he was not running for president every waking hour. A Japanese-American from a state with four electoral votes, however equal, couldn’t harbor such ambitions. So Inouye used his own considerable skills, plus the values of his ancestral culture – loyalty, obligation, humility – to become one of the dozen or so most-esteemed senators of the last half century.

He didn’t upstage other senators. He didn’t demand attention for himself. He worked across the aisles, particularly with Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens. Last week, Sen. Thad Cochran, the ranking minority member of the Appropriations Committee, called him “an easy person to be with … but a tough negotiator.”

And he was a patriot of the institution, doing its dirty work: on the Watergate Committee investigating President Richard Nixon’s transgressions, and as chairman of committee investigating the Iran-Contra affair. He defended senators in ethical trouble, like Stevens, New Jersey’s Sen. Harrison Williams, and the five senators besmirched by the Savings and Loan debacle of the 1980s.

But he always, first and foremost, took care of his constituents, with what fiscal hawks would call “pork,” to which Inouye might well respond, “Oink. Oink.” Who better, Inouye argued, knows what a state needs than the people who represent it?

Like his fellow 442nd veteran, the late state Sen. Nadao Yoshinaga, he nurtured young people. One of his former staffers will be sworn in as Honolulu mayor next week, another for his second term as Hawaii County mayor. And dozens of others are to be found across the state in politics, business and nonprofits.

Was Dan Inouye a perfect man? No, of course not, and he’d be the first to scoff at such a claim. But Inouye came darn close to being a perfect United States senator. Ask anyone with whom he served.