Mourning the Loss of Senator Daniel Inouye

There is an outpouring of accolades and statements of loss by the top leadership in Washington from the President, to many of his cabinet secretaries, to his colleagues in the Senate and the House, and national civil and human rights groups.  Few, I think, have summed him up better than Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who said,

 No matter what barrier was in his way, Danny shattered it.  He was the highest-ranking Asian-American politician in history and the first Japanese-American to serve in the House of Representatives and Senate.  He was a soldier, a Medal of Honor recipient and a hero.  But despite the accolades from a lifetime of service, he never lost his humility and compassion.

 Danny was an icon in his native state of Hawaii and a tireless advocate for the disenfranchised, minorities and women throughout the country.  He spent his life working for a brighter future, and we are all better off for it.

 I first met Senator Inouye in Hawaii at a Nisei Vets reunion when I was a teenager.  My dad was active in the Seattle Nisei Vets group and had brought our whole family to the reunion.  The Senator, already a legend for being the first Japanese American elected to Congress, spoke at that gala dinner.  It never occurred to me then that I would have the honor one day of sitting across the table from him discussing civil rights issues.

As Secretary Clinton noted, all Americans are better for his service.  He was the last sitting senator still alive who was in the Senate during the passage of most of the civil rights laws we now take for granted, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  He helped to break the filibuster blocking the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968.  He spoke out against Southern segregation in his historic keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 1968.  He was a key sponsor in the amendment to allow 18 year olds to vote.  He also was a consistent supporter for organized labor, the rights of women and the defense of Israel.

Having lost one of his arms in World War II, he was a role model for people with disabilities and one of the legislative leaders in support of the Americans with Disabilities Act.  As a man who grew up in Hawaii, he had a heartfelt understanding of the history and current struggles of indigenous peoples and would often join forces across the aisle to push for the rights of Native Hawaiians, American Indians and Native Alaskans.  Among his most featured possessions in his senate offices were gifts of craft and art presented to him from many different tribes.

A veteran, Senator Inouye respected and valued our troops and believed in a strong military but he also, having served with fellow Japanese American soldiers from the mainland whose families were held in concentration camps behind barbed wire, was concerned about accountability, equality, fairness and civil liberties.  He knew the sting of discrimination having had to petition to serve in the military during WWII when all Japanese Americans got classified as enemy aliens and being denied a haircut on the mainland after the war even though he was still wearing his uniform.  A patriot, he fought against efforts to ban flag burning.  He was also a staunch supporter of LGBT soldiers in the military, voting against the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and an eloquent advocate of marriage equality being one of the few members of Congress with the courage to vote against the then politically popular Defense of Marriage Act.

Senator Inouye came to national attention when he served on the Senate Committee investigating Watergate.  The reputation he built for fairness, intellect and hard work led him to be selected to chair the Iran Contra hearings where he condemned the clandestine operations.  He believed in the importance of checks and balances in holding every branch of government accountable and dedicated his entire life to safeguarding our democracy.

Senator Inouye was one of the key strategists in winning redress for Japanese Americans put behind barbed wire in World War II solely because of their race.  After years of struggle for legislation, he suggested the idea of a bipartisan commission to study the internment and to make recommendations. This helped to pave the way.  After the bill was passed but years went by with no money being appropriated to make the reparations payments, he was the architect behind making the payments an entitlement that didn’t require special appropriations each year.  He was also the man who finally got some measure of reparations for the Filipino veterans of WWII who had been made promises for their service when the Philippines was a protectorate of the United States that were not honored.

Despite his very liberal voting record, he was never targeted for partisan bashing because of his reputation for being willing to put partisanship aside.  His staff is considered to be among the top notch in the Senate.  Never strident, he built strong friendships with Republicans and was praised for being a workhorse rather than a show horse.  Ever modest, the Senator did not seek the limelight but preferred to get his work done without fanfare.  You never saw a leak from his office, he never took time to write a book lauding his own accomplishments and you rarely saw him in the media.  He preferred his work to speak for itself.  He loved the Senate, he loved his state and he loved his country.

While I will certainly remember him for his accomplishments and his quiet dignity, what I will also remember is the look in his eyes when he would see or talk about his wife, Irene Hirano.  His first wife died of cancer and there were years where he seemed to be weighed down.  After he found love again, he was re-energized and looked decades younger.  Irene is a community leader in her own right.  He got to know her while serving on the board of the Japanese American National Museum, an institution she built.  My heart goes out to her and his son and the rest of their family, as well as to his very loyal staff and to the people of Hawaii.

Though not a household name outside of his beloved Hawaii, Senator Inouye played a vital role in helping the United States to live up to its most fundamental values of equality and fairness.  He will be greatly missed.