In 1968, Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii gave the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Standing outside Chi-town’s International Amphitheatre that weekend were thousands of young anti-Vietnam protesters, many being beaten and arrested by the Chicago Police for “inciting to riot.”
While other public officials at the convention looked to shift focus away from the civil unrest and war controversy that was going on outside, Senator Inouye had other plans.
“The Vietnam war is immoral,” he said. “… [But] I doubt we can blame all the troubles of our times on Vietnam.”
That was Senator Inouye, a no-nonsense straight shooter who was never afraid to speak the truth as he saw it.
An American Hero
The son of Japanese immigrants, Inouye was born in Honolulu on September 7, 1924. As a teenager, he was a medical volunteer during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Following the attack, over 127,000 Japanese Americans were transported to internment camps and imprisoned due to their ancestry. The military would not enlist Japanese Americans for the war.
Inouye would petition the US government for the right to serve, and when the army dropped its enlistment ban on Japanese Americans in 1943, he volunteered for the all-Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat team.
Speaking about his motivations for joining the Army, Inouye said in a PBS interview, “I wanted to be able to demonstrate, not only to my government, but to my neighbors, that I was a good American.”
Inouye would go on to serve his country honorably, losing an arm and getting shot several times while trying to advance his company to safety in a battle near San Terenzo, Italy.
Fifty-five years after his sacrifice, President Bill Clinton awarded Inouye with the Congressional Medal of Honor.
After the war, Inouye went back to college and earned a law degree from George Washington University. In 1959, Hawaii was granted statehood, and he was elected as its first member of Congress. In 1962, he was elected to the Senate, replacing fellow Democrat Oren E. Long.
Inouye never shied away from giving Hawaii political advantages on the Hill. In a brief interview with me several months before his passing, Inouye talked about his support of filibusters, an unpopular political tactic currently used by Republicans to prevent the vote on a measure.
“As someone representing a small state, it was a tool used to ensure we were not pushed aside,” he said.
He proclaimed himself, “the No. 1 earmarks guy in the US Congress,” during his tenure as representative of Hawaii’s “at-large” district.
As a Senator, Inouye would bring millions of dollars to Hawaii. From 2009 to 2010 alone, he sponsored close to 137 solo earmarks, totaling over $425 million. Although the tactic was seen negatively by his colleagues, Inouye was always unapologetic about bringing money home to his constituents.
“I would hope I know more about Maui’s problems than my good friend the President or any of his Cabinet members,” he said in an interview with Maui News earlier this year.
An Advocate for the Disenfranchised
After he came back from his WWII service, a young Inouye was once told by a barber, “We don’t serve Japs here.”
As a person of color, Inouye lived in an America where segregation was still alive and well, and racial slurs occurred daily. Inouye’s experience as a disenfranchised citizen inspired his policies and stances. As a public servant, he confronted the established order on behalf of the marginalized.
During the early debates over segregation in the south, Inouye was one of the only senators on the right side of those debates, pushing vehemently to end segregation in all parts of the country.
Inouye was one of the last sitting senators who helped pass not only the Civil Rights Act, but the Voting Rights Act, which changed the minimum voting age to 18.
As an honored military veteran, Inouye boldly took a stance to secure free speech for citizens who felt the need to burn the flag in protest. The ACLU called his position “particularly meaningful to the defense of free speech because of his military service.”
Inouye rejected the Defense of Marriage Act in the 1990s and was a staunch supporter for marriage equality. On the senate floor he once asked his fellow colleagues, “How can we call ourselves the land of the free, if we do not permit people who love one another to get married?”
Vice President Joe Biden said of Inouye after his death, “To his dying day, he fought for a new era of politics where all men and women are treated with equality.”
His Life Remembered
“After all these years, racism is alive and doing well,” Inouye said in 2008, even after Barack Obama received the Democratic nomination for president.
That was Daniel Inouye.
He was always pushing us further, to understand the truth of who we are as a society, always looking toward the future.
Yet for many outside his inner circle and native Hawaii, it could be hard to relate to him..
It could be hard to relate to a young man who left high school to join the Red Cross, helping wounded soldiers during one of our nation’s most pivotal disasters. Or to a teenage boy, who was seen as an alien in his own country, who still fought honorably for that country, despite its faults. It could be hard to relate to a wounded soldier who attacked three machine gun nests by himself in order to save his squad, and still lived to tell the story. And few have lived the life of someone who has dedicated 55 years of his life to serve all Americans.
It could be hard to relate to a man like Daniel Inouye, because he was as exceptional as they come. His courage surpassed comprehension, and his accomplishments now belong to the ages.
“Aloha,” great Senator Inouye, you are Hawaii’s own true son.