WASHINGTON— Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, the influential Democrat who was one of the first Asian-Americans in Congress and played key roles in congressional investigations of the Watergate and Iran-Contra scandals, died Monday. He was 88.
Inouye, a senator since January 1963, was the longest serving senator and was president pro tempore of the Senate, third in the line of presidential succession. His office said Monday that he died of respiratory complications at a Washington-area hospital.
Less than an hour after Inouye’s passing, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced Inouye’s death to a stunned chamber. “Our friend Daniel Inouye has died,” Reid said somberly. Shocked members of the Senate stood in the aisles or slumped in their chairs.
Inouye was a World War II hero and Medal of Honor recipient who lost an arm to a German hand grenade during a battle in Italy. He became the first Japanese-American to serve in Congress, when he was elected to the House in 1959, the year Hawaii became a state. He won election to the Senate three years later and served there longer than anyone in American history except Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who died in 2010 after 51 years in the Senate.
President Barack Obama, a native of Hawaii, said in a statement, “Tonight, our country has lost a true American hero with the passing of Sen. Daniel Inouye. … It was his incredible bravery during World War II — including one heroic effort that cost him his arm but earned him the Medal of Honor — that made Danny not just a colleague and a mentor, but someone revered by all of us lucky enough to know him.”
Inouye died after a relatively brief hospitalization. Once a regular smoker, he had a portion of a lung removed in the 1960s after a misdiagnosis for cancer. Just last week, he issued a statement expressing optimism about his recovery.
Despite his age and illness, Inouye’s death shocked members of the Senate.
“I’m too broken up,” said Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, who becomes president pro tem of the Senate. Leahy also is poised to take over the Senate Appropriations Committee.
“He was the kind of man, in short, that America has always been grateful to have, especially in her darkest hours, men who lead by example and who expect nothing in return,” said Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie will appoint a replacement, choosing from a list of three candidates selected by the state Democratic Party.
Whomever Abercrombie appoints would serve until a special election in 2014.
Inouye has represented Hawaii since it became a state in 1959, first in the House of Representatives. He was handily re-elected to a ninth term in 2010 with 75 percent of the vote.
His last utterance, his office said, was “Aloha.”
Inouye became president pro tem of the Senate in 2010, a largely ceremonial post that also placed him in the line of succession to the presidency, after the vice president and the speaker of the House.
Earlier, he had taken the helm of the powerful Appropriations Committee, where he spent most of his Senate career attending to Hawaii. At the height of his power, Inouye routinely secured tens of millions of dollars annually for the state’s roads, schools, national lands and military bases.
Although tremendously popular in his home state, Inouye actively avoided the national spotlight until he was thrust into it. He was the keynote speaker at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and later reluctantly joined the Senate’s select committee on the Watergate scandal. The panel’s investigation led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
Inouye also served as chairman of the committee that investigated the Iran-Contra arms and money affair, which rocked Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
A quiet but powerful lawmaker, Inouye ran for Senate majority leader several times without success. He gained power as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee before Republicans took control of the Senate in 1994.
When the Democrats regained control in the 2006 elections, Inouye became chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. He left that post two years later to become chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.
Inouye also chaired the Senate Indian Affairs Committee for many years. He was made an honorary member of the Navajo nation and given the name “The Leader Who Has Returned With a Plan.”
In 2000, Inouye was one of 22 Asian-American World War II veterans who belatedly received America’s top honor for bravery on the battlefield, the Medal of Honor. The junior senator from Hawaii at the time, Daniel Akaka, had worked for years to get officials to review records to determine if some soldiers had been denied the honor because of racial bias.
Inouye’s first political campaign in 1954 helped break the Republican Party’s political domination of Hawaii. He was elected to the Territorial House of Representatives, where he served as majority leader. He became a territorial senator in 1958.
Inouye was serving as Hawaii’s first congressman in 1962, when he ran for the Senate and won 70 percent of the vote against Republican Benjamin Dillingham II, a member of a prominent Hawaii family.
He is the last remaining member of the Senate to have voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“He served as a defender of the people of this country, championing historic changes for civil rights, including the equal rights of women, Asian-Americans, African-Americans and Native Hawaiians,” said a visibly emotional Sen. Daniel Akaka, his longtime Hawaii colleague. “It is an incredible understatement to call him an institution, but this chamber will never be the same without him.”
Born Sept. 7, 1924, to immigrant parents in Honolulu, Inouye was 17 and dreaming of becoming a surgeon when Japanese planes flew over his home to bomb Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, changing the course of his life.
In 1943, Inouye volunteered for the Army and was assigned to the famed Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which earned the nickname “Go For Broke” and was one of the most decorated units of the war. Inouye rose to the rank of captain and earned the Distinguished Service Cross and Bronze Star. Many of the 22 veterans who received Medals of Honor in 2000 had been in the 442nd.
Unlike the families of many of his comrades in arms, Inouye’s wasn’t subjected to the trauma and indignity of being sent by the U.S. government during the war to internment camps for Japanese Americans.
“It was the ultimate of patriotism,” Inouye said at a 442nd reunion. “These men, who came from behind barbed wire internment camps where the Japanese-Americans were held, to volunteer to fight and give their lives. … We knew we were expendable.”
Inouye said he didn’t feel he had any choice but to go to war.
“I tried to put myself in the shoes of my neighbors who were not Japanese,” Inouye once said. “I felt that there was a need for us to demonstrate that we’re just as good as anybody else.
“The price was bloody and expensive, but I felt we succeeded,” he said.
Inouye’s dream of becoming a surgeon ended in the closing days of the war.
On April 21, 1945, he was leading a charge on a machine gun nest in Italy’s Po Valley. He was shot in the abdomen, but kept inching toward the machine gun and managed to throw two grenades before his right arm was shattered by a German grenade. Even then, he continued to direct his platoon.
“By his gallant, aggressive tactics and by his indomitable leadership, Second Lieutenant Inouye enabled his platoon to advance through formidable resistance,” his Medal of Honor citation said.
He spent the next 20 months in military hospitals. During his convalescence, Inouye met Bob Dole, the future majority leader of the Senate and 1996 Republican presidential candidate, who also was recovering from severe war injuries. The two later served together in the Senate for decades.
“With Sen. Inouye, what you saw is what you got and what you got was just a wonderful human being that served his country after the ill-treatment of the Japanese, lost an arm in the process,” Dole said Monday. “He was the best bridge player on our floor. He did it all with one arm.”