Since 2010, Sen. Inouye had been the Senate’s president pro tempore, which put him third in the line of succession for the presidency.
He cut a singular figure in the nation’s capital when he arrived in Washington in 1959 as a representative from the newest state and the first Japanese American elected to Congress.
A methodical behind-the-scenes operator who rarely sought the media spotlight, he was little known outside Hawaii and the halls of the Capitol. But his wartime record, for which he received the nation’s highest military award for valor, the Medal of Honor — coupled with his reputation for a bipartisan approach to politics — helped him gain respect from and influence with colleagues of both parties.
After serving in the House, he was elected to the Senate in 1962 and began a career as Hawaii’s most important patron in Washington. As longtime chairman of the Appropriations defense subcommittee and, after 2009, of the entire Appropriations Committee, Sen. Inouye ensured that Hawaii, once seen by most Americans as a distant agricultural outpost, received a steady flow of dollars to develop military sites and modern transportation, communications and educational systems.
Proudly describing himself as “the No. 1 earmarks guy in the U.S. Congress,” he was — along with his friend and political ally Ted Stevens, the late Republican senator from Alaska — one of the last unapologetic purveyors of political pork.
Sen. Inouye came to national attention only on occasion, most notably when he helped orchestrate inquiries into the Watergate scandal and the Iran-contra affair, two of Congress’s most politically explosive investigations into alleged White House wrongdoings. But he was a towering personality in Hawaii, where he had been born to working-class Japanese immigrants.
He grew up planning to become a doctor. But in 1942, as a teenager barely out of high school, he joined what would become a revered Army regiment of Japanese Americans.
Two years later, on a battlefield in Italy, he destroyed three enemy machine gun nests even as bullets tore through his stomach and legs. A grenade nearly ripped off his right arm, and it was later amputated at an Army hospital.
Back in the United States, the young lieutenant was wearing his empty right sleeve pinned to his officer’s uniform when he stepped into a San Francisco barbershop for a haircut. “We don’t serve Japs here,” the barber told him.
Memories of such encounters remained vivid to Sen. Inouye, who in his political career spoke eloquently in support of civil rights and social welfare programs.