But on Sunday, sitting between first lady Michelle Obama and Inouye’s wife, Irene, Obama did not speak. He had no formal role at the ceremony at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific — nicknamed “Punchbowl” for the terrestrial imprint left by volcanic eruptions thousands of years ago.
Yet the moment at the cemetery had enormous emotional resonance for the president, who spent many formative years living with his grandparents in Hawaii. In the space of 90 minutes, he would attend the memorial service of a man who from afar had shaped his political thinking and remember another man who directly shaped his life choices.
Moments after the ceremony honoring Inouye ended, Obama traveled a half-mile southeast within the same cemetery, to Site 44, Row 400, of Columbarium No. 1 — the grave site of his maternal grandfather, Stanley A. Dunham.
Like Inouye, Dunham was a World War II veteran. Obama has said that Dunham and his wife, Madelyn, taught him the “idea of America.” He has recounted how his grandfather, “Gramps,” gave him dog tags “from his time in Patton’s Army,” and the future president came to understand that “his defense of this country marked one of his greatest sources of pride.”
Dunham died 20 years ago. The ashes of his wife and daughter, Stanley Anne, Obama’s mother, were scattered over the Pacific Ocean in Hawaii.
And while Obama has said that his grandparents influenced how he lived his life, Inouye had a profound effect on his politics. Last week, Obama said Inouye was “perhaps my earliest political inspiration.”
As part of the Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team in World War II, Inouye lost his right arm protecting his unit from a grenade. In the memorial last week, Obama said he remembered watching Inouye ask questions during the Watergate hearings in the 1970s.
“The person who fascinated me most was this man of Japanese descent with one arm, speaking in this courtly baritone, full of dignity and grace,” Obama said. “This was a man who, as a teenager, stepped up to serve his country even after his fellow Japanese Americans were declared enemy aliens; a man who believed in America even when its government didn’t necessarily believe in him. That meant something to me. It gave me a powerful sense — one that I couldn’t put into words — a powerful sense of hope.”
On Sunday, surviving members of the 442nd Regiment and their families surrounded the ceremony. The formal eulogies were left to Inouye’s colleagues and staffers.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said Inouye would only talk about the war in private, never in public. Reid had had an hour-long conversation with him just before Inouye, who was experiencing respiratory problems, went to the hospital, a little more than a week before he died.
“We talked as though there would be many tomorrows, but there wouldn’t be any,” Reid said.
In remarks by Reid and others, it was hard not to miss the nostalgia for an era of bipartisanship that Inouye reflected and one that seems to be disappearing with his generation.
Reid recalled how he had received a call last week from former Senate majority leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), expressing his desire to pay his respects to Inouye in the Capitol Rotunda. Dole, who normally uses a wheelchair, insisted on walking and viewing Inouye’s casket directly.
“As a result of that war, both had lost the use of their right arms,” Reid recalled, and could work together despite their political differences.
Inouye “was a Democrat who would never hesitate to cooperate with a Republican for the good of the country,” Reid said. “Danny was the best senator among us all,” he said.
Inouye’s family has not decided on an exact burial spot. One option is Section D, near the center of the cemetery, where many of his comrades from the 442nd Combat Team are buried. His first wife, Margaret Shinobu Awamura, who died in 1996, is also buried there.
Near the end of the ceremony, Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) said he was saying goodbye to a brother who had paved the way for future generations.
“He made it possible for minorities like me, and later on, President Obama, to serve at the highest levels,” he said.
Then Inouye received full military honors — including a four-jet flyover — and a military officer delivered folded American flags that had been draped over Inouye’s casket to his wife and son Ken.
As the officer presented the flags, Obama remained attentive and silent.