President Obama delivered an emotional address Friday to political leaders and diplomats gathered for a memorial service celebrating the life of senator Daniel K. Inouye, a fellow Hawaii native who, in the president’s admiring words, “would probably be wondering what all the fuss was about.”
Those imagined sentiments did not stop Obama from making a fuss over the long-serving Democratic senator and war hero who died this week at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center at the age of 88.
A president about to begin his second term explained that Inouye’s fight for honest government and racial equality, both in his public work and in the way he lived his life, inspired his own political career.
Traveling one summer as a boy through the “mainland” United States, Obama said, he watched Inouye each evening on a motel television with his mother as the senator helped direct the Watergate hearings.
Obama recalled being transfixed by Inouye’s “courtly baritone full of dignity and grace” and by the fact that the diminutive, war-wounded senator of Japanese descent did not come “out of central casting” for politicians at that time.
“It hinted to me what might be possible in my own life,” said Obama, recounting the questions about his mixed-race identity that he was beginning to confront as a boy. “I learned how our democracy is supposed to work.”
“Were it not for those two insights planted in my head at the age of 11, in between Disneyland and a trip to Yellowstone, I might never have considered a career in public service. I might not be standing here today,” Obama told the hushed audience in the nave of the National Cathedral. “I think it’s fair to say that Danny Inouye was perhaps my earliest political inspiration.”
Inouye was the first Japanese American to be elected to Congress, breaking that cultural barrier to become the second-longest-serving senator in U.S. history.
On Thursday, the he became the first Asian American to be afforded the honor of lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda. His service Friday reflected similar admiration for his life and work.
Obama sat in the front pew with Vice President Biden, former president Bill Clinton and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who called Inouye “a healing hero” whose difficult convalescence from battlefield wounds made him a symbol of resilience and whose speech at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago helped calm the rising storm over race in this country.
The service began with traditional Hawaiian music — ukuleles and harmonies. Military pallbearers then carried Inouye’s casket to the altar.
Inouye was a highly decorated World War II veteran who was severely wounded in Italy in a 1945 operation, during which he took out three machine gun nests. He eventually had his arm amputated because of his wounds. He was given the nation’s highest military award for valor, the Medal of Honor.
In his remarks Friday morning, Clinton called Inouye “one of the most remarkable Americans I have ever known.”
“It is difficult to be a gallant man in politics without seeming pompous, and it is difficult to constantly reach out to find common ground without worrying if you have left your principles behind,” he said. “Dan Inouye did all of this and more.”
Biden, who served for more than three decades with Inouye in the Senate, called him “a great man who befriended me throughout my career.”
“Can you think of anyone who ever — ever, ever, ever — questioned Danny Inouye’s integrity, even in the midst of the bitterness that has enveloped Congress in recent years?” Biden asked. “I know no one who was both as respected and loved as much as Danny Inouye.”
As Reid had before him, Obama recalled Inouye’s 1968 convention speech, which he ended with the word “aloha,” a Hawaiian expression for hello, goodbye and “I love you,” as Obama noted.
It was the last word Inouye was said to have uttered before he died Monday, surrounded by family and friends.
“He may have been saying goodbye to us, or he may have been saying hello to someone on the other side, but, most of all, it was a final expression of the love he felt for all of us,” Obama said. “May God bless Daniel Inouye, and may God grant us more souls like his.”