Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the party affiliation of former congressman Norman Mineta.
It was a quiet, unassuming memorial for a quiet, unassuming senator.
Friends from both sides of the aisle stood shoulder-to-shoulder Thursday in the Capitol Rotunda to remember the late senator Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), who became the first Asian-American afforded the honor of lying in state at the revered spot.
The Rotunda ceremony for the senator, who died Monday at age 88, placed him on a list that includes presidents, lawmakers and generals, two slain U.S. Capitol Police officers and civil rights icon Rosa Parks. Like most of them, Inouye rested on a catafalque constructed for the President Lincoln’s 1865 memorial service.
“Dan Inouye was an institution and deserves to spend at least another day in this beautiful building,” Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said during the ceremony.
Reid called his colleague a “soft and powerful voice for the people of Hawaii” who “was a vibrant and vital presence in the Senate, and in death he will remain a legend.”
Inouye’s casket, draped in an American flag, was carried into the Rotunda by members of the U.S. military. Around it stood Inouye’s family, friends and staff, members of the diplomatic corps, four Cabinet secretaries, members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and dozens of current and former lawmakers.
The event forced small talk among leaders in sharp disagreement over how to avert the series of tax increases and spending cuts set to take effect in January. Before the ceremony began, Vice President Biden, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Reid engaged in a brief, if awkward-looking conversation.
Directly across the Rotunda, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) stood next to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), but they exchanged few words. A few feet away, Reps. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) and James Moran (D-Va.) were heard discussing fiscal proposals.
But under John Trumbull’s painting of George Washington resigning his commission, Democratic and Republican senators stood more collegially with one of the largest reunions ever of former senators. They included Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), Slade Gorton (R-Wash.), Don Nickles (R-Okla.), Norman Coleman (R-Minn.), Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), who wore his own Medal of Honor as he watched the ceremony alongside Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.). Vicki Kennedy, the widow of former senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), also attended the service, as did former congressman Norman Mineta (D-Calif.).
Holding back tears as he often does in such settings, Boehner noted that Inouye attended a similar memorial service in the Rotunda for John F. Kennedy in 1963 and “couldn’t have imagined he would spend another five decades passing through this hall.”
“He couldn’t have fathomed it, and unassuming as he was, he wouldn’t have tried,” Boehner said. He later added, “While this may be a quiet ceremony for a quiet man, it will endure long after the respects are paid. For when this Rotunda returns to life and the tour guides give their pitch, they will always speak of Daniel Inouye, the gentleman from Hawaii and one of freedom’s most gallant champions.”
In recalling Inouye’s friendship, Biden noted that the senator came to Delaware to support his 1972 Senate campaign and later served as chairman of Biden’s failed 1988 presidential campaign.
“I didn’t have to ask,” Biden said. “I got a knock on my door saying he’d like to be my national campaign chairman. That was the only time many of you started to question his judgment.”
Biden recalled Inouye’s service with the Army’s 442nd Infantry Regiment, when the senator pried a grenade from the hand of his severed arm and thrust it at German soldiers before it exploded.
“Future generations will write about Dan Inouye,” Biden added. “They’ll learn of his physical feats, but maybe the most important lesson of all they’ll learn is that dedication to country, engagement in public life, engagement in politics — being a member of Congress — can and should be the most honorable profession of all.”
Members of the House and Senate filed passed Inouye’s casket, greeted each other and returned to their respective chambers when the ceremony concluded. Inouye’s homestate friend and colleague, Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), left the Rotunda with tears in his eyes.