By Jason Horowitz
Tuesday, October 5, 2010; C01
HONOLULU -- On the morning of Sept. 2, the 65th anniversary of Imperial Japan's surrender to the United States aboard the USS Missouri, generals and politicians snapped to attention as the war hero who became the king of Hawaii boarded the battleship's deck.
"Hello," Sen. Daniel Inouye said in a voice so soft-spoken that the luminaries had to surround him to hear.
The right sleeve of his boxy tan suit hung limply, a reminder that he lost his arm while heroically disabling enemy machine guns in World War II. A wooden cane dangled from a rope on his left wrist, and a lei of kukui nuts hung around his neck. He led a procession to the stage and took the center seat as the guest of honor.
"I was honored to play a small part in bringing the Mighty Mo to Hawaii," Inouye said on the podium. Through rimless glasses, he looked out at the uniformed crowd and "Sons of Aloha" choir and spoke in subdued but clear sentences. The battleships -- the restored Missouri and the adjacent, submerged USS Arizona -- "send a small, strong message to our allies, and throw caution to our potential enemies, that we can endure hardships, that we persevere and, yes, we will emerge victorious."
The same can be said for Daniel Inouye.
More than any other statesman in the history of these volcanic islands -- more than Kamehameha the Great, who united them into a kingdom in 1810, or Gov. John Burns, who led the political revolution that established Democratic Party rule here in 1954 -- Inouye, 86, has ruled over Hawaii.
As the federal funding he has provided has grown, his political opposition has waned. Hawaiians have voted for Inouye for 56 years, first for territorial representative in 1954, then for Congress in 1959. In 1963, he became the nation's first Japanese American senator. His uninterrupted stretch of service in the country's most exclusive chamber is the second-longest in history behind the recently deceased Robert Byrd, whom Inouye replaced as the Senate's senior member and president pro tempore in June. That position, ceremonial though it is, puts him third in line to succeed the president.
In the decades since Inouye last commanded national attention, much has changed. His pincushion cheeks have sagged into a stony, even dour, visage that adds to his regal bearing. His once grand, national ambitions to lead his party in the Senate have subsided, and he has shrugged off allegations of corruption and impropriety. He has contented himself with mostly parochial interests, quietly exercising power as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee to deliver, above all, for his state.
But the clubby, bipartisan, backroom politicking at which Inouye excels has gone out of style. Both President Obama, another son of Hawaii, and his 2008 rival, John McCain, campaigned against earmarks. As the tea party movement echoes that excoriation, Inouye's unabashed advocacy for bring-home-the-bacon governance is jarring.
Although his decades in the Senate have brought him great stature, they have also winnowed his peers: In recent years, he has mourned Ted Stevens, his closest colleague and "brother"; Byrd, his predecessor as president pro tempore; Ted Kennedy; and Henry Giugni, his best friend and a former Senate sergeant at arms turned lobbyist. Inouye is the last of a generation of old Senate lions. And he knows it.
As he stepped out onto the balcony of his Waikiki apartment a few hours after the Pearl Harbor ceremony and surveyed the Diamond Head volcano's gray crater and the whitewashed skyline built with his earmark dollars, he reflected on his new senior status in the Senate.
"The facts of life would tell you," Inouye said, "that it is the final stop."
Self-reflection is offered begrudgingly, as Inouye is not a sentimental man. And he is also not in a relinquishing mood.
Next month, he will stand for a ninth Senate term. He is expected to win in a cakewalk -- his likely Republican opponent is calling himself "crazy" in campaign ads for taking on Inouye. This year, Inouye cost his party a seat in the House when he undermined the preferred candidate of the national Democratic Party and White House, because the upstart had dared to challenge Inouye's authority.
The senator's schedule during his campaign sweep in Hawaii was filled with visits to schools and entire towns built with federal dollars that he had delivered. Included on his itinerary: a visit to the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, which was founded 15 years ago with $10 million secured by the senator. The center was celebrating a new wing built with an additional $12 million obtained by Inouye. The center's new dean, Lauren Kahea Moriarty, a retired U.S. ambassador, is the daughter of a former close aide of Inouye's.
Inouye made no apologies for his sway, boasting of his sizable majorities in election after election. "In certain circles," said Inouye, grinning in his apartment as he lifted a water glass off a U.S. Senate coaster, "I'm the godfather."Earmarks mark the spot
During a visit to the Big Island last year, Inouye happily called himself "the number one earmarks guy in the U.S. Congress." According to the Center for Responsive Politics, in fiscal 2010, Inouye secured $392,432,850 in earmark spending, 25.3 percent of which went to campaign contributors. That means he sent more money to political supporters than any other senator. The watchdog group makes a distinction for earmarks of which a senator is the sole sponsor. In that category, Inouye brought back $204,953,950 in 2010, the highest amount in the Senate except for Byrd.
Inouye makes no excuses for being what Dave Rae, an official for the Kapolei Chamber of Commerce, called a "Johnny Appleseed, spreading federal funds around." He sees the money as necessary to ensure that Hawaii, once a remote territory, matters. He wants the state to be central in the nation's defense strategy, but he has also sought to economically develop all of the islands (there's now a federally financed supercomputer on Maui) and bring them out of the shadow of Oahu.
He has sought to build a university system by bulking up community colleges across the islands and is a big believer that military housing projects create jobs and vibrant towns. In fiscal 2010, Inouye sent $30 million, his largest earmark, to the state's rail project, which many here consider his legacy project.
The morning after his address at Pearl Harbor, Inouye sat in the back of a white Cadillac as his four-car motorcade drove west of Honolulu, with the sparkling Pacific to the left and fluted green mountains on his right. When the caravan turned north, the cars around Inouye grew progressively older, and the resorts gave way to tents erected by homeless people on the beach. The motorcade pulled into a parking lot in Waianae, where he spoke at an underprivileged school that, with the help of federal funding, had become a fully stocked digital media center. As he slowly toured the facility, going from one Mac flat-screen to another, where students showed off their animation skills, Inouye asked a flustered 16-year-old, Aaron Paakaula, "All of this you learned here?"
Paakaula said yes and, as Inouye turned away, bumped fists with a classmate: "I feel like I met one of the most important people in the world," he said.
At the exit, Inouye encountered a sign that read "proposed pool renovation" under an $8 million estimate and with a complement of students pitching him on the idea. Inouye called over Candy Suiso, the school's director. "How much is it?" he asked with the mock exasperation of a father dipping into his pocket. Suiso quickly covered up the $8 million sign with her hand.
"Oh, I don't know," she said. "Ten million?"
"You should talk to the new member of Congress," Inouye joked, pointing his cane at Colleen Hanabusa.Loyalty vs. party
Hanabusa is Inouye's chosen candidate in the state's upcoming U.S. House showdown. Her candidacy also offers a case study in how he wields clout.
When Rep. Neil Abercrombie abandoned his seat to run for governor this year, Democratic leaders in Washington determined that the strongest candidate to replace him was former congressman Ed Case. Even the White House suggested as much. But in 2006, Case had challenged Hawaii's junior senator, Daniel Akaka, against Inouye's wishes. The slight wasn't forgotten, said sources close to Inouye, and motivated the senator's decision to back Hanabusa. As a result, the Democratic vote split and a Republican, Charles Djou, won the seat.
Hanabusa, now the Democratic candidate to replace Djou, knows where she'd be without the support of "Senator," as she calls him.
"It would be disastrous," she said, adding that the party officials tasked with electing Democrats remained furious with Inouye.
So too is Case.
"He's compelled for reasons not clear to me to run Hawaii as his own personal fiefdom," said the former congressman, who is nevertheless supporting Inouye's reelection. "It was more important that I not be elected than that Djou not be elected."
"Politically he is very influential in the state," Djou said. "But does that mean he should be allowed to own the state, does that mean he should be allowed to dictate whatever his whim or fancy may be on the electorate?"
Inouye's power in Hawaii is even more exceptional, given that he is rarely here.
When he does come home, he lives in a condominium across from a laundromat with his wife, Irene Hirano, an elegantly coiffed woman who was president of the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. (Inouye sat on the museum's board and helped steer $20 million to it from the annual defense bill in 2000.) Inouye's only child, Kenny Inouye, from his first marriage to Margaret Awamura, who died in 2006, is a former member of the D.C. hardcore band Marginal Man and is now a 46-year-old lobbyist for entertainment companies with business before his father in the Commerce Committee. Inouye's office said that the senator's son "only lobbies the House."
The senator's apartment features a freshly vacuumed white carpet, a grand piano and abstract paintings by Hawaiian artists on the wall. Inouye keeps no computer, a promise he made to himself after helping pass the telecommunications act in 1996, because he considers them too addictive. "I only have a cellphone," he said, happily taking a blank-screened phone out of his pocket. "And this cellphone is not on. No one can call me, and I have no idea what the number is."
In an hour-long conversation, Inouye showed a sharp wit, a tendency to filibuster with long stories of yesteryear, and the bearing of a man not usually interrupted. He talked fondly about Ted Stevens. In fact, in 2008, the Hawaii Democrat flew over the Pacific and across party lines to campaign for the Alaska Republican. Indictments had come down: The Alaskan had been accused of receiving cut-rate home improvements from an oil contractor who lobbied him for government aid.
" 'These are the pieces they are talking about?' " Inouye recalled telling Stevens, as he inspected the fixtures. "I wasn't kidding. I would have used them for firewood or given them away if someone had taken them. It was wooden slats!"
Inouye, who has a net worth, according to his personal financial disclosure, estimated at $2,144,018 to $4,695,999, has faced plenty of heat himself over questionable earmarks, but he said the largess had stabilized Hawaii's economy.
"I can justify every one of them," he said.
And in Washington, Inouye's military and public service have elevated him to exalted levels.
"Danny Inouye has a combination of courage, integrity and effectiveness that is awe-inspiring," Vice President Biden said in a statement. "He has been a close, personal friend for over 37 years. With Danny, it is never about him -- it's always about his state, country, and military men and women. There is no man in the United States Senate I admire more than Dan Inouye."
And yet, it can be painful to watch the Senate's senior statesman in the Capitol.
On the cliquish Senate floor, Inouye enters with great dignity, applauds speeches by tapping his cane on the ground and receives polite greetings from his colleagues. In interviews, senators speak of him with studied reverence. But some of the newest senators are working to reform the seniority rules that have empowered him. There has been grumbling that the pro tempore position should be bestowed on the majority leader, because a potentially incapacitated elder statesman shouldn't be third in line to the presidency.
More often than not, Inouye is alone on the floor.
"A lot of people have moved on, and others have passed away," said Bob Dole, the former Senate majority leader and Republican presidential nominee. Inouye and Dole met in a Michigan hospital as fellow young soldiers recovering from battle wounds they suffered in Italy. They talked about their future; Dole shared his plan to get into politics and suggested Inouye do the same. "He is sort of the last man standing," Dole said.
Inouye promised that he wasn't through making friends.
"Camaraderie is up to you," he said, explaining life since Stevens left the chamber. "I'm happy to say that I've been able to meet others, not to the extent of Ted Stevens, but, hopefully with the passage of time, I'll get close to them."
In his apartment, he talked mostly about the past and peppered his discussion with names like Lyndon Johnson, Mike Mansfield and Warren Magnuson. He offered a tour of the apartment and took a seat at the polished piano. With his wife smiling, Inouye played "Danny Boy" with his left hand.
"It was part of the rehab," Inouye said, eyes sparkling, after he finished the song. "I had to learn how to play it before I could leave."A new career
After the war, when Inouye returned to Hawaii, he took Dole's advice to heart. At the time, Republicans enjoyed one-party rule, and Inouye supported struggling Democratic leader Jack Burns. Later, in 1954, with Japanese Americans finally granted full voting rights, Inouye successfully ran to represent the territory in Washington as part of Hawaii's Democratic revolution. He then joined the House, where he was surprised that Sam Rayburn knew his name ("There aren't too many one-armed Japs around here," Rayburn replied) and then rose to the Senate.
"I had already planned it," Inouye said of his ascent.
Twenty years later, with political-celebrity status attained in Hawaii, he came to national prominence by leading the 1973 Senate Watergate Committee investigating President Richard M. Nixon. In the middle of the hearings, Inouye said he was visited by pollster George Gallup with a new national survey in hand. "The best-known person is the president of the United States, and the second is you," Inouye recalled Gallup telling him. "I then realized that television was that powerful."
Over the next decade, Inouye became a popular colleague. In 1987, Democrats picked him to lead the Iran-contra hearings, the highest-profile investigation in the Senate since Watergate, and was talked about as a likely successor to Majority Leader Robert Byrd, who, in exchange for Inouye's support in 1987, offered to step aside and make room for Inouye in 1989.
"He did say, 'I was leaving soon,' " said Inouye, who declined to discuss the matter further. In exchange for his support of Byrd, though, Inouye received the perk of seeing his administrative assistant Giugni appointed as the Senate's sergeant at arms.
Everything seemed to point Inouye toward national leadership. But liberal leaders of the Senate had expected Inouye to punish and embarrass President Ronald Reagan during the Iran-contra hearings and considered Inouye's respectful posture a bust. Then, in the closing days of the session, Inouye often deferred to his friend Stevens on the subject of the contra funding he had investigated, and Inouye subsequently worked to include $8 million for the contras in the omnibus appropriations bill. He simultaneously pushed through another $8 million to fund a school for North African Jews in Paris, a move that was widely seen as a favor to a campaign contributor and prompted a rare concession from Inouye at the time that he had made "an error in judgment."
The contrition was not enough to save his majority leader aspirations.
"After that, I said, 'I'll concentrate on my work,' " he said. "My goal was to represent Hawaii well."
In the 20 years after the loss, Inouye has focused on bringing money back to Hawaii with an intensity that has exponentially expanded his local power. In his 1992 reelection campaign, allegations of sexual misconduct received remarkably little traction in the political establishment or local media.
"In Hawaii, there is what is called a reservoir of aloha, a buildup of goodwill," said Rick Reed, the 1992 Republican Senate candidate who tried to make the allegations an issue and now sells cars and writes nonfiction in Washington state. "And for a lot of people, Inouye had that."
("I'm happy that most of the people believed in me," Inouye said when asked about the lack of a commotion over the allegations.)
That goodwill spilled over into a new generation of Inouye acolytes, and it sometimes seems that the state is run by a diaspora of former Inouye staffers. They sit on the boards of the largest corporations. They are mayors and top lobbyists and university officials.
"Like the sun is to the solar system," said Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, a former legislative assistant for Inouye, "he is to our state."Here's to the future
On Sept. 7, Inouye's 86th birthday, the senator and his wife climbed out of the white Cadillac in front of the stately city hall in downtown Honolulu to cast their early votes before heading back to Washington. He emerged from the curtain, and TV reporters wished him a happy birthday and asked him how many times he had voted for himself.
"Fifteenth time," Inouye said in his barely audible voice.
Then the mayor presented him with a chocolate cake, with a single blue candle and red cherry, and all of the local officials, voters and bureaucrats in attendance sang happy birthday to him.
"Many, many more, Senator," Caldwell whispered in his ear.