It was a typical Monday night in the U.S. Senate: Returning to Washington from a weekend at home, senators would quickly enter the Senate Chamber to confirm judicial nominees and depart just as quickly into the cold night.
The vote was scheduled for 5 p.m., but several senators were seen milling about as a delay stretched for more than 40 minutes. By 5:44 p.m., Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) walked out of the Senate Cloak Room and approached Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.).
“Inouye just passed away,” Landrieu said.
“Oh my God,” Klobuchar said, putting her hand to her heart.
Landrieu turned next to Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.): “Inouye has passed away.”
Moments later, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) entered through a side door, followed by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the chamber’s highest-ranking woman; Reid’s deputy, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.); Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), the third-ranking Democrat; and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who is now Senate President Pro Tempore, the third in line to the presidency and most senior senator in the land.
Reid walked to the back of the chamber and made his way down the center aisle. As the majority leader sought permission to speak, Durbin took his seat and quickly hushed nearby colleagues who were oblivious to what would come next.
“Our friend, Dan Inouye just died,” Reid said.
Senators froze in silence, except for Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who gasped, grabbed his desk, leaned forward and stood briefly, as if in prayer, before sitting down. Leahy stood at his desk, off behind Reid’s left shoulder, before taking his seat.
“I have never known anyone like Dan Inouye. No one else has,” Reid said, his voice quivering as he struggled to find words to match the moment. “The kindness that he has shown for my time here in the Senate is something I will cherish always. A man who has lived and breathed the Senate. If there were ever a patriot, Dan Inouye was that patriot.”
As Reid spoke, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) stood in the back of the chamber, his arms crossed, his head down, with spectacles resting on his nose.
Reid recalled a story about Inouye’s son, who once asked the senator why he had volunteered to fight in War World II, even though the U.S. had declared Japanese Americans “enemy aliens.” Reid said Inouye’s response was that “he did it for the children. That’s Senator Inouye.”
“His commitment to our nation will never be surpassed,” Reid added.
At least 25 senators were present for the announcement of Inouye’s death. After Reid broke the news, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his incoming deputy, John Cornyn (R-Texas) rushed to the floor and took their seats. Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) emerged from the Republican Cloak Room. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) – the Senate’s longest-serving woman – later arrived as Reid continued speaking.
When Reid concluded, he turned to McConnell.
The Republican leader called Inouye “a man who, as we all know, rarely called attention to himself, but who lived a remarkable American life filled with dignity and grace of the true hero that he was.”
“He was only 17 when he heard the sirens over Honolulu and saw the great planes flying overhead,” McConnell said. “At the time he dreamed of being a surgeon. A few years later a medic would be taking care of him after his heroic actions in the Italian mountains for which he would one day receive our nation’s most prestigious award for military valor.”
Some Senate staffers standing along a side wall wiped away tears. Tourists seated in the gallery overhead – observing what would have been a routine night of deliberation – sat in rapt attention, eyes wide as they realized what they were witnessing.
McConnell called Inouye “an iconic political figure of his beloved Hawaii,” adding that “He was a man who had every reason to call attention to himself, but who never did. He was the kind of man, in short, that America has always been grateful to have, especially in her darkest hours, men who lead by example and who expect nothing in return.”
By the time McConnell concluded, at least 37 senators had entered the chamber, most of them now at their seats.
Reid brought the moment to a close by expressing the Senate’s collective appreciation and condolences, adding that more would be said later. He concluded as most senators do: “I note the absence of a quorum.”
Senators stood — and the chamber returned to normal order.
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