Daniel K. Inouye was arguably the most important figure in modern Hawaii governance, a position he held for half a century. He was considered by many to be a kingmaker at home, the Democrat whose opinion on candidates and party policy mattered most.
Inouye was also a major figure in Washington. At the time of his death — Inouye died of respiratory complications on Dec. 17, 2012, at age 88 — he was the most-senior member of the U.S. Senate and the second-longest-serving senator in U.S. history.
Such was Inouye’s stature on the American political landscape that there were four memorial services held for him, two in Washington, D.C., and two in Honolulu. President Barack Obama attended two of those services, including the funeral at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Punchbowl Crater on Oahu, where Inouye is buried.
Inouye chaired the Senate Committee on Appropriations, the largest committee in the Senate and one of the most powerful, as it oversees all discretionary spending legislation. Inouye was the first Japanese-American to serve in the Senate, and was the first to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.
On June 28, 2010, Inouye was sworn in as president pro tempore (“president for a time”) of the U.S. Senate, an honor afforded the second-highest-ranking official of the U.S. Senate and the highest-ranking senator. Inouye assumed the position following the death of Sen. Robert Byrd. Essentially an honorary title, the Senate pro-tem is also third in line for the presidency after the vice president and House speaker.
Born in Honolulu on Sept. 7, 1924, Inouye was a second-generation Japanese-American, known as Nisei. On Dec. 7, 1941, Inouye was a medical volunteer during the Pearl Harbor attack. In 1943, he became a member of the U.S. Army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team, an Asian-American unit that fought in Europe during World War II. The 442nd saw heavy combat, and Inouye was wounded and lost his right arm. He was awarded a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart and a Medal of Honor for his service.
After the war, Inouye earned a political science degree from the University of Hawaii at Manoa and a law degree from George Washington Law School. He was elected to the Hawaii Territorial House of Representatives in 1954 — the year Democrats wrested control from Republicans — and served as majority leader. In 1958 he was elected to the Hawaii Territorial Senate.
Following statehood in 1959, Inouye was elected to the U.S. House. In 1962 he was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he served since 1963 until his death in 2012.
Inouye was valued by many Hawaii constituents for his ability to direct federal dollars to his district, much of it for U.S. military facilities, housing, projects, personnel and veterans in the islands. The funds have also gone to support education, environmental protection and programs for Native Hawaiians.
The total dollar amount is well into the billions; the nonpartisan watchdog group LegiStorm reported that Inouye’s earmarks totaled $2.7 billion in fiscal years 2008-2010 alone. Inouye long defended this largesse and even welcomed labels like “King of Pork.” In 2010, the federal government spent more than $20 billion on Hawaii for the first time.
Inouye often garnered national attention. He delivered the keynote address at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, served on the Senate Watergate Committee in the early 1970s, and helped lead the Iran-Contra investigation of the late 1980s.
Inouye won re-election in the 2010 general election with 72 percent of the vote, and he never faced a serious competitor during his time in the Senate. He was succeeded by Brian Schatz, the Hawaii lieutenant governor who was appointed by Gov. Neil Abercrombie to fill the seat until a special election could be held in 2014. Schatz won that race, allowing him to serve out the remaining two years on Inouye’s six-year term. The race attracted a lot of attention, as Inouye’s preferred successor, U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, challenged Schatz but lost narrowly.
Since Inouye’s death, speculation continues as to whether Hawaii has suffered in terms of financial support from Washington and influence in general in the U.S. capital. But his memory lives on in other ways, notably in the naming of facilities and structures in his name. They include a lighthouse on Kauai, a highway on the Big Island, a security center in Waikiki and a Navy destroyer. And, in 2013, he was honored posthumously with the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.