How bad are things in Washington, D.C., today? U.S. Daniel K. Inouye has seen worse.

When Inouye, 86, was first elected to Congress, the dining room in the U.S. Capitol was segregated.

“For those who have just lived in this period, it would seem horrendous,” he said. “But keep in mind, I’ve been there for over 50 years now.”

(For that matter, when Inouye returned to Honolulu after World War II, so were many places in Honolulu, including a restaurant that refused service to the war hero. He’s never been back. “I’ve been invited to the restaurant many, many times,” he said, adding, magnanimously and a little bit mischievously, “And I think one of these days I will. It’s a good restaurant.”)

In a wide-ranging interview with the Civil Beat editorial board Monday, Inouye reflected on the budget crisis currently afflicting Washington, support for the Akaka bill, the 2012 elections, America’s prolonged foreign wars and the next generation of leaders in Hawaii.

Some of the things he said were surprising — for example, that Donald Trump’s potential presidential run should be taken seriously (read the story here), or that the Tea Party has “good people.”

Others were less of a shock: Mention Ed Case’s name and it is clear that the senator is still uncomfortable with the man six years after Case challenged his Senate colleague, Daniel Akaka.

What comes across more strongly than anything is Dan Inouye’s continuing commitment to justice, and how it has infused nearly everything he has done in his long career of public service.

National Politics

Inouye’s take on the 2012 national elections is that Democrats have a message problem.

“It’s not going to be easy for Democrats. You know, Democrats think the message is so obvious that the voters of the United States will do the right thing.”

They’re mistaken, he said.

It’s far easier for Republicans, he says, to boil down their principles to soundbites — in today’s political milieu, that government spending must be cut and taxes shouldn’t be raised.

“And it’s a good phrase to hear for a voter to say, ‘We’re against raising any tax. And we’re going to work within our means.’ The guy listening to the radio is going to say, ‘He’s my kind of guy. Because I have to do that at home.’ So, instead of raising taxes, you cut taxes.”

That, according to Inouye, is not the way to go: “And what compounds it is what most people don’t understand. If you’re a millionaire, and you make a million bucks this year, you’re not going to do the tax forms by yourself. You’re going to have a brigade of attorneys, a brigade of CPA’s, and they’re going to work it out. And when they work it out, for some strange reason, you ended up the year not making money. There are so many loopholes.”

Nor will cutting more from government solve the problem.

“In our system, you’re always going to be confronted with a deficit,” he said. “Unless you run a closed shop and you make it a policy and say that, ‘If we don’t have the money, we won’t spend’ — you can’t run a country like that because you have so many activities occurring every day that are unanticipated: accidents, tsunamis, earthquakes, wars. And as a result, you would have to carry on by borrowing. But, it’s how to deal with the finances under those circumstances, and this is where the challenge comes in.”

Inouye did not elaborate on how to address that challenge: “In the business of government, it is not easy to be absolutely honest and candid.”

But he did say that it is far more difficult for his party to explain its complex positions — for example, why the United States spends money on foreign aide. It may amount to only 1 percent of the entire federal budget, but it takes more than 60 seconds to break it all down into digestible language.

Because of that, Inouye gives the GOP the edge next year. It doesn’t help Democrats that one of the few ways to address gaping budget deficits, growing entitlement programs and an ever-rising national debt is to restructure the tax code. These matters will have to be addressed by Vice President Joe Biden’s deficit reduction panel, to which Inouye was just appointed.

“The big challenge is how to convey the message,” he said.

And yet, for all the political back and forth, Inouye does not criticize Tea Party members of Congress for driving the discussion. He calls them “good people. They’re honest. They believe in what they’re doing. We just disagree, that’s all. And some of our disagreements are just monumental.”

What matters, Inouye said, is whether your heart is in the right place, and duty to serve.

“This may be my proof of the pudding: I don’t believe in partisanship,” he said. “And over the years I’ve been able to be good friends with Republicans. It’s no secret I’m a good friend of Bob Dole. We communicate with each other all the time because we were in the hospital together. We were in the same war zone together, we were just one mile apart and one week apart when we got injured.”

Inouye continued: “Ted Stevens, he represented a territory and I represented a territory so we had things in common. We got along beautifully…”

Hawaii Politics

One area of agreement, he says, is on federal recognition of Native Hawaiians.

That may surprise many, given that the Akaka bill has floundered for 10 years. But he says the bill does have support in both houses of Congress, and that President Obama’s personal involvement in moving the legislation could be the tipping point.

(Inouye said he thought former Gov. Linda Lingle also supports the Akaka bill, even though the latest version does not include language that Lingle and Attorney General Mark Bennett successfully fought for last year.)

Speaking of Akaka: Inouye was circumspect about the 2012 race to succeed the senator and said he would not “intrude” in the Democratic primary — something he says he has done only three times in his political career.

One of those times, of course, was five years ago when then-Congressman Case decided to run against Akaka just days after telling Inouye he would not.

“Akaka was the incumbent. I had a good working relationship with him and it was no secret,” said Inouye.” And Mr. Case came to me and I asked him, I said, ‘Are you running for the Senate?’ He says, ‘No.’ Forty-eight hours later he announced. And in his headquarters were all posters. And these posters are not made in 24 hours. It takes a little while to do this. I don’t mind people disagreeing with me. But on something like this, straight to my face?”

Have Inouye and Case mended fences since then?

“Well, he came to see me and, you know, I let bygones by bygones,” said Inouye. “But I said something like, ‘When I get agitated and irritated, I might act up.’ After all, I’m human, right? I can take a few blows. I’ll turn the other cheek. But I always remind myself there was only one person qualified to be strung up on the cross. And I’m not the one.”

Farther the road, he expressed confidence in Hawaii’s future leadership.

“I am amazed at the caliber and quality of men and women who step forward,” he said. “For example, I just spent about an hour and a half with the Department of Education and we now have an appointed board. The number of people who submitted their names was amazing and impressive. That in this day and age, there are people who step forward and say, ‘I’m willing to volunteer.'”

War and Remembrance

Inouye was perhaps at his most passionate in addressing two issues very close to him: Native Hawaiians, and war.

On the former issue, Inouye is proud of having directed — in his estimate — roughly $1 billion in federal earmarks to help Hawaii’s indigenous population in areas like education and health. Sen. John McCain may not appreciate the Hokulea sailing vessel, but Inouye understands to his core how vital a cultural symbol it has been.

Hawaiians, he said, have been treated “like dirt.”

As for the latter issue, it has defined his life.

It is easy to forget that Inouye and Akaka were among only 23 senators to have opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, or that Inouye supported the Vietnam War until the My Lai masacre of 1968.

He also fought for and succeeded in obtaining redress for Japanese Americans interned during World War II and today continues to seek the citizenship that was promised to Filipinos who served in the military for the U.S. Inouye, in fact, will leave later this week for the Philippines and also Vietnam, where his work involves examining the effects of Agent Orange.

American’s present involvement in foreign entanglements continues to trouble him.

“If we follow the policy that whenever a country threatens ‘democracies’ and went to war, we’d be fighting all over the globe,” he said. “And I don’t think we should. That’s one of the major causes of our financial problems. Even today in our debates, we speak of the budget. They don’t speak of the war. They don’t put it together. Overseas contingency operations. I’ve tried to put them together. No, they don’t want it. And people don’t take the trouble of adding those two together.”

Inouye continued: “When it comes to something like this, sometimes the word ‘patriot,’ ‘patriotism’ — they are grossly and horribly misused. That if you vote against defense, you’re not patriotic. To be patriotic, you have to be for defense. I don’t look at it that way. And I think the soldiers understand, even if I voted against going to war in Iraq, once we decided, as chairman of the committee, I said we need to do everything we can to make certain these guys come home. And that means the best equipment. … And I know something about that and I’m sensitive to that.”

Sometimes, Inouye admitted, he has trouble going to sleep at night. It’s because, as a senior member of the U.S. government, he knows things most do not.

But Dan Inouye still has zest for the job — and life.

“I’ve had two wives that are just out of this world,” he said. “Sometimes, you wonder why they said ‘yes’ to me. … And you know, they’re not bums. They’re first class people. So I sleep well.”

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