U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, one of the nation’s most influential and powerful leaders, died Monday from respiratory complications while at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

Although Inouye, 88, had been hospitalized since Dec. 6, his death comes as a surprise, in part because his staff closely guarded information about his conditions from the media and his colleagues.

In a statement released by Inouye’s office, the senator’s last words were, “Aloha.” He is survived by his wife, Irene Hirano Inouye, his son Daniel Ken Inouye Jr., Ken’s wife Jessica, and granddaughter Maggie and step-daughter Jennifer Hirano.

“I loved him. I’ll miss him,” said Walter Dods, who was Inouye’s long-time campaign manager. “He was a giant and we will never see another person like that again in Hawaii. And he single-handedly carried our economy for many years.”

As the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and as a longtime advocate for the state’s interests, Inouye was responsible for bringing billions of dollars into Hawaii. He was first elected to the Senate in 1962, having first been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1959, the year of statehood.

Inouye, a decorated World War II veteran, was the first Japanese-American elected to Congress.

“Tonight, our country has lost a true American hero with the passing of Sen. Daniel Inouye,” Hawaii-born President Barack Obama said in a statement. “The second-longest serving Senator in the history of the chamber, Danny represented the people of Hawaii in Congress from the moment they joined the Union. In Washington, he worked to strengthen our military, forge bipartisan consensus, and hold those of us in government accountable to the people we were elected to serve.”

Now comes the difficult choice of replacing Inouye in the Senate. This decision will be left up to Gov. Neil Abercrombie and the local Democratic party.

“The Senator recently made clear to me his love and affection for us all,” Abercrombie said in a written statement. “He said: ‘I represented the people of Hawaii and this nation honestly and to the best of my ability. I think I did okay.’ I’m sure we all believe he did okay.

“Our responsibility is to not just carry on but carry through on his total devotion and commitment to Hawaii and its values.”

How Sick Was He?

Details about Inouye’s condition before he died were sparse. Although he was hospitalized after a fainting spell on Dec. 6, his deputy chief of staff, Peter Boylan, did not inform the media until Dec. 10.

It was the second time in less than a month that the senator had been hospitalized. He fell in his home in November, which required him to get stitches to repair a gash in his head.

After his most recent hospitalization, Inouye’s staff was reluctant to release information about the senator’s condition. Updates were sporadic and vague, and never hinted at the severity of the situation.

Civil Beat had received conflicting reports about the whereabouts of Inouye at Walter Reed hospital. Staff there had told Civil Beat multiple times over the past week — starting on Dec. 10 — that Inouye was in the medical intensive care unit.

A staffer in the ICU told Civil Beat that the senator was not allowed to see visitors during regular visiting hours and to call back a couple hours later for an update on his status.

When Civil Beat made that phone call, an ICU charge nurse said, “I can tell you we don’t have any patient by that name on this ward.” She then said she was told to direct all calls about the senator to the public affairs office.

These statements were contrary to what others in the hospital said about Inouye, that he was indeed in the ICU.

But when Civil Beat pressed Boylan last week about whether his boss was in intensive care, he said, “Not that I know of.”

This lack of information highlighted the sensitive nature of Inouye’s health and the ways in which his staff protected details about the senator.

On Sunday Boylan released a statement saying that Inouye has been having respiratory complications and that there was no timetable for his release from the hospital.

It was sent at 6 p.m. Sunday, which would have been 11 p.m. in Washington, D.C. The update noted that Inouye was “stable.”

Boylan did not return phone calls Monday morning before news of Inouye’s passing.

Little known facts about Inouye’s frailty also surfaced during his time at Walter Reed.

For instance, Politico reported that Inouye had been short of breath and suffering from emphysema. This required him to use portable oxygen to help regulate his breathing.

Inouye was misdiagnosed with lung cancer in the late 1960s, resulting in him having a large portion of his left lung removed. Staff members said this could have been a contributing factor to his most recent hospitalization.

The senator had also been using a wheelchair for nearly a year to get around the Capitol, something he did to lessen the strain on his knees.

Colleagues in the Dark

Civil Beat also learned this week that Inouye’s staffers largely left his colleagues in the dark about the senator’s condition.

In its regular Monday morning briefing, another senate office was informed that Inouye would be available to cast deciding votes on major issues such as the fiscal cliff and providing relief funds for areas impacted by Hurricane Sandy.

He would be taken from Walter Reed to the Capitol in a wheelchair to vote, and then go back to the hospital.

The Senate even heard one of Inouye’s amendments Monday — legislation he introduced as part of the Hurricane Sandy relief funding. Introduced by Sen. Patrick Leahy on behalf of Inouye, the amendment passed.

The last time a member of Hawaii’s congressional delegation died while serving in office was in 2002.

Patsy Mink, who represented the seat for Hawaii’s Second Congressional District, died of viral pneumonia at age 74.

As with Inouye, details about Mink’s health appeared to have been kept from the public, and statements from officials hid the true nature of her condition.

Mink had been hospitalized for a month in Honolulu’s Straub Clinic and Hospital with complications from chickenpox.

The popular Democrat died Sept. 28, just a week after winning a primary race with 73 percent of the vote. Mink would be re-elected posthumously in the Nov. 5 general election, defeating Republican Bob McDermott 52 percent to 37 percent.

At the time, some people complained that Hawaii Democrats did not properly inform the public of Mink’s actual health status. Had that happened, the argument went, another Democrat could have been named to take Mink’s place on the ballot.

Ed Case subsequently won two special elections — one to complete Mink’s term and another to serve a new two-year term.

—Chad Blair, Nate Thayer and Anita Hofschneider contributed to this story.

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