WASHINGTON — If you love Hawaii, this has been a tough week.
Yes, Sen. Daniel K. Inouye was 88 years old, and yes, he was in the hospital twice in the last month. But his death Monday still came as a great surprise to many, and it’s still very hard to believe he’s gone. After 50 years in the Senate, it was easy to feel like he’d be around forever.
Walking into the U.S. Capitol tonight and seeing a flag-draped coffin brought the reality home.
I covered Sen. Inouye occasionally for the last few years, starting when I was living on Kauai, working for The Garden Island newspaper. We crossed paths on Oahu when I was there with Civil Beat, and then again here in the nation’s capital when I took over the Washington bureau. We probably spoke in person a dozen times in all, and I’d be lying if I said our relationship ever advanced past the public figure-reporter stage.
Still, I found myself surprisingly saddened by his passing, and surprisingly emotional and contemplative as I paid my respects while he laid in state in the Capitol Rotunda, an honor bestowed on only 31 other men and women in the nation’s history. After all, we weren’t friends.
Part of it is the respect everyone who knows his story feels. While other Japanese-Americans were being interned, he was pushing to fight for his country. He exhibited extraordinary heroism fighting some of the worst enemies freedom has ever known, then returned home and faced discrimination. He persevered despite physical challenges and bigotry to become a tremendously powerful figure, and used that power to advocate for his people.
For many who stood beside me at the Capitol tonight, that’s the entire story. Tourists and veterans and congressional staffers were there to honor the service.
But there was another part of it, at least for me.
Inouye’s impact on Hawaii has been profound. The islands I fell in love with are the way they are, for better and for worse, because of the power he’s wielded here for half a century. Even if you disagree with his politics, it’s impossible to appreciate life in Hawaii without appreciating how Inouye shaped that life.
So after I paid my respects, signed the condolence book and took one last look at a photo of the senator standing at the Capitol, flashing a shaka and a smile, I was greeted by a cold December rain that made me miss Hawaii all the more. Dan Inouye is gone, and the home we shared will never be the same.
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