WASHINGTON — Hundreds of mourners including world leaders like President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton bid aloha to Sen. Daniel K. Inouye at the National Cathedral in Washington on Friday morning. Inouye, 88, died on Monday.
Ukulele, organ and choir music was woven throughout a memorial service that also included personal remembrances from Obama, Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Gen. Eric Shinseki, and Senate Chaplain Barry Black. Senator-elect Mazie Hirono and Rep. Colleen Hanabusa gave readings. Outgoing Sen. Daniel Akaka was also in attendance.
Sniffles rippled through the crowd as eight uniformed men carried Inouye’s fabric-draped casket to the front of the cathedral. Intermittent sunshine threw messy rectangles of color from the stained glass windows across the cavernous space.
“Dan taught the nation that aloha means not just ‘hello,’ not just ‘goodbye,’ it also means ‘I love you,'” Reid said during the service. “‘Aloha’ was Dan’s last word on earth. So I say to my friend, Danny, aloha. I love you. And goodbye until we meet again.”
Inouye was described over and over again as a loyal patriot and a man of dignity and grace, a principled yet humble leader who believed in inclusiveness.
“They blew his arm off in World War II but they never, never laid a finger on his heart or his mind,” Clinton said. “That, he gave to us. For 50 years. And that, every single citizen should celebrate.”
The memorial was an emotional reminder of Inouye’s reach — not just because of what the senator personally meant to so many of the most influential leaders in the world, but for how long his leadership has informed American politics.
Obama said that Inouye was likely his first political influence. The president remembers seeing him on television the summer of 1973, as the Watergate hearings were under way. Obama, then 11, was on his first trip to the mainland — a sprawling exploration of the United States by Greyhound bus with his mother, grandmother and toddler sister, he recalled.
Every night in whatever Illinois or California or Kansas or Montana motel the Obamas were in, his mother and grandmother turned on television for news of the Watergate hearings, the president said.
“The person who fascinated me most was this man of Japanese descent with one arm, speaking in this portly baritone, full of dignity and grace.” Obama said. “And maybe he captivated my attention because my mom explained that this was our senator, that he was upholding what our government was all about. Maybe it was a boy who had fascination with the story of how he lost his arm in war.
“But I think it was more than that. Here I was a young boy with a white mom, a black father, raised in Indonesia and Hawaii, and I was beginning to sense how fitting into the world might not be as simple as it might seem. And so to see this man — this senator, this powerful, accomplished person — who was not of central casting when it came to what you think a senator might look like at the time, and the way he commanded the respect of an entire nation, I think it hinted to me what might be possible in my own life.”
Obama said that Inouye gave him “a powerful sense of hope,” and demonstrated a “fundamental integrity” that are difficult for him to put into words. Watching Inouye in the Watergate hearings, Obama began to learn how American democracy was supposed to work, he said.
Without Inouye, “I might never have considered a career in public service,” Obama said. “I might not be standing here today. I think it’s fair to say that Danny Inouye was perhaps my earliest political inspiration.”
The president also reflected on Inouye’s sometimes mischievous side, and the times the senator regaled him with stories about war time, and the long recovery process after he lost his right arm on an Italian battlefield.
“Stories full of humor, never bitterness, never boastfulness,” Obama said. “Just matter-of-fact. Some of them, I must admit, a little off-color. I couldn’t probably repeat them in the cathedral.”
Clinton called Inouye “one of the most remarkable Americans I have ever known,” and says the senator was first and foremost a friend and advisor. Clinton also recalled Inouye’s directness, like when he told Clinton that he wasn’t paying enough attention to the Okinawan community in Hawaii.
“I said, ‘Well, senator, what do you think I should do about it?’ He said, ‘I know what you’re going to do about it. They’re having a festival today and you’re going. In two hours.’ And I did.”
But Clinton says Inouye was most important to this country when times were tough. He reflected on the sense of calm he evoked amid the chaos of race riots in Chicago when he spoke at the Democratic National Convention in 1968.
“This is my country,” Inouye had said that hot summer night. “This is our country.”
Here’s how Clinton put it up at the memorial: “If Dan Inouye was your friend, he didn’t care whether the sun was shining or the storm was raging. He didn’t care if you were up or down or sideways. He was just there.”
Biden, too, talked about Inouye’s unwavering loyalty. He described the senator as being one of just two people — Biden’s own father being the other — whom he described to his children as a man without a single quality not to emulate. “I think his physical courage was matched by his moral courage,” Biden said. “I don’t know anybody else that I can say that of.”
Upon the senator’s death earlier this week, Inouye’s office released this statement: “When asked in recent days how he wanted to be remembered, Dan said, very simply, ‘I represented the people of Hawaii and this nation honestly and to the best of my ability. I think I did OK.'”
In Friday’s service, Obama responded. “Danny, you were more than OK,” Obama said. “You were extraordinary.”
After the service, Inouye’s casket was covered with an American flag. People dressed in black filed out into the icy December air. The cathedral’s bells rang out in a quarter peal across the District, perhaps the closest thing to a rainbow cutting through the gray skies overhead.