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Inouye's impact on Hawaii was monumental

LAST UPDATED: 10:49 a.m. HST, Dec 18, 2012

Hawaii has lost a stalwart and distinguished champion among the political leaders of the nation with the death of U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, 88.

It is difficult to overstate the impact Inouye has had on Hawaii's development and policy decisions, from statehood on through the decades. In his later years, he was seen as the state's pre-eminent power broker; Inouye has been described in such terms for so long it almost obscures the lifetime of effort he had invested in building the foundations for change in the islands.

The reality into which he was born was radically different. The grandson of immigrants who left Japan to work in the sugarcane fields grew up in circumstances far removed from power and influence. Wartime often occasions great change, and Inouye was part of a generation that witnessed a social and political transformation in Hawaii as a result of World War II.

At 17 he saw the devastation of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and he volunteered to help in the medical rescue effort there. And just as some Americans of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast were driven to internment camps, Inouye and other second-generation AJAs became part of what would be known as the highly decorated 442nd Regimental Combat Team.

Those honors came at the cost of many lives, and Inouye lost his right arm to injuries suffered on the battlefields of Europe, for which he received a Distinguished Service Cross for gallantry in combat. In 2000, the award was upgraded to a Medal of Honor, which President Bill Clinton conferred on him at the White House.

After attending college and earning a law degree, as a beneficiary of the G.I. Bill, Inouye practiced law in Honolulu. Then, as labor disputes became the game-changer for Hawaii's upwardly mobile working class, Inouye became part of the Democratic Party revolution that resulted from the upheaval.

With his election to the territorial Legislature he launched his political career, a launch with a steep trajectory. After statehood, Inouye was one of Hawaii's first elected members of Congress. A few short years later, in the 1962 elections, Inouye won the seat in the U.S. Senate that he held for the rest of his life.

Inouye never forgot the racism he faced as a veteran, even with his wartime honors. It clearly sensitized him to the social changes ushered in by the 1960s, and in 1968, against the backdrop of Chicago protests, he delivered the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. Rather than defending the foreign policy of the U.S. government, he castigated the Vietnam War as "immoral" and cited the racial discrimination and violence in U.S. cities.

That spotlight raised his profile, but it was really the Watergate investigative hearings in the Senate that gave him national prominence. Because of his seniority — he was the longest-serving senator after the late Robert Byrd — Inouye became president pro tempore of the Senate. That meant he ranked third in line of succession to the White House, behind the vice president and the speaker of the House.

Inouye was the kingpin in the Hawaii Democratic Party hierarchy; gaining his political favor, even if it was manifested behind the scenes, was considered essential to an ambitious candidate. But he was not an ideologue, preferring the more collegial alignments of past Senate generations to the current tug-of-war. He was part of the bipartisan "Gang of 14" that sought a compromise in judicial confirmation clashes of 2005. He was famously loyal to a Republican colleague, the late Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, when he came under fire for ethics charges.

Although in recent years Inouye put some support behind the push for Native Hawaiian federal recognition, the senator generally was known less for groundbreaking legislation than advocacy for Hawaii in budgetary matters. Inouye was unabashedly proud of his record for bringing home the bacon in earmarks for his home state, a record that was arrested when the practice fell out of favor under the Republican leadership of the U.S. House, where budget bills originate. Still, his position as Senate Appropriations chairman meant a great deal to a small state that otherwise is in danger of falling below the radar on Capitol Hill.

Certainly the senator's death leaves a void in the state's power structure. And although discussions about how to fill that are certain to intensify quickly, it's right to take a time out from the usual political skirmishes and acknowledge the immense importance of Daniel Inouye's life and work on Hawaii's behalf. He has earned that recognition. And it's unlikely in the foreseeable future that another leader will have an opportunity to leave such an indelible mark.

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