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Authority without airs

By John Yaukey / Special to the Star-Advertiser


WASHINGTON » Had Shakespeare penned a drama of modern American politics, U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye would have played the deceptively quiet, but wise power broker — an owl amid the preening peacocks of Capitol Hill.

In the marbled hallways of Washington, the friendly, black-haired baritone was at once fearfully called "the godfather" and, affectionately, "Zeus."

Those who write the first draft of history have already begun to cast him as such: a man who wielded immense power not only over the nation's spending, but also its national security and many other veins of policy.

But Inouye's authority was always tempered with reserve and a deep compassion that rumbled through his slow, deliberate cadence.

His vast network of influence came not only from his position and credentials — a Medal of Honor winner and major figure in modern events including the Watergate hearings — but also from his style of leadership.

"He really was a huge figure in what is fast becoming a bygone era in the Senate."
—Norm Ornstein, Congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, on Inouye's leadership and impact in Washington

To hear his colleagues and observers of American government tell it, he had an iron fist of will if he needed it, but preferred the velvet glove, the handshake, the greeting.

So many senators spoke of his tutelage, learning the ropes under him in the world's most deliberative body, under the man who had served there almost from the time of an old war they had only read about.

His identity and his integrity — not his position — were his power source.

"He was a man of remarkable integrity, and people appreciated that," said Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. "He built relationships of trust. He really was a huge figure in what is fast becoming a bygone era in the Senate."

With the imminent retirement of U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, plus Inouye's death, Hawaii will now lose a century of legislative experience and clout in Washington.

On Tuesday, Akaka choked back tears and said of his colleague and brother, "This will be the first day that he will not represent Hawaii since it became a state."

From statehood in 1959, Inouye had been Hawaii's man in Washington.

First elected to the Senate in 1962 after a stint in the House, he came in as an outsider to the world's most exclusive club of white men. He left Monday having written new chapters in the book of Washington power. Silence was often his news release; a grin, his comment to a leading question.

"He was a senator's senator," said U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.

HE CERTAINLY was in the trenches.

All senators who lead committees pull levers of power. But Inouye was uniquely positioned to influence directly forces that affected Hawaii, the nation and the world.

His well-known chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee gave him as much control over the nation's purse strings as anyone in Washington, including the president.

<t-5>The president writes and submits budgets to Congress. But for years, Inouye has been one of the final editors of the multitrillion-dollar document. In a budget of roughly $3 trillion over the past few years, he was among an insider few who decided where $1 trillion in discretionary spending went.<t$>

His leadership of the Senate's spending subcommittee on defense gave him even more authority to decide what got spent and where. Now at roughly $700 billion a year, defense spending has long been one of the largest single slices of the budget pie.

Nothing got into that budget without scrutiny from the bespectacled Chairman Inouye. But plenty was added by the stroke of his pen.

As Inouye's prominence rose in the spending committees of Capitol Hill, so too did Hawaii's fortunes. For more than a decade, Hawaii's return on federal taxation was among the top among states.

In fiscal 2010, Hawaii got $317.18 per capita, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a respected watchdog group. In second place was North Dakota with $200.33.

"He certainly was an unabashed pursuer of earmarks," said Steve Ellis, vice president of the watchdog group. "But it went beyond earmarks for Hawaii. He got funding for research, university systems, veterans' benefits, a number of things."

This caused some friction between Inouye and Republican Arizona Sen. John McCain, who labeled him as a habitual abuser of federal spending. But that was just a flare-up among two men whose war records — McCain a Vietnam War prisoner — bound them as closely as any senators.

"I didn't always agree with him on appropriations," said McCain, who was among the first on the Senate floor to rise in praise of Inouye after he died. The former fighter pilot called his friend "a uniquely brave legislator."

A force in national defense, Inouye helped shape the U.S. strategic position in the Pacific as the Pentagon began retooling more than a decade ago for the rise of China and its deep-water navy.

But for all his vaunted prowess as a bringer of bacon to Hawaii, Inouye drew respect because of the fires he had walked through.

And they only started with his war days.

As a young senator with a law degree, he seemed to plow headlong into the toughest issues of the day.

This only deepened his résumé and widened his path into Washington's centers of power.

Inouye gained national recognition for his service on the Senate Watergate Committee.

He was chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence from 1975 to 1979.

That led to running the Iran-Contra investigations of the 1980s, in which the White House sought illegal funds to fight a secret war in Central America.

Something long ago had given Inouye a taste for the good fight.

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