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Forever an icon

By Derrick DePledge

LAST UPDATED: 6:22 p.m. HST, Dec 21, 2012

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Inouye, by his own preference, rarely spoke on the Senate floor in his later years and often shunned the national news media. Some of his friends would say it was Japanese and Hawaii style to stay humble and avoid self-promotion, to get things done quietly. But some might forget that Inouye co-wrote his autobiography at 43 and seemed to enjoy the national media attention when he was younger.

As an elder statesman, Inouye became more of an icon, a symbol Democrats would often turn to when their valor or patriotism was challenged. After President Bush questioned the Democrats' commitment to national security in the months before the war in Iraq, some Democrats said the president owed senators like Inouye an apology.

"None of us walk on water. The day will come for all of us."
—Daniel K. Inouye, reflecting on the death of longtime U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, in August 2009

Inouye, whose outlook on war had changed sharply after Vietnam, opposed the Persian Gulf War with Iraq in 1991 and voted against giving Bush the authority to use force against Iraq before the second invasion in 2003.

"I can assure you this is not a time for Democrats and Republicans to say I have more medals than you, and I have lost more limbs than you, and we have shed more blood than you," Inouye said in a Senate speech in September 2002. "This is not the time for that. This is a time in which we should be working together, debating this issue. As the senator from West Virginia said, it is American to question the president. It is American to debate the issues."

Inouye also became an icon back in the islands. The party he had helped create to smash the Republican status quo in 1954 had itself become complacent and entrenched. The senator, his aides, and his allies in business and labor were often the last word on party strategy, candidate selection and internal disputes. But they could not always hold competing factions together.

Linda Lingle's victory in 2002, the first time a Republican had taken Washington Place in four decades, and former U.S. Rep. Ed Case's Democratic primary challenge to Akaka in 2006, were signs that the state's political culture had changed from under Ino­uye.

When Hawaii-born U.S. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, Inouye said he was too inexperienced and faithfully stuck with U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York through the primaries. Obama drew record numbers of Democrats to the party's usually overlooked caucuses in the islands and easily beat Clinton despite Inouye's preference.

For a younger generation, or for recent mainland transplants, Inouye was often viewed more as a remote figure of official Washington than an island boy with an easy smile.

But anyone who had lost personal touch with the senator was able to see his human side after his loyal friend Giugni died in November 2005 and his beloved wife, Maggie, died at 81 in March 2006.

"I needed someone to maybe bounce off ideas, or someone who felt confident enough to be critical when it was justified, and he was the one," Ino­uye said of Giugni. "I told him, that's the nature of our relationship and our friendship. If you can't do that, I don't want you around me, because I can have dozens of people who can brown-nose you, if you know what I mean. They're all over the place."

The Inouyes, with their son, Ken, had always been protective of their family life and their home in Bethesda, Md. But the senator talked frankly about the loss of his wife. "She was my inspiration, and all that I have accomplished could not have been done without her at my side," he said. "We were a team."

In May 2008, Inouye married Irene Hirano, a former president and chief executive of the Japanese American National Museum, whom he had known for more than two decades. "The most important reaction is the one from my son," the senator told a local reporter. "And he said, ‘Dad, you outdid yourself.'"

Ken and his wife, Jessica, made Inouye a grandfather when they had a daughter, Maggie.

Inouye avoided public talk about his legacy and liked to say that no one is indispensable. Other senators of his stature have monuments to their success — the airport in Anchorage is named for Stevens; a highway, federal building and a statue at the state Capitol in Charleston, W.Va., are among the many honors for Byrd — but Inouye resisted.

<t-6>As he watched contemporaries pass, he would sometimes reflect on his own mortality. After U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat who served with Inouye for nearly 47 years, died in August 2009, Inouye said, "None of us walk on water. The day will come for all of us. I hope I can do it as nobly as he has."<t$>

Akaka, speaking about his colleague's spirit, once told local Demo­crats the story about a fading black-and-white photograph of a young Inouye with four other nisei soldiers of the 442nd before they were sent off to the front in Italy.

One of the other veterans in the photo, who had not seen Inouye since the war, had brought the picture to a meeting with Inouye in Washington.

Inouye looked at the photo and realized that the only soldier who was not smiling was the only one who was dead.

"And I'm still smiling," the senator told his friend as he leaned back in his chair. "And intend to do so for quite a while."

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