I teach a course on the World War II internment of Japanese Americans. In the class, I ask my students a simple question, “Who is the most well-known and accomplished Japanese American alive?” Invariably a hand quickly goes up, and a student blurts out, “You, of course, Professor Watanabe.” Although impressed, I don’t fall for this grade grubbing ploy. After several often fruitless attempts to come up with a name, I offer my own answer, “Senator Daniel Inouye.”
With the news of the senator’s sudden passing on Monday evening, I will just change the question, from “who is?” to “who was?”
The media has richly chronicled Daniel Inouye’s extraordinary life and accomplishments. He served Hawaii for seven decades first as a member of the Territorial Legislature and then as a congressman and senator when it gained statehood. At the time of his death, Senator Inouye was the president pro tempore of the Senate, third in the line of succession to the presidency.
One might wonder how anyone could manage to remain sane and civil while engaged in the acrimonious battles that now mark the congressional arena. Senator Inouye understood though that the halls of Congress were nothing compared to the hills and trenches of Italy and France in World War II where he witnessed first-hand sacrifice and heroism. It was on that hallowed ground as well that he sacrificed his right arm and became a hero, earning the Congressional Medal of Honor. He served his country on the battlefields of Europe while over 100,000 of his fellow Japanese Americans were behind barbed wire in internment camps in the United States.
Growing up in Utah as an American of Japanese descent, I searched for role models — athletes, movie or television stars, pop singers — who I could identify with and who looked like me and my family. In the 1960s two people emerged — George Takei, who played Hikaru Sulu in “Star Trek,” and Daniel Inouye. Since I didn’t want to be an actor, following Takei’s example was out of the question. Inouye’s domain, though, intrigued me — so I applied my attention and pretty soon I was hooked on politics and public policy.
I was proud of and inspired by Senator Inouye, but my feelings were fragile. I will never forget the day during the Senate Watergate hearings when my pride in Senator Inouye, a tenacious and incisive questioner, burst like a bubble when Attorney General John Mitchell’s attorney complained about the “little Jap.” Despite that slap in the face, there is no doubt who got the best of that exchange in the end.
Later on, I had the chance to meet Senator Inouye in person. I will never forget how I reflexively thrust forward my right hand. Embarrassed, I tried to quickly withdraw it, but, before I could do so, the senator unflinchingly grabbed my right hand with his left and gave me a friendly greeting. Since then, I met and worked with Senator Inouye on several occasions. He was usually the most powerful person in the room, but he was much more than that: He was the most candid, direct, and knowledgeable as well.
In Washington these days, all anyone talks about is the fiscal deficit. But there is a very real shortfall of a different kind as well. We have a leadership deficit. Too many of today’s politicians lack basic competence, vision and decency. Too few are inspired by a fundamental commitment to the common good. With Senator Inouye’s passing this deficit becomes deeper at a time when the nation can ill afford it. Hopefully others will step forward to fill his very large shoes.